Topiary Gardens: 6 Great Ideas From The Gardens Of Eyrignac

You would almost believe you’d dropped into a fairy tale. France’s valley of the Dordogne boasts a bucolic green countryside that has long inspired painters, authors and poets. Home to the deep green Dordogne river, tiny rural villages and medieval castles perched high on hilltops, it is also the site of one of the most famous topiary gardens in France, the spectacular Gardens of Eyrignac. Continue reading

Historic Garden Tour: The Dolley Madison Garden Club Turns 100

It was a perfect, sunny day and the homes were spectacular. This was my first time attending Virginia’s Historic Garden Week, and the Dolley Madison Garden Club’s ‘Centennial Tour’ didn’t disappoint. It was an extra-special event, as it also marked the club’s 100th anniversary. And to commemorate the occasion, two historic residences were open to the public for the very first time. Continue reading

Vietnamese Tet: The Top Lucky Plants And Flowers

Apricot blossoms flowering in southern Vietnam

Tet falls on the same day as the Chinese New Year. And for the Vietnamese, this is like Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one. To mark the event, businesses and schools close up shop and family members return home for the holiday. Still, one of the most important aspects of the celebration are the many decorative symbols steeped in centuries of tradition. And it all starts with three lucky plants and flowers.

VIETNAMESE TET COMES EARLY

Ask the Vietnamese and they will tell you that Tet (also known as Vietnamese Lunar New Year) is the most important holiday in their culture. Beginning on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar, it celebrates the arrival of spring. This usually occurs somewhere in late January or early February.

Spring in February you say? Well, as we discovered after a month here in January, there is little variation between the seasons. Since Vietnam is located near the equator, its temperature barely fluctuates year-round. So generally, people mark the seasons by amount of rainfall and what’s blooming.

Vietnamese Tet flowers outside Diamond Plaza in Ho Chi Minh

This year, Tet takes place from February 5 to 7. And here in Ho Chi Minh City, preparations for the holiday have been underway for a while. Every day brings new Tet flowers – yellow apricot trees in business doorways, peach blossoms in store windows and kumquat trees laden with fruit in living rooms and hotel lobbies. 

And just like Christmas in the West, each lucky plant and flower carries its own special meaning.

Kumquat tree and poinsettias at a store entry

YELLOW APRICOT BLOSSOMS (HOA MAI) 

It’s hard to find a restaurant, public building or shop in southern Vietnam that doesn’t have at least a jar of these brilliant yellow flowers. Commonly known as yellow mai flower, the apricot blossom is the quintessential symbol of spring.

In the South, apricots are one of the first trees to flower during Tet. As a result, they are seen as the embodiment of the holiday spirit. In Ho Chi Minh, we observed many artificial renditions as well.

Moreover, each aspect of the apricot blossom carries meaning. The individual petals, for instance, stand for one of five blessings: longevity, wealth, peace, health and love of virtues. And according to Vietnamese Tet traditions, the color yellow represents happiness, prosperity and good luck

 Apricot blossoms blooming on a fence in southern Vietnam

PEACH BLOSSOMS (HOA DAO) 

By contrast, in northern Vietnam it’s the peach blossom that takes center stage. In Hanoi, these rosy-pink Tet flowers are considered harbingers of good fortune. The most intensely-colored ones are the most favored.

Peach blossoms 

Peach trees blossom early in the North. Northern Vietnam is colder than the south, so the Vietnamese consider the flowers to have brave heart since they bloom while other plants are still dormant. Vietnamese tradition also holds that peach flowers keep the family peaceful and healthy.

Workers spray paint gold branches to compliment peach blossoms in Ho Chi Minh

Illuminated peach blossom in shop window in Saigon

KUMQUAT TREE (CÂY QUAT) 

It may not be a flower, but the kumquat tree nonetheless plays an important role in Vietnamese Tet traditions as well. During the Lunar New Year, it is a popular decoration for the living room, where its deep orange fruits symbolize fruitfulness. Kumquats also bring good health and good luck to family businesses. 

Pruned kumquat trees

For the best luck, the Vietnamese believe a tree should have many fruits of similar size (both ripe and green) and big, shiny green leaves. The more fruit on the tree, the more luck for the family. In accordance with Tet traditions, trees are carefully selected and prominently displayed in businesses and homes during the holiday. 

Most businesses, in fact, place the shrubs at their entrance where they are in clear view of the street.

Kumquat tree fruits

As with the Tet flowers, all parts of the tree are significant. In this case, they represent many generations. As a rule, the fruits are the grandparents, flowers are parents, buds symbolize children and new green leaves represent grandchildren. This makes the choice of the tree exceptionally important.

BONSAI AND OTHER KEY VIETNAMESE TET FLOWERS

Of course, there are many other flowers that figure in Vietnamese Tet traditions, each with its own special meaning. Among them are marigolds (symbols of longevity), cockscombs, orchids and chrysanthemums, the latter of which are broadly referred to as yellow daisies.

Yellow chrysanthemum in a vase at a Buddhist temple in Ho Chi Minh

During the holiday, pots of these bright yellow Tet flowers embellish homes, businesses, temples and pagodas all over the city. Symbol of life, chrysanthemums are believed to bring equilibrium to the household.

The Vietnamese typically purchase these special plants from mid-December until just before Tet from flower markets like Ho Chi Minh City’s  Ho Thi Ky. They keep them until mid-Lunar New Year.

 

The Gardens Of Dalat, The ‘Little Paris’ Of Vietnam

It may be the middle of winter, but summertime flowers are blanketing the hills of Dalat. And the show is only just beginning. Continue reading

Ho Thi Ky Flower Market: A Taste Of Old Saigon In Ho Chi Minh City

Fresh lotuses at Ho Thi Ky Flower Market

When I travel, I like to go where the tourists are not. So on Thursday I was thrilled to visit Ho Thi Ky, the largest flower market in Ho Chi Minh City. Continue reading

Step Back In Time On the Trails of Harpers Ferry

IMG_6927

“The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature… worth a voyage across the Atlantic.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1783

When the sign points left to Maine and right to Georgia, you know you are smack dab in the middle of the Appalachian Trail. The two states, on either extremity of the eastern seaboard of the United States, are 1,165 and 1,013 miles away, respectively. This is the famous crossroads in tiny Harpers Ferry, one of the few towns the trail passes through. Not only is it the site of some of the most significant Civil War battles, but it is also a national park of incomparable beauty. Continue reading

Garden Style: Going For Baroque In Prague’s Beautiful Vrtba Garden

Prague’s Vrtba Garden

With only one vowel, it can prove hard to pronounce, but beautiful Vrtba Garden easily speaks to all languages. The little architectural gem, reached through a discreet gate in Karmelitská Street, is one of the most important Baroque gardens in Prague. In addition to its exuberant design, the terraced garden has a viewing platform that provides an exceptional vista on the city. And as I discovered recently, it’s a great place to pick up some tips on how to style a small garden. Continue reading

Sanssouci: The No-Worries Garden A Stone’s Throw From Berlin

Potsdam’s Sanssouci Palace

Last time I was in Berlin, the city was still stained dark gray by the soot of post-WWII deterioration. But this week I returned to find the metropolis almost unrecognizable. Everywhere there were signs of improvements, scaffolding and construction. There was one place, however, that remained unchanged; that is, Potsdam’s stunning Sanssouci Palace and gardens. I made a return visit yesterday. Continue reading

Chernobyl Plants And The Exotic World Of Ruderal Species

“Sometimes the best thing you can do is…. nothing. –Oliver Kellhammer, Ecological Artist 

There’s a lesser-known field of botany called the study of ruderal plants, or plants that grow on waste ground, ruins or rubble. Borne by birds, wind or other animals, the weed-like species are the first to colonize lands disturbed by wildfires, avalanches, construction and other ecological disasters. The plants self-sow in abandoned areas, forming impromptu gardens and forests over time. They’re living proof of what Mother Nature can do when left to her own devices. Continue reading

New York City’s Flower District: Green Oasis In A Concrete Jungle

New York City's flower district

New York City’s historic flower district

It’s not every day you visit a city and wind up in a tropical forest. But that’s exactly the case if you happen to be walking along a stretch of New York City’s West 28th Street in Manhattan. There, amidst the hustle and bustle of big city life, a vibrant community of plant wholesalers and retailers set up shop each morning, transforming the busy sidewalks into a bona fide urban jungle. Continue reading