Throwback Pink





















It's that time of year again, when Pantone announces it's color of the year- this time its Honeysuckle 18-2120 a dynamic reddish pink. Pantone go on to describe it as a captivating, stimulating color that gets the adrenaline going....... with a powerful bond to its mother color red, the most physical, viscerally alive hue in the spectrum.

The blurb didn't articulate what my immediate thought was on seeing the color- old fashioned, but in a good way. This is right on trend with the ever increasing nods back to a less complicated analog era, from  throwback soul music to the runway and of course that TV show has contributed much to this.

It's certainly an old fashioned garden color after the recently popular schemes of black, and monochromatic shades of green. Pink doesn't really need unusual foliage colors for it to work well with- it goes well with the most basic and prevalent of garden colors- green. This pink however is not a pastel, it's further along the spectrum towards red so would jive well with yellows and oranges of a similar hue. Think 1950's floral dress.

Besides simplicity, the color is also more universal- it may be called Honeysuckle but the color translates to many other types of blooms. Here in the tropics a pink hibiscus has the same color read as the Rosa Carefree Delight I photographed at the Brooklyn Botanical Rose Garden. Others that come immediately to mind- pink Hyssop, Cosmos, Tulips and Sweet Peas.

Perhaps, next years summer garden should be less about the austere vegetable garden and a little bit more about the garden party- fueled by a much sweeter, goodness knows, honeysuckle rose.

Perfume Trees


Sarina's Kitchen, a restaurant in nearby Mersing has a terrific aspect. The dining terrace, it's architecture and decor inspired by owner Mariam's vacations in Bali, takes full advantage of this with a stunning view of her property full of mature trees as it slopes away to the sea in the distance. Mariam pointed out a Nutmeg tree and then a Bunga Chempaka or Michelia Champaca tree. It was surprising to make that shift in perception from something you know only as something dried, ground, extracted, processed, and generally found in a bottle to something real, alive and whole.

I can't exactly recall if the flower was pale yellow which could mean it is a Michelia Champaca Rajiana or as the photo on the left seems to imply that it was white- in which case it would be Michelia Champaca Alba. Sensing my interest, she points out another large shrub- Bunga Kenanga or Cananga Odorata or Ylang Ylang pictured on the right. The blooms share a similar delicate spidery look.

Michelia Champaca is used in the renowned perfume Joy by Jean Patou. That single blossom in the pic that Mariam very kindly picked to show me scented our journey back home- it was amazing how powerful the scent was in the closed confines of a car. Although floral and perfumey it had an exquisite fragrance, one I would love to be able enjoy more regularly- I'm definitely on  the lookout to own one of my own. The Ylang Ylang, on the other hand, not so much, it was strong and cloyingly sweet. Chandler Burr the NYtimes scent critic describes it as having almost a kerosene quality. It is however a popular component in many perfumes, most notably Chanel No 5.

Despite the fact that these trees are native to the region, sadly, to find them in a garden is rare. One reason is that fruit trees trump them, space is more likely to be accorded to a tree that can provide Mangoes or Jackfruit. Or, garden design here tends to routinely follows two paths- a 'chinese type' garden where there will typically be small ornamental trees like plumerias or pomegranates or a 'modern tropical' idiom of tropical foliage so its usually large palms and assorted 'bulk' foliage trees.

An unusual reason, as Mariam, explained is superstition- perfume trees are thought to attract spirits and unwelcome otherwordly creatures so they tend to be avoided. Eschewing all this, she enjoys  as you can imagine the South China Sea air blended with these natural perfumes wafting in through the windows of her home. Her garden had many other delightful things which I must go back to investigate again - a couple of noteworthy ones- ceramic pots full of Centella Asiatica that she collected from the wilder parts of her property and a large posse of free ranging chickens some of whom were napping in the orchid pots.

I am keen to discover more of these fragrant floral and spice trees to see what they look like, what they smell like in reality as opposed to something in a bottle. There's a garden in Penang called Tropical Spice Garden and there's a Herb and Spice garden in Singapore on Sentosa Island  that I must visit but otherwise the theme of perfume and spice gardens is surprisingly absent from most of the local botanical gardens despite its strong historical significance.

Botanical Remedies for Cold and Flu



Last year, this article Don't Use Echinacea for This Season's Flu by herbalist Karen Vaughan intrigued me. This was mainly because she clarified a difference between immunomodulators which do not hype up your immune system and immune stimulants, like Echinacea that do. This year, this article in the NYTimes How not to fight colds, referred to studies made over the last couple of decades to conclude that it is not the virus that causes cold symptoms - it is the host's inflammatory response. 

This goes against the logic of the plethora of alternative remedies out there that 'strengthen' the immune system but the language is confusing. What we want to happen is for our immune system to not overreact but to remain on even keel to function effectively. What we want is immunomodulation. We want to 'strengthen' but not stimulate. For that Karen recommends, among other things, Reishi and Astragulus.

In 
How to Treat Colds and Flu with Herbal Medicine she also recommends Miso soup with scallions before symptoms become pronounced, and Lemon Balm in a paste with honey but if you are actually coming down with something then there are some alternative strategies. If you are feeling more chilled than feverish you need warming diaphoretic herbs. This would include garlic, ginger, onion or galangal. In the early stages fresh ginger tea or eating sushi ginger in quantity can be helpful. If you are colder, then dry ginger tea, cinnamon chai (without milk or soy), garlic or a strong onion soup. Personally, I favor good old chicken soup with the addition of ginger, garlic, scallions and Shitaake mushrooms as regular cold season fare. I find that one of the first symptoms I usually get is a lack of appetitie and queasiness- so ginger and pepermint in tea is also in rotation.

recently mentioned discovering Andrographis Paniculata. On a recent trip to Singapore, I found a store with a full department of Chinese medicine. Apart from a counter where there were herbalists taking and preparing orders, there were shelves packed with over the counter remedies. The cold and flu section was well represented with boxes of this herb in capsules. Here's a list of  studies about this herb from the American Botanical Councils's herbal Library. Impressed by this, we now have two large pots of this herb in the garden- see pic above- it's just about to flower. If you were to try growing this, the time to harvest the leaves is just after they flower, so that you have supplies for the cold season.

Ginger Path


My visit to the Ginger Garden at the Singapore Botanic Garden was mind expanding. Where do I start - perhaps with the stuff that I just didn't know before - Gingers as we generally know them are  Zingiberacea, rhizomatous flowering herbs, but they are part of a much larger family - Zingiberales which includes Zingiberacea, Bananas, Heliconias, Cannas and Prayer Plants. It was surprising learning this but knowing this now and seeing them together in one place- there is a kind of visual order in the leaf and flower shapes that links them all. The range of shapes and color of the blooms and leaves and the variety of heights that the plants in this family make up on the other hand is - huge. This diversity and commonality as you can imagine makes for a fantastic idea for a garden. That's just aesthetically or botanically.

As it happens Gingers are also culinarily fascinating. There's root ginger which flavors things from curries to scones to Ginger Beer and your Chai at Starbucks. Then there's the related rhizomes Lengkuas/Laos/Galangal and the lesser ginger Krachai which are prevalent in South East Asian Cuisine. There's also Turmeric, where both roots and leaves are used. More unusual is the use of the finely sliced Torch Ginger flower particularly in the regional Malacca Nyonya dishes. Who knew that Cardomoms are also in the ginger family. Then there's Bananas for desert. What a great theme for a restaurant.  Halia, the Malay name for ginger is that restaurant, and its right there in the Ginger Garden. Right about when I saw it and a variegated leaf Banana plant just outside it, my head exploded, because I love good ideas and this was a great one well executed. The significance of the banana leaf is that there were banana leaves being utilized for foliage color- from bronze to variegated- just stunning.

We have this strange potted plant at home with an unusual  spiralling habit which I think is gorgeous and have been struggling to identify. Its a ginger. A spiral ginger or costus. Next door there's a strange plant with flowers that dangle over our fence. Also a ginger - a Globba Leucantha. We also have a huge Heliconia and a few prayer plants in the side border. I could see this side border getting a little more ginger friendly if I can find some Hedychiums and Calatheas and some Kaempeferias and that beautiful torch ginger -see pic on right. The Heliconias I saw were also far more subtle  and interesting (see the variegated one on the left) than the ones seen in most gardens. The whole set of photos is here.

The information boards at the garden mention H. N. Ridley, who I have now discovered is an important botanist for the region who authored a large number of books and articles on local flora- I just added one to the vintage library- Spices. A quick scan of the body of literature he generated reiterates another botanic theme that is beginning to really fascinate - the native flora that once brought the Western World here in search of the novel, exotic and also the commercial and innovative- Ridley was influential in jumpstarting the rubber industry here. Culinary and medicinal herbs and spices, plant material for dyes, flowers for perfume, exotic woods are the reasons that once set ships a sailing to this region. Exotic, highly prized and valued. What a different 'place' this was from now where the perception is that it is where you come for cheap labor.

Ginger is said to to be an appetite enhancer, a mental clarifier and stimulant - my forays down the ginger garden paths have indeed done just that.

New Garden Lens



Back in 2008 I posted about how, enamoured by the distortions and light leaks of Holga and Lomo cameras, I was on a path of digital processing and manipulatiing photos to emulate this elevation of mundane pictorial record to something that 'felt' more like a memory. Here's some of the many images I've worked on since then under the theme of 'botanic nostalgia.

I also said that although the process was labor intensive, working in photoshop with many layers - I preferred it to the scripts or software that allowed holga and lomoesque effects at a touch of a button. As of a week ago, this is no longer true since I discovered the iphone app  Hipstamatic (which emulates the look of photos taken by the original Hipstamatic) which does, truly, a brilliant job of randomizing the colors and exposures to create quite beautiful versions of mundane subjects - see above. I have actually taken the exact same photos on my regular camera and tried to do the same with less successful results.

There's another app made by the same company called Swankolab which takes photos taken on your iphone (or ipod in my case) puts them through a digital retro darkroom lab to achieve similar results. You can also take one of your Hipstamatic prints and process them further in Swankolab. This means you have a variety of 'film' and lens' choices and then a variety of processes where each combination and the order in which you combine affect the outcome.

I am now officially a fan and they are legion. This past week the NYTimes published a series of War Photographs  taken on an iphone using Hipstamatic on its front page which electrified the digital community who cheered the recognition of the medium as front page cover worthy. There's an interesting piece in the Atlantic about the artfulness about the medium referencing the Pictorialism movement at the turn of the century and the current iphone as art exhibition currently touring the country.

How 'good' the images are, are only half the story. The other half lies in the equipment itself, the iphone/ipod. I started a twitter account in spring last year with the idea that I could send out images that didn't require a narrative like they would in a blog post. I also thought it could be more documentary or chronological. That didn't really play out well as it required me to actually have my camera with me at all times and then I still had to select, edit (reduce the size, crop etc) before posting to twitter. I always on the other hand have my ultra slim ipod in my pocket and as this article about the new age of the connected camera explains, the 'processing' is entirely different- you take the image- if you like it you email it. In my case I email it directly into my flickr account where I then immediately blog it to my twitter account. This is game changing in this new age of micro publishing, blogging call it what you will especially for me as my main trade here is more visual narrative.

So add up portability, immediacy and artfulness and you see the potential of my new garden lens. Will it replace the tedious post processing that I've been doing? Absolutely not, because I just enjoy it in fact I've started experimenting with a combination of Hipstamatic, Swankolab and Photoshop. I also don't always process images, sometimes it's the old school decisive moment driven by opportunity and being in the right place at the right time.  I am however loathe to get any more 'technical' with my equipment - I still use a Pentax Optio 750, now minus the protective shutter- it got stuck so I removed it as in ripped it out. Upgrading to a DSLR is crazy  expensive and not a priority and I'll admit shallow as it is- I really don't like the look of those clunky things. At the grand price of $3.98 for both those apps I feel newly equipped and looking forward to energizing my twitter stream- which incidentally, the new version is integrated with flickr and  allows instant views of photos if you click the photo icon on the right of the post.

**Update**
ipod got stolen- no more hipstamatic until they make an app for the android which is what I have now

upgraded my camera to a Olympus EP1

Modern Garden Aesthetics


Despite having read, posted about and looked at a lot of photos of Patrick Blanc esque vertical gardens, have I actually seen one? Not in New york City, but last weekend in Singapore I spied my first one, pictured left, wrapped around the side of a shopping center on Orchard road. It was aesthetically beautiful and something registered at a cognitive level - a garden experience that somehow conveyed 'familiarity'- more about that below, and 'newness' maybe even a tad 'futuristic' but in sum total - it looked 'right' in a really cool way.

I've been noticing on my trips to to Singapore an interesting vernacular of garden design, botanic elements + ultra modern architecture, as a recurring motif in this city. It isn't necessarily just green city spaces, and those are well represented, but more about commercial buildings incorporating inventive garden elements as an intrinsic parts of the architecture. I'll do another post at some point when I have better photos to show - but here's one of a large building with substantial space allocation to balcony gardens- it was the scale that was surprising- those trees up there were pretty big.


Orchid Batik


I recently had the opportunity to do a batik painting, my first, and by 'do' I really only mean half the process which is the coloring in. The much more skilled part of actually drawing in the lines of wax, was done by the owner of the batik studio, Rashid. This part requires using a tool called the tjanting or canting which has a small container that holds hot wax and a spout. Controlling the flow of wax and actually drawing something at the same time is no mean feat.

Rashid's studio is in his garden, an open space without walls, a concrete floor and a tin roof, filled with long tables spiked with nails to position the fabrics. At the far end there is an assortment of dyestuffs and aluminum tubs for the pre and post preparative work. All along the side, between the studio and his house are pots of orchids, lots of them. When he showed me the two possible pre drawn fabrics that I could color in, an orchid and a hibiscus, it was an easy choice. The orchid looked roughly like the pale Phaelonopses that caught my eye walking in and I immediately thought, I could use that for reference for color. This wasn't so easy in its execution.

What colors do you want to use? he asked. A pale yellow/lime I said thinking about the color of the unopened bud. He went away to mix the colors, then came back to show me how to apply them. He used an electric lime to start the flowers and a bright emerald green for the leaves and a very deliberate use of water to produce a strong gradient effect with the bright colors. Not really what I had in mind and so began a lot more to-ing and fro-ing as he mixed new colors and I kept washing out and applying different ones to get a softer more complex color feel. He smiled politely, bemused by my preference for old aged colors and my disinclination for the vibrant ones but adjusted accordingly and by the time we got to the background, he got the pale purple I asked for pretty quickly.

Batik has deep roots in this part of the world. One reason might be that a key ingredient, damar resin, which is still used today, that raises the melting point and hardens the wax is from trees indigenous to this area. Sadly what might also have been a reason a plentiful source of plant based dyes, indigo, madder, turmeric to name a few have been displaced by the better performance of synthetic dyes. In Indonesia, although synthetic dyes are also prevalent, there is more adherence to traditional palettes and motifs and there is still plenty of the painstaking multiple resist and dye bath methods that create more complex batiks. Here in Malaysia the technique has morphed rather pervasively into this new batik shorthand of traced lines and one application of bright colors.

When I did get my batik in the mail, I really liked how the colors softened even more after the processing and I like how the colors resonate on silk. I thought I had made some fatal errors where some parts bled into others but the medium is quite forgiving, the mistakes much less apparent than expected. I'll have to pay Rashid's garden studio another visit, except this time, I will bring my my own drawing, a few different fabric choices, and a computer print of how I would like the colors to turn out. Now that should have an interesting result.

Smoke


We recently experienced a few days of haze. What looked like a gray misty day was in fact smoke from forest fires from the neighbouring island of Sumatra. This is apparently a regular occurence caused by the clearing of agricultural land and an unpleasant one. There was a noticeable acrid smell, impairment of breathing and a disturbing visible omnipresence - an omen of the crisis we keep being warned about. Thankfully the other elements of wind and rain over a couple of days brought things back to equilibrium.

Curiously, I had only recently been thinking how I quite like the smell of smoke, of the gardening kind. What is now outlawed in most US cities, the burning of garden debris is still allowed here. It's a guilty pleasure walking around particularly at dusk and catching sight and scent of a gardener's small tidy pile of leaves and twigs sending up a curl of smoke. It is pure nostalgia, triggering memories of playing outside as a kid with a small fire sputtering in the corner of a garden. There also seems to be some peculiar olfactory recipe of dry and damp botanic material that makes it particularly reminiscent or particularly pleasant.

Smoke is also prevalent here in its use in worship. Outside of Catholic churches, Hindu and Buddhist temples incense is used pervasively by the Chinese who practise an amalgam of Taoism and Buddhism. Besides huge coils of incense as pictured above, hanging in the doorways of temples, small shrines are ubiquitous in restaurants, shops, gardens and porches with a pot of jossticks. It is also not unusual to see someone with hands clasped and stretched upwards, standing outside their home or shop waving a josstick, sending it's delicate smoky prayer, heaven wards.

Despite an interesting assortment of botanic ingredients neither the Chinese nor the Indian variety of incense appeal to me as something I might want to enjoy in the background as I might a scented candle. I do however like Japanese Cedar incense. When I lived in San Francisco, my little cottage perched on Potrero Hill which housed a few Japanese antiques somehow was the perfect venue for the occasional subtle scent of Morning Star Cedarwood. I also recently tried Juniper Ridge's Cedar incense wildcrafted from California Siskyou Cedars. These are less incense like, without added perfumey smells and more like a natural fire- much like the small garden fires described above that I've been reacquainted with.

To round off my ruminations on smoke, this weekend I will miss smoke of my favorite kind- the fake machine made kind. Most years I've been up in Mamaroneck where Jim has the best haunted house in the neighborhood replete with a full graveyard, rigged skeletons and other demons that sit up, bushes that rustle and the one that never fails to scare em- the letterbox that flaps (just when you think you've made it safely down the drive, and up the porch steps). All hand pulled behind the scenes and orchestrated by evil maestro with knife through head whose indoor staff whip into action on the cue of 'we have customers'. The outdoors staff (grave diggers, lost souls) drag shovels around and appear mysteriously. The smoke machine, a relatively new addition has been temperamental of late, hopefully it won't let down the attempts of evil Jim and his crew this year.

The Botany of Soap


I'm having a bit of a crush on the Indian Subcontinent at the moment, as you can tell from my last post and the one about night markets. This one is about soap from the Kerala and Tamilnadu regions in South India, the main regions that the local Indians originally hail from. I bought a few the other day not realizing that it would lead to a discovery of the complex botany of Ayurvedic herbal soap formulations and some thought on the green and ethical issues that they raise.

Take the Kayakalp soap for starters - it has 23 botanic ingredients. Interestingly the website description of them has clearly had a language makeover, the printed paper insert in the box I have raised a chuckle or two - for Myrrh which 'kills germs found in filth' and Acoras Calamus -'to dispel the offensive smell of perspiration'. Right on- because you want that in a soap.

Medimix, the one with the motif on it, has 18 (including the same one above for offensive smells). They are certainly interesting- Licorice, Neem, Coriander, Black Cumin, Cumin, Wild Ginger, Vetiver, Rose Colored Lead Wort, and exotic - Indian Bdellium, Himalayan Cedar, Bawchi, Daruharidra (Indian barberry), Jyotismati, False Black Pepper, Indian Sarsparilla,Bitter Oleander, and China Root.

Does one need 18 or 24 herbs in a soap? With properties that claim to provide actions from antimcrobial, antifungal to anti inflammatory and solutions to dandruff, psoriasis to presumably athlete's foot the logic is simple, head to toe cleansing and disease prevention - from a single product. This is revolutionary talk in the context of perceptions and practises in the modern world. Could we end the mountains of dumped bathroom plastic, prevent the ubiquitous use of antibacterial chemicals entering the planet's water supply (creating increasing antiresistant strains of bacteria) and the energy sap of producing multiple packages and marketing campaigns to sell multiple kinds of soap? A single product to wash your hair and body and combat disease and save the planet? Heresy.

Thulasi Herbal Soap is starkly minimalist by comparison, just Thulasi (also spelt Tulasi and Tulsi) or Holy Basil. Interestingly some googling reveals that it is a little controversial to have what is revered as a holy plant used in a product for the rather base act of bathing (see removal of filth and offensive smells above).

Chandrika is one I recognize as being fairly well distributed globally- you can probably find it in a health store or Wholefoods in the US. Just two ingredients Wild Ginger and Lemon Juice concentrate. The smell is is also fairly pleasant which brings me to the first stumbling block of these soaps- they smell more hmmm than mmmm. As a loyal devotee of Verbena soap almost entirely because of its smell, its hard to get past the lack of chemistry with how these soaps smell out of the box. Not unpleasant, but I don't love them. Oddly there seems to also be a standard color chart approach for a particular shade of 'ayurvedic green' a couple of them being a very unherbal 'approved color' or numeric one.

One ingredient consistent through all of them is coconut oil, and the couple I've started using have a rich, easy lathering quality with a soap that remains fairly hard. Love that. The marketing however focuses on the other aspect of coconut oil - this soap contains no animal fat- intended for a Hindu customer who does not want animal fats in their products, which also translates well for Buddhists and Vegans. If I didn't think about this before, that most soaps contain tallow or animal fats, I just had my awareness raised and my preferences retuned.

I can't tell if they all are, but a couple of them are handmade which makes their cost surprisingly cheap, in comparison to the higher end, hand made, boutique soaps that have become increasingly popular on the American high street and in the malls like Lush and a permanent fixture on Etsy. It's been a few days now and the smell is growing on me a little and I'm loving the easy lather. Without knowing the exact formulations, which part of the plants were used etc etc, its not known how robust the medicinal claims are but there's certainly enough pluses in other areas to warrant my continued custom. As soon as I finish my bottle of shampoo, I'll be doing the head to toe test. Wanna try them too? Thanks to the wonders of the internet you can via Amazon - I've put together a little selection here. Unfortunately, only two of the ones I have are available but there are a couple of other similar ones.

Temple Flora

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There are Hindu Temples found in every city here with an astonishing amount of flora associated with them. At the temple gates I've seen banana trees with fruit tied to each side with palm and mango leaves strung across. Close by there is usually a handful of stalls that make available to the temple visitors, puja or devotional gifts or offerings to the gods. Each stall is stacked with trays of Betel nut leaves, Kaffir Limes, buckets of Lotus buds and a mass of garlands. Inside, the vendors ply their craft as garland makers expertly tying Jasmine buds, Chrysanthemums and Orchids into colorful scented garlands almost trance like, their hands in constant rhythmic motion.

The garlands are not restricted to just flowers, there are also garlands of leaves and grass. Each deity is said to have their favorite flora, Lotuses for Lakshmi, Durva or sacred grass for Lord Ganesha. There a rules too, for example, the Durva must be plucked while chanting continously and then cannot be brought home in your left hand or on your head. Each flower, fruit and leaf has its own significance and association, Jasmine for weddings, Neem leaves for the new Year. The simple philosophy that binds all this, that plants and flowers are celestial, pervades the oldest of the world's religions- although not strictly a religion. Along with the other tenet of Ahimsa or non violence there is something about this reverence for nature that seems powerfully relevant today.

Stumped


The whole garbage thing is different here. There is some kind of recycling of specific things like newspapers and cardboard that goes on - it's a man with a flat bed truck and a megaphone who announces his presence in the neighborhood with a megaphone and you bring out your paper/cardboard and he pays you for them by weight. Otherwise, nothing else is separated and recycled. All garbage is then put out at the front of houses in cans or hidden quite elegantly in these concrete 'stumps'.

These renditions of tree stumps are really quite nice, and elaborate even. I'm not sure if they are prefabricated from a mould or if some artisan fashions the bark, branch stumps, etc in situ later once the structure is in place. There's various sizes and a variety of finishes from plain concrete - to the more elaborate staining with mossy bits like the one above. The lid can vary from metal, wooden slats or this organically colored plastic which lifts to reveal a deeper compartment than what is perceived from the outside.

Bitter Greens


There's no accounting for taste. At a recent birthday dinner at a Chinese restaurant, the birthday host announced with great enthusiasm the arrival of his favorite course, Bitter Gourd ( also known as Bitter Melon). Really? I'm pretty easy going with food and can manage most things but this vegetable, I despise, its so bitter. I don't get it, how can anyone 'enjoy' this. It's good for you, it has plenty of Iron my Dad always says when it shows up for dinner and I crinkle my nose. He's right, nutritionally, there's high amounts of beta carotene, potassium and iron, and there's some evidence that it has medicinal and therapeutic properties. I had it at a South Indian restaurant, and cooked with coconut and spices, it's more tolerable.

I discovered this interesting green at the supermarket, pretty like a giant clover leaf , see pic on left. It's bitter, but in the range of Water Cress or Broccoli Rabe and I've been enjoying it in soups and as a raw vegetable side. I've subsequently tracked it down from its local name (Pucuk Pegaga) to discover that it is in fact Centella Asiatica or Gotu Kula. The latter name is one that I've often seen in NYC health shops sharing shelf space with the likes of Echinacea, and Gingko Biloba, its claimed property- mental clarity. It seems the triterpenoids it contains has properties that benefit things from wound healing to insomnia.

I noticed a jar of dried leaves (pic on the right) in the kitchen and asked the maid what they were. I take it for coughs, she said. She walked me outside to show me the plant and said it's better to take it fresh- three leaves rolled up together and swallowed whole. It is wickedly bitter and a relatively common weed, I see it growing all over. It's Andrographis Paniculata, an ancient herb that's used in both Traditional Chinese and Ayuredic systems, also known as Indian Echinacea. There's evidence that it may be effective in the treatment of uncomplicated upper respiratory tract infection.

The taste perception of bitterness, has an interesting paradox, we are genetically wired to reject bitter foods as the taste frequently represents danger or toxicity. However, the phenols, flavonoids, isoflavones, terpenes, and glucosinolates in plants that are bitter can also, in small doses be beneficial. This dilemna, interestingly has different responses and approaches - in the west through selective breeding and other methods, debittering is a process often found in the food industry in response to the consumer avoidance of these foods rich in phytonutrients and therapeutic properties. Here in the east - bitter foods are regularly served and this is not including the already high rotation of bitter-ish vegetables like mustard greens and chinese broccoli and any protest usually met with- but it's good for you.

Lost Window


I recently spent an evening at Lost Malaya, a gallery and lounge that owners Chris and Alisa want to make a social hub for creative locals to mingle, show and enjoy each others work. It’s housed in an elegant and beautifully restored colonial property thanks to their enthusiasm and tuned sensibilities for the aesthetics of this era.

Up in the lounge, large open windows on three sides invited the evening glow to spill in. Looking out from it’s slight hillside vantage, I experience much more than the languid sunset views over the narrow Johor Straits to Singapore. It’s a poignant glimpse back to the landscape of my childhood. A little way down this same waterfront street is the house where I spent my first dozen years, a little further down from that, the hospital where I was born.

In this landscape an eternity ago, I climbed Mango trees, made Lalang grass arrows and chewed regularly on Begonia flowers because I liked their sour flavor. I hunted for stray eggs in the Hibiscus hedge that the neighbour’s chickens would sometimes lay. Days would be spent collecting the bright red seeds of the Saga tree and the exploded pods of the kapok tree, to name a couple of things from the bounty of flora that provided the daily resources for play. The fauna of Cicadas, Emerald Beetles and Fighting Spiders provided even more.

Is the similarity of the salt water ponds landscape of Rhode Island to this one what drew me to spend time there? Even the Cape Cod wooden clapperboard houses stir memories of the tropical wooden colonial ones I grew up with. The landscape of ‘home’ fascinates me. I was stirred reading a post about personal landscapes to reflect on my adopted landscapes, both English and American. I remember acutely when people talk about this, like the Swedish house guest who also likened the watery Rhode Island landscape to his Nordic home or my Serbian friend who told me that on seeing the African Savannah landscape for the first time she felt without knowing why, that she was ‘home’.

The house we used to live in has mutated over the decades, the verandahs walled in, the property shrunk and denatured. The road itself is currently a massive construction site as they dig and build a six lane highway. The muddy beach in front of our house where I chased hermit crabs, and dug up green cockle clams, the sandier Lido Beach where we went to swim at the weekends, gone, buried under the harsh new landscape of ‘progress’.

As I write this, I’m googling and finding more formal ideas about Environmental psychology, scratching the surface of a subject of increasing interest with urbanization and climate change. I found this intriguing term - “solastalgia” a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home’ in the NYTimes article Is there an Ecological Unconscious?

The view out of the Lost Malaya window has triggered a less formal but revelatory insight, one that spans decades and continents. I do in fact have a personal landscape, with discernible components - wooden structures, ribbon strips of land and water, an environment rich with natural and botanic interactivity. I have in fact been ‘homesick’ all these years but this malady has responded well to an intuitive treatment plan of sojourns to Rhode Island and Cape Cod and gardening time in Mamaroneck. It’s a sad irony that this home sickness seems to be strongest now that I actually am, home.

Orchids


Orchids, or certain varieties of them, do well in the cool, mild, San Francisco climate and my year long stint of living in that city was the only time I ever owned one. It was a gorgeous blue, perhaps this one. It was already in a mossy pot when I bought it and when I placed it in the mossy courtyard in front of the indigo noren that graced the front door of my Potrero cottage, it looked like it had always belonged there.

Here, orchids are native and ubiquitous, I see them everywhere. Our Phalaenopsis are blooming, all three of them. The first one, pictured left, was in bloom when I arrived four months ago, and still going strong. The other two are just sending out flower buds. The orchid on the right, an Oncidium I think, was just outside my room in Pulau Tioman.

There's a gorgeous almost black purple one in the supermarket which I might just have to get one of these days which means I'll have to figure out their strange cultivation. The ones we have at home are growing in a pot full of charcoal and crushed brick. I see them also planted in coconut husks and slatted wooden containers, it's all very odd. I'll be visiting a family member soon who is an avid collector of wild orchids, so I will get the lowdown on this.

In the meantime, I've discovered they make great subjects for floral portraits with their interesting sculptural shapes and rich variety of color.

Night Market








Night markets are cool. Literally. Nightfall brings relief from the heat and glare of the tropical sun and the streets come alive with all kinds of commerce. I'm in Singapore just about to catch a taxi home but stray a little to find myself on the edge of Little India where the produce I saw a few weeks ago has overflowed onto the streets and drawn a large crowd. Bright fluorescent bulbs illuminate heaps of verdant produce. Walls and pillars of teal, pink, chartreuse and a myriad of colored canopies, buntings and signs paint a vivid scene. I'm surprised at how quiet it is. The vendors neither hustle nor hawk, the shoppers are focussed and deliberate, quietly examining, selecting and filling their bags and baskets.

Is that spinach? I ask a lady. It's Indian spinach she says, that's spinach pointing to another green next to it. The other green, although known here as Spinach or Bayam is in fact Amaranth, and has a slightly hairier texture than Spinach. I mull over its Indian cousin that I don't recognize, undecided. It's a huge bundle and I don't really want to be carrying too much through customs. Same reasoning occludes taking home the long thin drumstick vegetables. They look amazing and every shopper has some in their bag. I've had them before and can only a conjure up a fleeting mental sketch of what their taste and texture is like. I settle for some eggplants, those super cute little ones and get a free bunch of cilantro with my purchase.

A New Leaf


What's the Malay word for Mint?, I ask my dad at the market, determined to get some this time. He walks over to the lady whose vegetable stand we're at and asks her if she has the herb you put in Penang Laksa. Why didn't I think of that- I've tried unsuccessfully describing it as crinkly, fresh tasting, the flavor in toothpaste- to blank looks. Penang Laksa, a Thai influenced riff on the local Laksa characteristically has mint in it. She deliberates, then points to some bundles, at first indistiguishable from the others in a huge pile, but I'll be durned, it's mint. This is the herb I was asking you about, what do you call it in Indonesia?, I ask the maid when we get home. I don't know, we don't use it there, she replies.

Interestingly the herb she does use a lot of is something called Daun Salam (the largest leaf in the picture) or Indonesian Bay Leaf. I've eaten it many times now in the dishes she's prepared but can't really tell you exactly what is it's unique flavor except that it's fairly complex, subtle, certainly not like a bay leaf, perhaps smoky and plays a visual role too like dark green Basil leaves in a tomato sauce. They don't seem to use it much locally here either, I don't think I've had it before now, which might explain why it's one of the few herbs she has growing in the garden to ensure it's supply.

We both however are familiar with Kaffir Lime leaves, Citrus Hystrix (the twin lobed leaf), but we use them differently. She uses them as an interesting accent particularly in a heavily spiced meat curry called Rendang which immediately distinguishes it from the local Malay version and also in a fried crispy snack with rice flour and peanuts. I use them in Thai recipes like Green Curry or Tom Yum where the leaves work with lime juice and lemon grass to broaden flavors that are all about sharp, sour and citrus. She says there are many trees in her village with this leaf. I remember first discovering lime leaves as a young boy on vacation in Thailand only because I remember my mother scrutinizing the dish, analyzing it's ingredients in the hope of recreating it when we got home.

Then there are Curry Leaves, Murraya Koenigii where we share some common ground- they are used almost exclusively in Indian curries. I learnt how to use them as a young adult watching Madhur Jaffrey on TV, she did working for an Indian family prior to working for us. I am tempted to experiment with this Ayurvedic staple as a replacement for Plantain in a salve given it's medicinal qualities.

In New York City I would buy kaffir and Curry leaves sealed in refrigerated plastic bags found in Little India and Chinatown. Here, branches of them are stacked in mounds and I can't help noticing the much enhanced freshness of their flavor. The Daun Salam on the other hand would travel well, it almost has no personality when fresh, only releasing it's essential oil when dry or heated in the pan.

I now discover that the mint I bought is Mentha Arvensis or Corn Mint, it doesn't quite have the brightness of flavor that Spearmint, Mentha Spicata does but a couple of bruised sprigs went straight into a glass of iced tea yesterday and I renewed my acquaintance with one of my favorite herbs. Today the maid asked what I wanted to do with the mint I put in the glass, she didn't throw it away, was I trying to grow it? No, but, hey, there's an idea, why didn't I think of that.

Cool Ferns


Our front door is staged on either side with two tiers of potted plants. Two pairs of cascading slatted wooden stands and an assortment of potted plants, including some Orchids and Begonias but mainly Ferns. My grandmother's house had something vaguely similar also with a tiered assortment, but exclusively Ferns. This must be a tropical home and garden decorating standard intended to cool you down as you step out of the blistering heat into the shade of the porch and venture into the cooler shadowy interior.

It works and I think the ferns are key. The fine feathery greenery is visually cooling and the slightest breeze creates a soft rustle particularly with the two kinds I have pictured a Maidenhair Fern and an Asparagus Fern. There are also more sculptural ones like the Stag Horn and the Bird's Nest that help to create variety. It's also standard practise to take your shoes off before you enter so you linger a little while longer in this transitory space. A wind chime adds to the overall sensory experience.

I love the concept of an intermediate space- there's a Japanese word for this which I've completely forgotten - somewhere neither inside nor outside, but necessary for one to flow into the other. Everytime I stepped into the tiny space just inside my apartment door in New York City, I wished that I could transform it into one like this but of course nothing would grow in that dark windowless space. The trade off though is that the windows here are stark, heavy tinted glass often with heavy curtains to keep the sun and heat out, not at all like the views and assortment of interior potted plants I previously enjoyed.

Local Produce


Apart from preparing the beds in Mamaroneck and planting some seed back in April, I've done zero vegetable gardening this year. There is a patch here at the family home that I'm sure I could utilize for that purpose, but I have had little inclination and the photograph above is the reason why. The local produce available is incredible. Despite my earlier thoughts on the price of growing vegetables where I rationalized the cost of commuting half an hour from New york City was worth the experience, I'm wavering somewhat now.

Within walking distance of home we have a fresh market, a supermarket and a night market (once a week). The produce is largely, vibrantly fresh. Go somewhere specific like Little India in Singapore where I took the photo above and you start to see the produce expressing it's target customers specific tastes. Apart from the Okra and those large black pod things that are Banana flowers ( they are used as a vegetable here), everything else is Eggplant. The Indian community relishes the subtle flavor differences and shapes of all the different kinds. For example the white ones are preferred in certain curries because of their more acid flavor. I've never seen those long green ones before and those purple ones are small, like purple eggs and beyond cute.

At the night market where the clientele is predominantly Chinese, the vegetable selection includes an intriguing assortment of medicinal vegetables. Alongside the more recognizable greens are bundles of unfamiliar odd colored and shaped leaves that are for making tonic soups. At the morning market, where I go every week with my Dad, we buy our vegetables from a Malay lady who quite shockingly cautions me not to select vegetables that she thinks are not up to par. Where are the vegetables from?, I enquire. We have a 'kebun' she tells me- a word that equally describes a garden or plantation so its hard to decipher the size of the operation or her methods (for now) but at least I know it's relatively local.

At the supermarket, the vegetables are more familiar as they have more information about them. I see signs for 'local' tomatoes and bundles of vegetables with stickers that say 'organic' or 'grown in Cameron Higlands' a cool highland area about 270 miles away. The prices here are the highest but are a fraction, perhaps a third of prices in the US. Shopping for vegetables here is liberated from a principal concern at my old haunt the Union Square Market, affordability.

With produce this fresh, varied, easily available and cheap - the urge to grow is virtually extinguished, but not completely. There are two things I'm jonesing for. Fresh (Italian) basil and mint. You just can't get it anywhere and I am dying for a tomato sauce pasta with fresh basil or a mint cucumber and yogurt salad. I'll have to order some seed and get going with that but one thing I won't have to worry about is when to plant it as the growing season is year round here. Yes, for added inner conflict, it's easier to grow produce here too.

South Pacific


I just got back from spending a few days on Pulau Tioman, a two hour ferry ride off the east coast of Malaysia and famed location for the film South Pacific. It has a striking mountainous spine that drops steeply into an array of beaches and coves, that house a string of resorts each with a slightly different personality. Ayer Batang where I stayed was a rustic assortment of wooden buildings, some traditional houses, wooden chalets, bar shacks and veranda restaurants all threaded together tightly to a narrow path that hugged the shore.

The botanical experience of the place was eclectic. There were the tropical beach classics - palm trees, casuarina trees, mangrove trees but mixed with a jumble of crotons, orchids, ferns and all kinds of other flowers and fruit trees subject to the gardening taste and whim of the homes and resorts they resided in. All this in contrast with the dense rainforest that covered the mountain slope with a dark, slightly ominous, textural rhythm .

The flora existed synergistically with equally exotic fauna, families of Macacque monkeys huge Monitor lizards and Swallowtail butterflies. They darted through trees, slithered over the path and added another layer of color, movement and sound to this island garden.

Artemisia Vulgaris




















I recently underwent a few sessions of acupuncture, for the first time, for a sprained finger. In a nutshell, it worked like magic and was more painful and nerve wracking than I thought it would be. It was four sessions over 10 days, one component of which was the application of moxibustion, a lit herb cigar circled over the needles applied to my afflicted finger to further heat and heighten their effect.

This was one of the more pleasant aspects of the process beginning when the acupuncturist's assistant lit the moxa and its soothing aroma filled my cubicle. Although a little anxious during the first treatment when I had no real idea of how close that lit end was supposed to be to my skin, I soon learned to trust the assistant's judgement and enjoy it's marker as the midpoint in the treatment process. Suitably heated, I would then be left to allow the needles to do their work, the light switched off, the curtain to my cubicle drawn.

The Moxa I discovered is dried Artemisia Vulgaris, a common weed in the New York area, described here in nycgarden's excellent local weed atlas. Not only common but also pervasive, I regularly used to pull tons of Mugwort out of the beds in Mamaroneck every year. It's also one of the 12 weeds selected by ethnobotanist Ina Vanderbroek for the Quadra Medicinale installation imagining and demonstrating the possibilites of urban foraged medicine. NYC herbalist Karen Vaughan has more ideas on how to use this weed/herb including dream pillows and mochi. Ethnobotanist Nat Bletter shows how to collect and identify it here.

Herbarium image from Arizona State University, Woodblock image from a medieval herbal.

Towards Abstraction



Having lived more years abroad than at home, the local flora often elicits surprise. Many plants that I am familiar with as potted plants living inside - reside outside here and are much much larger, sometimes unrecognizably so. They are large shrubs and trees, the scale of their parts defy recognition until, oh, wow. Recognition is also less immediate because they are less solitary, not just one plant in a pot but filling up half of a small border.

Take the Sansevieria for example. It's not uncommon to see this planted in pots here too, but they are occasionally let loose in a border mixed with other plants and in that context, they do something quite different visually. They become less sculptural and more like bold gestures on a canvas. Maybe it's the characteristics that help them thrive in the topics that create these visual textures. The foliage here is more rigid, leathery, more deliberate than the herbacious, lacier, kinds found in a temperate garden. Squint your eyes and blur them and you’ll see not an impressionistic Monet or Childe Hassam but an expressionistic De Kooning.

There is a small garden bed that I often see, bound within concrete walls where I took the above photos. There is a mass of purple Rhoeo Discolor, like brushstrokes of green and purple paint edged in fuschia where the sun catches it. A clump of Sanseveria looks like scrapes of a palette knife, gray greens shot with bright yellow. Both have a backdrop of Heliconia leaves, smooth painted areas with flurries of lines created by their stalks. All three have leaves that have begun to decay, but interestingly don’t seem as obviously dead or dying perhaps, due to their said characteristics, only broadening the palette by providing more yellows, oranges and browns.

Everytime I walk by ‘my’ abstract painting garden, I imagine filling the empty spaces with more daubs and strokes of botanic paint. I wonder what a small clump of black bamboo might do visually in the far back corner and some bold strokes of blue green aloe in the front. It’s odd that I’m nurturing a garden design here in my head, so different visually from the kinds I’ve been actively involved with all these years although it seems fitting that the aesthetic roots of these ideas are from my old home, New York City.

Young Red


Our Indonesian maid asked me if I noticed that the lily on our porch had bloomed. She said it was Merah Muda, which is the Malay description for pink or literally translated, young red. Misinterpreting my quizzical look for misapprehension, she quickly added that in Indonesia they would say Merah Jambu alluding to the pink flesh of the Guava fruit (Jambu). Again it was qualifying the color red (merah) or guava red. The color pink it seems doesn't exist here or on the neighboring islands of Indonesia as a singular and separate concept, it's a sub category of red. I didn't misunderstand her, I was just parsing this and a bunch of random but connected thoughts swarming in my head.

My thoughts: First- pink (as I noted previously) doesn't really exist. How interesting that this is linguistically reflected here. Cantonese (fun hong) and Mandarin (fen hong), two other languages/dialects commonly spoken here also use red derivatives ( light red ) to describe pink. Second- the lily wasn't truly pink, unlike the begonia that is also blooming. It's really fine deep magenta lines drawn onto a white ground. But that's just me processing how I might draw or recreate this. Lastly, I'm finding that language is an interesting, additional botanic variable that I have to navigate here. What is this? What do you call this? I find myself asking a lot. It's not just the many languages, there are also ethnobotanical connotations to the flowers plants and herbs that shift not just what they are called but what they 'mean'. The question, what do you use this for? invariably follows.

Yes, I did, I said after all this made it's way through the circuitry. She elaborated that she had got the bulb from one of her friends. All the homes in this neighborhood have Indonesian maids and through the backyard fences they trade things like herbs, cuttings, phone cards to name a few. It's beautiful, I added and she beamed a broad smile. If you've grown something from a seed or a bulb and it turned into something that bloomed you would would have fully understood that smile, no translation required.

Bowl of Peonies


Peering into this ceramic bowl decorated with Peony blossoms at the Museum I visited last weekend, was a poignant moment. I realized, I missed the Peonies this year.

The sheer amount of different flora here, the new scales and luxuriance of the foliage, the strange fruits and herbs have been distracting with their newness or the pleasure of being re acquainted with their long forgotten familiarity. This peony reminder was the first sting of sadness, a realization that there will be things that I will not see this summer and longer.

I wondered if the Chinese immigrants that sailed here with their peony and chrysanthemum decorated bowls found consolation in the floral motifs from the cool temperate homes they left behind. In a bittersweet way it fired up some creative urgency to do more of the floral artwork that I've been meaning to do. It also made me think, thank goodness I have this blog, it's my bowl of peonies and more. I can in a small way relive those delicious last days of May in Mamaroneck, go visit Wave Hill or smell the lilacs at Brooklyn Botanical.

Turmeric Root


Turmeric is not an unfamiliar spice. Its color and earthy flavor is universally known as a component of curry powder or used individually in food preparation primarily for its intense yellow color hence it's moniker as the poor man's Saffron. Usually found in powder form, the fresh version I might find very occasionally in New York City's Chinatown. Here however, the small rhizomes are easily purchased from the markets and grocery stores. The rich saffron color is a surprise when you slice into the drab skinned root.

This article lists summaries for 200 recent peer reviewed studies on this herb spice. Clearly it's anti inflammatory, anti oxidant and anti cancer properties are of keen scientific interest, although it's effectiveness remains unclear. Herbalist Karen Vaughan's interesting article on Turmeric inspired me to try a mash up of the ideas she presented. Instead of using powdered, I sieved the liquid from a pounded turmeric root and stirred that into some local honey. Instead of milk, I stirred the turmeric honey into some live yogurt.

It was really quite nice, the earthiness of the turmeric (without the slight bitterness that comes with the powdered version) seemed like a natural fit with the local honey and the creamy custard color of the combiation was very appealing. I think there's potential here for an interesting smoothie with some frozen fruit.

Scary Beautiful


Heading back to my hotel at dusk in Singapore's chinatown, I decided on a whim to make a detour. The golden light lit up one of the many old shopfronts down a sidestreet painted in an exquisite pairing of colors and I went looking for more. That's where I found an art gallery, painted in a striking deep coral with stripped wooden shutters, it's front yard crowded with a large Frangipani tree. Talk about exquisite pairings, the deep pink flowers riffed off the coral, the branches echoed the brown shutters but syncopated their geometry. I was mesmerized by the artistry of the pairing and wondered about it's provenance, was it inherited, beautiful happenstance or a series of considered choices by the artist who owns the gallery.

The next day at the Peranakan Museum another wonderful pairing with a different vibe. This time a yellow Frangipani that harmonized beautifully with the pale blue and green paint tones, the glossy leaves echoing the dark green ceramic banisters. This time the arch of the branches complemented the building's archways and the leaf detail plaster accents softened its contrast with the rhythmic lines of the building. What extraordinarily good luck to find two great examples of nature and architecture combined.

Despite the beauty of these Frangipani trees, they always arouse a sense of conflict with me, a quick search reminded me why. In this part of the world they are also known as the Graveyard Tree and it extends to the neighbouring countries too where they are also associated with ghosts, graveyards and funerals. Their branches apparently shelter demons, their scent attracting vampires. Silly, of course they don't. Since then I've seen the flowers threaded into Hawaian leis and known their familiar scent evoked in Nag Champa a hippie, counter culture essential. Walk down any touristy street, St Marks Place, New York City or Haight Ashbury, San Francisco and the waft of this popular incense is omnipresent. The positive associations abound and many homes here, now have pretty minature trees in pots. But still, it's hard to shake off these embedded childhood associations.

Rabindrath Tagore's 'The Champa Flower' captures the experience of this tree well, how passing under it you might find a fallen blossom and notice a scent that makes you look up. That might be the root of its legend as the scent is strongest at night and you're more likely to look up at the eerie embrace of its branches in search of the source of its rich (ghostly?) sweet smell.

Rattan


There are a few local/native plant materials used here that effortlessly fulfill a growing global desire for products that are natural, eco friendly and sustainable. In the case of rattan, a fast growing jungle weed, a couple more labels can be attached, handmade and vintage/heritage. To this day the steaming, bending and weaving of canes requires an artisanal hand. The catalogue of classic designs made from this material is substantial- my particular favorites are steamer loungers from the thirties, french baroque pieces with woven inserts, mid century modern shapes like the one pictured and of course the iconic three piece tropical lounge set replete with tropical motif covered cushions. Add washable natural fiber cushion covers and latex cushions to the latter and you have another label, hypoallergenic.

The material is nowhere near as prevalent as it was in my childhood when rattan furniture was ubiquitous in almost every home, the wet markets would be filled with shoppers carrying rattan baskets to port their wares home where they also scratched their backs and swatted flies with gadgets fashioned out of this material. The baskets, it could be reasonably argued, are unnecessarily heavy in comparison to the plastics that have replaced them. However the airy design of rattan furniture, the dry cool touch of the material itself justifies a lament for it's decline and replacement with entirely inappropriate ( if not aesthetically then, certainly functionally) upholstered western style furniture.

I have to admit there are rattan pieces that I don't like - top of my list would be the wicker laundry basket that has become the staple of container and budget furniture stores everywhere. Therein probably lies the reason for the decline of rattan furniture here- it became too common and is percieved to be old fashioned and cheap. A quick search on the internets yielded a couple of designs that were pretty cool and certainly not cheap like this and these.

Water Pots



Outside the terrace houses of Heeren Street, ( with the air wells I wrote about in my last post) there is typically, an assortment of terracota and salt glazed pots filled with an assortment of plants- everything from small fruit trees to large and small pots of foliage or flowering plants. What stood out were the pots filled with water and home to an assortment of lotus, water lettuce, duckweed and occasionally- fish.

The pots weren't extraordinary, usually terracota and they didn't seem to mind if the pot leaked a little as it all ended up in the monsoon drain in front. Or there were the green lined salt glazed kind usually decorated with dragons. On parallel Jonker Street, the antique stores had for sale larger, grander versions which I think were originally storage jars. I loved these two with botanic motifs on them- the hole gets stoppered with a giant cork. They were huge, stacked up, they almost reached the height of the doorway.

Interior Courtyard Gardens

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If I were to pick one type of garden that I would want above all others, I would without hesitation and unreservedly choose an interior courtyard garden, just like one of these pictured above that I saw in Malacca last week. The first two images were taken at the rustic guesthouse I stayed in, with a plumeria/frangipani tree, hanging ferns, bamboo and a mossy pool. It was a lush space with cool shadows, birds and flowers. I brushed my teeth 'outside' staring at a giant tropical blue flower that I did not recognize.

These aren't glassed in spaces with skylights, they are open interior gardens architected to break up long narrow terrace houses, bringing light and the outdoors into a private space indoors. The ground floor is usually a courtyard with chairs and tables or an extension of the kitchen. Upstairs, walkways wrap around and shuttered bedroom windows open out into these verdant air wells, the grander houses with not one but two. High ceilings and carved porous vents between rooms allow the air cooled by pockets of deep shadow to circulate with a little help from some strategically placed fans. Genius.

Sadly these exquisite ideas of space and light have been replaced with tighter, closed in, easy to air condition modern alternatives and these interior courtyards can only be found in places like Malacca and Penang, relics of another era. They are also an eclectic fusion of design and materials, a hybrid of east and west, drawing from Chinese and European Colonial architectural traditions.

Sour Fruits




















In the ayurvedic system, you are required to identify your psycho-physiological type and then to eat the kinds of of food that complement or enhance it. These foods then fall into the category of the six tastes, sweet, salty, sour, astringent, bitter and pungent. I've been reminded in the short time since I've returned how prevalent sour flavours are here in the diet. Apart from the frequent use of the local Calamansi limes and preference for eating both ripe and unripe fruits- things like mangoes are often eaten green and unripe and very sour, dipped in salt or salty soy sauce, there are also a number fruits that are used in cooking to specifically impart a sour taste.

On the right is Assam Belimbing or Averrhoa Bilimbing which I'm not so familiar with although its used in a variety of ways both cooked and raw. It has the acidity of a gooseberry and the mouth feel of a kiwi fruit. On the left is dried Assam Keping or Assam Gelugor or Garcinia Atroviridis which is much more prevalent and is used as a flavoring agent to make curries or laksas sour, particularly those that involve seafood. The most common sour fruit which I haven't photographed although I will do at some point is Tamarind, also known as Assam Jawa. You can probably deduce that the word assam means sour.

In the Ayurvedic pharmacology of sour taste or Amal Rasa, the properties of this taste stimulate the brain and digestive system. Translated into more western conventions, sour fruits are high in antioxidants and their acidic nature enables antifungal , antimicrobial, fat burning and even anti tumor properties.

Tropical Shift


Well. Things have taken an unexpected turn. Due to family circumstances I have returned home to Malaysia indefinitely. So The Occasional Gardener takes on a tropical twist. On my first outing with the camera I found some great subjects in my dad's garden- the crabclaws, and also on the street outside- the mimosa, a weed. Some things don't change- I'm drawn to both plants in the home garden as well as the plants that thrive without a gardener. I also hope to be spending some time in botanical gardens and snooping on neighborhood ones too.

Rose Barlow


I planted the seeds for Rose Barlow, last spring but she delayed her arrival to this one and it's been worth the wait. Tall sylph like legs and a pink puff of double petalled blooms, she's a marked contrast to the surly Black Barlow.

The clump of Black Barlow in the South West bed began petering our last summer - they seemed to have lost their vigor, barely making it to half their previous height. Moving a couple of the plants over to the North East bed seems to have re invigorated them- there's a couple of healthy new ones but I do miss the dramatic combination they made with the Spirea.

Rocking the Quarter Moon

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We finally did it- the quarter moon, a small quadrant patch that's been left for years unplanted mainly because I couldn't really figure out what to put in it is now 'done'. I finally figured out what to do with it after piecing together two things- the two stone/concrete planters pictured above, have spent a few years happily housing some succulents that thrived there on bare rock and a pinch of soil. Succulents it turns out are also Heidi's favorite plants, she always oohs over them at the nursery. It made sense then to just turn this whole area into a rock garden with succulents with the added practical addition of the woody herbs from the vegetable garden, that don't always make it through the winter. Two of them have done really well for a few years, the golden oregano and the lemon thyme and it hasn't escaped me that they thrive on the very edge of the vegetable beds which probably keeps their feet nice and dry. So dry + stony + succulents + woody herbs = mediterranean, desert-ish low maintenance rock garden.

Easier said than done, we had to dig fairly deep to make sure it was going to be well drained- this part of the garden gets a lot of water when it rains hard. Some frantic googling and reading to figure out how to prepare the bed for maximum drainage- and I wanted it to slope so- we had to wrap our brains around that. Then we had to get the stones and rocks. With Jim's expert guidance- I decided to mix 3 different kinds of stones to emulate the color variation that's occuring in the walls. It was no mean feat explaining to the nursery staff that we wanted to mix the stones and then only wanting 3/4 (not a half or a full yard which is 'how they do it"). Jim set the edging stones and I experimented with different recipes for mixing the stones- to get the 'look' right- its's amazing how difficult it is to get something to look 'natural'.

The planting was easy- herbs towards the front and succulents everywhere else. I echoed the range of color thats in the other beds a range between dark burgundy succulents and lemony lime greens. The result- it rocks- it finally finishes that part of the garden so at a macro level it works really well. What I didn't anticipate was the effectivenes of the scale- although I planned that it would be almost a minaiture garden, I didn't fully appreciate how attractive this would be and how it slows you down and makes you take it in more closely.
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