Jungle Noir

At the recent orchid show in Singapore, I have to admit the couple of things that I was drawn to most was not the orchids themselves.  One was a dazzling display of Nepenthes, the other a diorama of a lowland jungle scene replete with a little stream and a variety of animals.

The Nepenthes display showcased a huge variety of shapes, colors and markings that I didn't even know existed. The taste level was also superb, making great use of driftwood and moss and other botanic materials that complemented the markings and colorations of these strange carnivorous flora. I also didn't know there was such a variety of sizes and habits- from hanging to small clusters.

The diorama made clever use of stuffed animals that brought points of focus into the scene. Their extraordinary markings echoed their environment, a reminder of how fauna is an integral part of any garden environment. The planting was gorgeous and instructional in the type of flora to be found in such places mixing moss, terrestial orchids, begonias and ferns.

Of note, the spotted begonias (top left corner of the rhs pic) and Anoectochilus harmonized with the markings on the critters. The orchids used were mainly in shades of green and brown, limes and chocolates and points in between - my favorite palette. Perhaps that's why I also loved the Nepenthes that were all in this color spectrum.

The overall effect was not what one typically thinks of 'jungle'- lush, large scale plants. This was delicate, complex and finely tuned. I was much inspired and in my mind's eye contemplated the blending of ideas from both these displays to formulate a design plan for a Jungle Noir garden.

Modern Eden

In November, the first part of a substantial garden project in Singapore, Gardens by the Bay, will be completed, the Flower Dome. In the news recently,  a 2.5 hectare Healing Garden laid out in the shape of a human body opened at the Botanic Garden. There's also the Park in the Sky, the green roofed Nanyang University and more. Without doubt this is a city determined to not only be true to it's moniker 'garden city' but also actively innovating in the area of public urban garden spaces.

A while ago I visited another such space, the National Singapore Library and had an insight into how the citizens of a modern Eden enjoy a well thought out green public space. It wasn't the internationally acclaimed  design or the technology, like movement triggered escalators or light triggered blinds that impressed most, it was what the people were actually doing in that space.

First, it might be important to point out that  six out of ten Singapore phone users have an iphone. I actually looked that up because I was surprised at how many I was seeing out and about in the city. Of course, I would see them as I would in any big city, in a very urban context particularly while waiting for a train or bus, but at the NSL, it was more about a kind of private reverie. Perched on a low wall quietly engaged in a text conversation or on benches that were cut into the planted borders with overhanging branches plugged into their ipods.

Inside, huge windows kept the plantings, including huge trees, constantly in view even when you got to the basement where the windows looked out to a bamboo grove. Between the buildings, a space not usually given any thought was where the cafe was housed - literally, a green oasis, the acoustics of the concrete space amplifying the pleasant social sounds of laughter and conversation.

All this seems the antithesis of urbanity, cramped hostile spaces jammed with anxious urban dwellers. It also wasn't a public 'garden' as such, where people tend to have a different set of behaviors like jogging or taking photographs or having a picnic. This was a 'city' space that did what a garden should do, encourage you to slow down, sit for a while, gather your thoughts, engage in a quiet activity or chat with a friend.

Hibiscus Sabdariffa

Remember my Roselle drink? Well we dried some of the pods for use later and also tried planting some of the seeds - with great success. Now I have half a dozen Hibiscus Sabdariffa plants that are yielding enough fruit to make the occasional jug of that delicious tropical cranberry like juice.

The plants are tall now about six feet and continue to send out buds which begs the question, for how much longer? It's a different world here without a cold season and quite frankly gets me a little confused. Will plants like this roselle and fruiting vegetables like beans and eggplants just keep producing ad infinitum?

Well I got the answer about the Roselle last week when I visited an organic farm about a half hour outside the city. It's a no. The plants will slow down and eventually need to be recropped. I did learn however how the farm maximimizes the yield from these plants and that is to prune them at around two feet tall. This triggers the plant to send out four or five branches. So at the farm, each plant was the same height but with five stems and five times the yield.

The plants are relatively trouble free, good looking with their pink hibiscus like blossoms and dark burgundy stems and fruit pods, pretty enough to be in a flower border. Right now the sweet potato vine nestles at its feet but, next go around I might try something taller. A little research shows that the leaves are also edible but I've yet to try this out. What I have tried is finely slicing the pods to add to a salad and that works well as a tangy accent.

To my great surprise, I discovered that the farm I visited, sells its produce at the night market that I regularly go to, in fact, serendipitously, the seeds planted came from fruit purchased from them.

Garden of Content

Managing this blog is much like gardening, you move things around, you plant some new things, some things you cut back or they die of their own accord, some things flourish unexpectedly and you, the gardener, gets a little more skilled and experienced over time. Then there's the environment which of late in the rapid changing tech world, could be described as - intense climate change - rapidly changing technology- both hardware and software. Not to mention an evolving culture around social media of facebooking and twittering.

As befits the times I changed things up a little bit here on the blog. I was motivated in part by reading this piece about how news - or it could apply to the design of any kind of information is too cluttered. As we move more into mobile and tablet forms of content - leaner more edited pages just work better - and that includes optimization for a whichever gadget you are using to consume it.

I agree. As a content user - I use an imac an ipad and an android phone I know that the experience on all three is different. There are limitations and feature differences - some things on The OG I just can't see on an ipad (flash based video, slideshows, flipbooks) although I can on my android phone. Some things I'm less inclined to consume on my phone like long form writing but I like to read books  and casually catch up with some blogs on my ipad and do serious web surfing and watch videos when I'm on my computer.

Cutting to the chase, the changes revolve mainly on a slightly leaner look with more definition between original content and aggregated or curated content ie homegrown and foraged and I think the real shift -  more gallery space to images. I continue to want to solve to what I'm doing with reference to ease of publishing. I do two things- take photos with my phone -which is more impromptu as I always have it with me and the more purposeful- I'm going to the botanic garden with my 'good' camera.  Incidentally, I recently upgraded to a better, good camera that quite effortlessy takes beautiful images. Does this mean less processed images? Maybe for the time being. In the meantime I will be moving over my sets on flickr to view here.

Videos, I'm still tinkering with,. After using blip and trying vimeo - I like how youtube has evolved quite rapidly with more privacy controls and ease of use- can upload a video shot on my phone straight into youtube, not to mention channel customization and the fact that it is owned by google as is blogger, which is the platform this blog is on. Connectivity between technologies is an important issue now, with google+  emerging as another possible platform to easily upload and share media - this might be the subject of the next 'content' update. Also, do I want to share regular short clips or more thoughtful edited pieces. Not sure how this will play out yet.

Flipbooks - I love the aesthetics, and was inspired to make quite a few, but they need some effort to put together and now I hate how that you can't see them on an ipad. So they have slipped a little to the back burner. Twitter  on the other hand is offering direct uploads and I love the look of the new photo page - no longer a link to a photo upload service but a cool framed pic.  I'm a little more motivated now to stream random pics on a more regular basis. If you visit this site now- the most likely updated content is the twitter feed on the top right hand side.

Too much information here for the casual blog reader, maybe interesting to fellow bloggers dealing with similar challenges but the point of this post is selfishly for me to keep track of the changes myself - check out previous posts about content and you'll see how this changes over time. Sorry about the confusion as I'm still tidying up around here - and enjoy the images that hopefully will be more prolific and more easily accesible.

Home Brew

I used to think of my morning coffee ritual as my last remaining vice, but if you are keeping up with the times, you'll know that it's vice status has been downgraded of late. Drunk in moderation to manage it's possible health aggravating and addicting qualities- coffee is officially no longer bad for you and perhaps even good for you as studies continue to emerge about how it's good for your heart, prostate, and dementia, to name a few. Being many years part of the Starbucks era of easy procurement and enjoyment of fresh ground, freshly brewed coffee it was an easy graduation to the new appreciation for serious coffee due much to the efforts of enterprises like Portland's Stumptown. No longer a guilty pleasure, coffee is a complex ancient herbal beverage that continues to have an ever expanding modern cultural relevance.

I returned home to Malaysia harboring a fantasy of rediscovering 'local coffee'. Coffee is grown here in South east Asia, and after trying pretty much every bean out there, I seem to have a natural taste bias for the bold, earthier flavor of Sumatra, which has been by preferred choice for many years. The fantasy is fueled by a childhood memory of being in a school room  that happened to be close to a coffee roasting enterprise. The smell of coffee to this day takes me right back to the the sultry heat of that classroom where the pungent smell pierced the dullness of afternoon classes. I was psyched to think I might perhaps discover a local, home grown, home roasted coffee.

Well that fantasy was smashed to smithereens. At first, I was just bewildered at the contents listed on bags of local coffee being only 60 percent coffee and the rest sugar, margarine and sometimes other ingredients like flour. Immersing myself in a little coffee 101, I discover that Malaysia largely grows Coffea Liberica, with a less than flavorful bean that the local coffee industry has learnt to enhance by roasting with butter/margarine and sugar. Coffea Arabica is what dominates global coffee production and is known for its flavor. It's a little more delicate than Coffea Canephora or Robusta which it is often blended with for both it's easier cultivation and higher caffeine content. Sumatra coffee is Arabica beans grown on Sumatra, whereas my local home kopi is adulterated Liberica beans grown here and entirely consumed by the local market.

It's particularly saddening as there is also a vibrant kopitiam (local coffee hangout ) culture here that includes the original kopitiam coffee houses that still thrive replete with old school coffee pots and the newer chains that combine well executed vintage aesthetics (see pic on right with marble topped table, chinese stools and coffee cup with botanical motif) and modern conveniences like free wifi and Starbucks ubiquity - there's at least one in every mall. They usually have a great menu with local and healthful alternatives to pastries and cakes but, the rasion d'etre is a bitter, greasy, sweet  beverage whose only saving grace is it's fix of caffeine.  Why not offer some better tasting alternatives, I asked the owner of a small family run chain of kopitiams with heritage roots ? His answer - the locals love the taste of the local brew, so we don't see a need to change. Sigh. 

All however is not lost. If I can't connect with a local grown cup of coffee, a major consolation prize is that I can connect with the plant itself, in fact I am the proud owner of one, see pic on the left. I recently learnt that coffee flowers have a perfume that is jasmine like, so it's a nice add to my perfume plants collection and bought at the same place mentioned in my last post that doesn't label its plants so I have no idea which type it is.

Thankfully too, Singapore, just an hour away is playing ball with global coffee trends and tastes. There are a  few enterprises that roast Arabica beans and is even home to a few artisanal coffee establishments that I plan to check out. Meanwhile, there is the old fall back Starbucks - there's one here in Johor Bahru and I have since found a small coffee vendor in one of the markets who sells a Bali coffee bean that is quite good. Not quite my beloved Sumatra but my new found coffee guy is quite the character with his old school giant ladled scoop, glass fronted metal display tins and vintage grinder. After much banging to ensure every last powdered grain is set free and right before he puts it into into the bag, he completes his ritual by extending the ladle, inviting me to take a whiff while simultaneosly showing me the thumbs up and there I am back there in that classroom staring at the afternoon sky through wooden shutters  the aroma of coffee blurring yesterday and today.


I'm looking for plants with a perfume I told the guy working at a little nursery discovered on a jaunt out of town. He showed me a couple of plants, unlabeled of course and not one of us was proficient enough in the other's language, we tried English, Malay and Mandarin, to figure out what the other was saying. Thankfully one of them has tiny little flower buds, which on crushing reveal a delicate scent. The other has large leaves and he gestures with his hands that the flowers are spidery - ah, perhaps one of these. Sold.

The little buds have opened and have a sweet Jasmine scent. The plant itself is woody and shrub like so I try those keywords in google 'jasmine + shrub'. Bingo. It's Murraya Paniculata  a distant cousin of the Citrus family also known as Orange Jessamine. It's also native to these parts with the local name Kemuning.

We have a small Gardenia Jasminoides tree already in our yard also known as Cape Jessamine or it's local name Melur Cina which translates to Chinese Jasmine. This too has a wonderful scent, I often cut some to put in my bedroom. Where the Orange Jessamine is not familiar, this Cape Jessamine is deeply so, a familiar sight in many a backyard of my youth. It's popularity owed perhaps because of its manageable small tree status with glossy leaves and seemingly perpetual blooms.

The flowers don't seem to last long though, there is a lovely tight green bud, then it is best when just opened as pictured left, then dishevels fairly rapidly. I notice that there is also a fair amount of  yellow leaves on our tree and wonder if  the soil might need a little ph adjustment to its preferred acidity. The Orange Jessamine on the other hand has more stamina. I can see why its tight woody habit would make a good hedge hence it's other name Chinese Box.

The leaves of 'the other' plant do look very much like Michelia Champaca leaves, which I am psyched about and the quest continues for more additions to my collection of perfume plants.

Update: A cutting from the Gardenia jasminoides and the Jessamine now reside in the White Corner of my garden.

Background Color

Last weekend, in Singapore I caught sight of a bright pink banana flower, framed by a fan of lime tinted leaves  set against a bright blue wall and it was stunning. Years ago, I think it was in the textile museum in New Dehli, I took away an image that has remained indelible in my mind - blue walls wrapped around a courtyard with a large tree swimming in a pool of Tradescantia Pallida Purpurea. The power of this image, the dark gnarled trunk, the shadows of its leafy branches and the vibrancy of the purple Tradescantia against the blue has since, always made me aware of how effective a strong background color is in a small garden space.

Blue walls have been a signature of some famous gardens belonging to artsy types - most famously the cobalt blue walls of Jardin Majorelle, Yves San Laurent's Moroccan getaway and there's also Frida Kahlo's Blue House, not as deep a blue but more intense than the one I have pictured above which, like the one in Dehli casts a little lavender. A blue background is a a great foil for these orange flowers in the Mission district of San Francisco and the lime tones of spring in Manhattan. The Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion in Penang shows how this color is as much at home with Marrakesh cactuses and Mexican yuccas as it is with Chinese shutters and lotus flowers.

The other wall color I keep coming across in Singapore is red.  Although it has clear oriental associations with the color of red lacquer and the walls of the forbidden city, this color has for me many more global associations from the Brownstones of Manhattan and the saltbox houses of New England to many a Tuscan wall, the Dutch Buildings in Malacca and the stone walls of Agra. Here in the tropics the warm tones look great with the warm browns of wooden shutters and pink plumeria  or a gnarly bougainvillea, as above. On Cape Cod a stand of hollyhocks perhaps and in Tuscany, a line of terracota pots with huge red geraniums.

I saw a few yellow walls in Malacca, pretty but somehow they weren't quite right. Yellow can be a diffcult color especially when it casts green. This image of the jade green walls of the Peranakan mansion in Penang, combined with wood shutters, gold decorative accents, on the other hand looks like the perfect starting point to embelish with potted foliage in a range of greens.

How does one choose? Well end use would probably help inform that decision. The psychology of colors tells us that low arousal colors of blue and green would be best for a spot intended for quiet reverie- a shady enclave to escape the afternoon sun or a peaceful breakfast nook. High arousal reds that stimulate the appetite would be great for an outdoor dining area particularly for use at night, the glow of lanterns and candelight making the space warm and intimate.

Doesn't all this color talk just make you want to pick up a paintbrush?

Strange Allure

The Durian is indeed a strange fruit. An unfriendly spiked shell with a powerful lingering smell that is either putrid or heavenly depending on which side of the great divide you stand. It is outlawed in taxis, most hotels, hugely expensive compared to the many other fruits available and right now, the season is in full swing.

It changes the local urban landscape. Small vendors set up shop out of the back of their cars, larger trucks and stalls are strung up with lights and in the cool of the evening the hustle and haggle of durian trade ensues for the length of the season. Those unwilling or unable to take the rank fruit home are afforded aluminum tables for an immediate roadside feast.

Last year I didn't eat a single one. Many years (maybe twenty) of abstinence living abroad made up part of my reluctance - the smell requires a leap of faith to dive through to reap the rewards of the complex sensory pleasures that follow. The other part is the now somewhat complex variety of cultivars and clones on offer, many of them with both inscrutable and unattractive names like D168. Inevitably unable to decipher which to buy, I would opt for the other fruits that also coincide with durian season- more of that in another post.

This year however a phone call from one of my Dad's old students alerting us that he was bringing over some durians from another alumni who owns a fruit farm broke the spell. In minutes he was over with four durians reminding me also of how we used to get  durians. Not from a bustling roadside stall but from a friend or neighbor who had been out of town and brought back a haul perhaps from family in a rural area or from a farmer on the roadside. My grandfather, a lawyer, who sometimes did pro bono work for rural folk would often be paid in kind come durian season of a bushel of fruit.

And so I came to be reaquainted with the strange allure of this native fruit, one almost impossible to describe.  Custardy, creamy, sweet, rich it packs a powerful sensory punch and by day four when we got to the fourth one and it was a dud with spoilt fruit, the disappointment seemed to strike a little deeper than expected. Is it it's high tryptophan content that hooks you? Am I really thinking I might have to buy some at the market next week to score a fix. Yes, I think I might have to.

A Revolution Blooms

Revolutions are literally, blooming. The Tunisian Jasmine revolution propelled this flower to the status of 'nefarious change agent', its very name perceived to have such 'destabilizing potency' in China that the NYTimes reports it is blocked from text messages and a summer festival named after it, cancelled. The flower and plant itself can no longer be sold, purchased, worn, or talked about. Something similar went on here in Malaysia a few weeks ago, dubbed the Hibiscus Revolution referring to the national flower of this country but the origins of its momentum lies similarly in the outlawing of a color that a garden would struggle to be without - yellow.

When supporters promoting the Bersih Rally for Clean and Fair Elections the week before it was planned started to get arrested for wearing its definitive yellow t shirts, an action Amnesty International quite accurately described as absurd, and the Malaysian Bar called unlawful and unconstitutional, the government's Kafkaesque and heavy handed response started to raise the concern and ire of the rational populace. Although all this aversive activity accomplished it's intent of instilling fear, it also miraculously had the opposite effect, it actually steeled the resolve of more people to attend and revolutionary talk flourished exponentially online. The internet is proving to be a fertile medium for unrestrained public conversation.

On the day itself, frightened to wear or carry any evidence of this contraband color in case of arrest, some protesters ingeniously walked into local florists and bought yellow flowers to carry. Some carried flowers to show their intent to rally peacefully only to be subjected to a brutal show of force by the police. On the day after, the government controlled media published the most shocking lies, for every one of which there was contrary evidence on twitpic or youtube to irrefutably deny. Only 6,000 attended they said, the pictures of 50,000 strong told a different story. The police, claimed, no excessive force was used but video of events showed different. The internet is also proving to be a fertile medium for truth.

As someone who has lived in functioning western democracies all my adult life, where somebody is protesting about something it seems on a weekly basis, witnessing and living this kind of overt repression is new and shocking. There's also a certain sadness to see the learned helplessness of many who have only known this kind of governance for the last fifty years remain quiet, too scared to speak or sadder still, actually believe that somehow this abusive behavior is for their own good. Then there's the admiration and gratitude for those that spoke up at great personal cost,  especially in the case of Baharuddin Ahmad, who lost his life in doing so.

It wasn't the din of the protestors on that day that has resonated the most, it is their transformative stories  of unity and solidarity, not only surprising the participants themselves, but inspiring those that lived vicariously through them. I was moved to tears to learn of Muslims offered and accepting refuge to pray in a Hindu temple, and of simple acts of kindess like the offer of a hand to escape the tear gas or some food or water that crossed racial and religious lines. Here is where a revolution truly bloomed as these human stories of goodwill flowered in the hearts of good people accustomed to divisive politics. In the new short prose of twitter, testimony after testimony, of shared experience began to thread together like a beautiful garland and compose a powerful message of unity and hope.

Coincidentally, well before all of this I had been planning to put more yellow into the garden. The large New Zealand Flax, with its striking yellow variegated leaves has been insisting that it needs more companions. I recently bought and planted a yellow flowered  Mussaenda glabra and a variegated Ginger with striking yellow brushstrokes on its leaves. Already in the garden the yellow edged Sanseverias are harmonizing with the fruit of the fan palms that have turned a rich yellow on their way from green to orange. A Turmeric plant sends the color underground into the earth and soon I will plant the Hoya to send its yellow tinged flowers scrambling upwards.  More yellow will soon follow and the garden will be rife with subversion and a daily reminder of what must happen next - that what was planted on July 9, 2011 by the bravest of us must be tended, nurtured, propagated and brought to fruition by the rest of us.

Fermented Tea

It's a vastly different sensory experience to make a cup of Pu erh tea if your more typical one, like mine,  is ripping open a flavor sealed tea bag. The tuocha or tea cake, a dense ball of clearly organic matter wrapped in brown paper transports you somewhere a little closer, if not quite to the Yunnan tea plantations that it hails from, then certainly somewhere more rustic.

I came across this tea in Singapore in a department store that had a huge assortment of tea including these strange paper wrapped parcels. They were the size of the one above as well as large pancakes and oblong brick shapes. I researched them initially because I loved the graphics on the wrapper but then discovered the contents to be intriguing.

This particular one is Xia Fa Crane label from 2006. The identical brick from 2004 is almost twice the price. I've no idea whether this is the ripe or raw version - I'll have to go back to the tea shop to find that out. All the text on the wrapper is in chinese and there are quite a few variables in play in terms of classification shape, processing, method, region, cultivation, grade, and season. All this of course makes for a product that generates connoisseurs and enthusiasts and a market for rare,vintage and high priced versions.

The connoisseur thing is not my cup of tea, however the prospect of a really good brew at an affordable albeit premium price is in the same do- able territory as splurging on a heirloom tomato at the farmer's market. I quizzed the guy in the tea shop about the difference between the 2004 and the 2006, was it twice as good in flavor? He wasn't convincing enough so I got the 2004 and told him I would be back to try the other if I liked it.

I learnt that you need to prise the brick apart to get a better retention of leaf shape when it hydrates and they really do which makes for almost a built in strainer. The brewing process involves a preliminary step of rinsing the tea before allowing it to steep to rinse off any extraneous stuff and to loosen and expand the leaves. It's recommended to store the tea not in an airtight container but wrapped in paper or in a non air tight ceramic jar- as it is still ageing. Before you even drink it, you have a far better sense that what you are drinking comes from a leaf and that it is somehow still alive.

So what does it taste like? It doesn't taste 'fermented' which was my big expectation. My first thought was that it tasted like a really good cup of chinese tea, maybe even something that I had tasted before at a good chinese restaurant but didn't know it. Full flavored with no bitterness and leftover tea iced the next day, although a little cloudy, was exceptional combined with honey and local grown lemons. Looks like I will be back for that brick from 2006.

The Papaya Tree

I grew a  tree. Now there's something I did not think I'd be saying. Trees were always something I perceived to be out of my league as an urban apartment dweller. To be honest this was a particularly easy tree, a Papaya tree, which, in the space of a year grew about nine feet tall and has been for the last few months successfully bearing fruit, smaller than the ones we get at market but sweeter and with more flavor it's flesh a more vibrant color.

This explains its ubiquitous presence in the tropical garden - or used to. Back in the day, everyone had a few Papaya trees growing in their backyard. I don't remember  us ever buying this staple fruit usually served daily at breakfast. I still remember my parents, on vacation, ordering room service at  the Railway Station Hotel in Kuala Lumpur (now well past it's prime), bringing the classic post colonial breakfast of eggs, kippers and a slice of Papaya served with a wedge of lime, white napkins and heavy silverware.

Perhaps of all the fruit trees, Papayas because of their quick maturation, easy care and continous fruit production are the most likely to be grown in neighborhood gardens although by and large it is a practise that has been abandoned in favor of purchasing them from the supermarkets or day or night markets as properties shrink and the little land they are on, concreted over.

When I first returned, we got our papayas from the day market following my Dad's method of fruit and vegetable shopping- immutable loyalty. He only frequented one vegetable and one fruit stall in the market - the same ones he has patronized for years. If the fruit lady did not have papayas, we went home without any despite the fact that the next stall would have a mound of them. Invariably, on the way home he would also remark how he could depend on her to select the best ones, which as I was to discover when I started buying them myself, her choices weren't that reliable. Often they might be ripe but not sweet and without much flavor.

I have since become the designated fruit and vegetable shopper, with a diametrically opposite approach- zero loyalty spreading my fickle patronage across the supermarket, various day and night markets and the occasional stall on the roadside - picking and choosing things that seem more seasonal, selecting vendors that seem more successful or more specialized, which is how I came to find the couple at the night market who only sold Papayas and always only had a few left by the time I arrived. After three purchases, it became clear that their Papayas were significantly better than any other and I searched for them everytime I went - they weren't always there probably because they had sold out and gone home.

They are a quiet pair, weighing up your selection, hardly looking up. When I asked where the fruit was from, he told me he buys them  from farms close to the city but he only selects ripe fruit because he does not use chemicals to ripen them. In contrast, the other fruit vendors are laden with boxes of apples from New Zealand, pears from China, out of season mangoes from Thailand and dubiously ripened papayas, while their immigrant staff from Indonesia or Myanmar hustle and call out to the passing trade.

Therein lies the global story of produce that's happening here too with the local twist that - even though we don't have weather limits to our growing season, we are still importing fruits to enjoy them year round outside their typical annual fruiting cycle and we manipulate their ripening process to make for easier transport and storage. We also import tasteless homogenized cool temperate fruits like apples and pears because many locals think they are 'better'. It's a leftover psychology from colonial days- if it's imported it must be better. This, in a land where fruit is so plentiful, cheap, so unique, and so diverse.  Thankfully our Papaya tree and the couple at the night market helps to circumvent this madnesss with the added payoff of having fruit that has significantly better color and flavor.

Rock On

Love my garden! Sent from my Verizon Wireless BlackBerry said the message that had come halfway around the world from Mamaroneck with a picture (above right) of the quarter moon rock garden. It was the very last thing I had worked on in the Mamaroneck garden and and I'm pleased to see it survived the winter and is up and raring to go this season- ok maybe not the Rosemary.

Coincidentally just the other week I was in the supermarket and they had a new stash of succulents for sale and I picked up three so that I could have a pot of them here (above left). It's a reminder not just of the quarter moon but how the idea of of it took root almost four years ago. Ceramic pots are ridiculously cheap here so there is very likely more potted succulents to come.

While the succulents are something that translates well here, the woody herbs, that are the other feature of the quarter moon- not so much. I haven't eaten fresh Oregano, Thyme or Sage this year that I've spent back home. They aren't available in the plant nurseries here and to be honest there is little incentive to track them down or try to grow them from seed when the many local herb alternatives that are easy to grow are plentiful and a natural fit for the local cuisines. OK I might make one exception - sage, the occasional Carbonara would be awesome.


A recent outing with my brother in law the orchid geek  has got me  a little more interested in this species. Although I admire the exotic alien beauty of the blooms and how photogenic they are, they seem strangely awkward to me in a garden setting. A visit to the orchid garden in the Singapore Botanical garden didn't dispel this notion - except perhaps in the Cool House where they were staged more naturalistically on tree trunks.

During this visit to a couple of local orchid vendors, one a nursery and the other a private collector something else struck me about them and it wasn't the flowers. Both these vendors specialized in wilder varieties that were much smaller, had a more interesting range and variety of leaf shapes with no flowers or less conspicuous flowers which they were more likely to comment on their scent than their looks.

The first to catch my eye was a Denrobium, maybe this one with a leaf shape that did not look orchid like at all. Everything was also grown on these twigs, branches and planks of wood and hung on the fence or suspended in mid air. I couldn't help thinking they looked like those floating islands in the movie Avatar. And that's when my interest really kicked in because I started to notice that there were other things growing along with those tiny orchids - a miniature Hoya, moss, ferns. They really were like little floating islands with their own little eco systems. I bought three of the ones that had lots of other stuff growing on them.

What do they need I asked? Oh just water and maybe a little diluted foliar feed now and then. After years of digging and soil preparation and attendance to the concept of soil medium, it's a little difficult to wrap one's brain around this epiphytic thing where the plant  derives its moisture and nutrients from the air and rain and sometimes from debris accumulating around it. 

I hung them, on advice, in the branches of our Gardenia Jasminoides, then after a couple of weeks shifted one to a spot nearby with similar conditions, shady but not too shady, where there's a gap in the fence.  At one of those orchid places, he had some growing in the chain link of his front gate. This is all adding up to some very interesting variables. No medium, vertical possibilites, interesting variety of foliage shapes and the flowers are a bonus. If I think about some more aesthetically pleasing alternatives to chain link and scraps of plank and rubber foam - there's some seriously interesting gardening possibilities and design fun to be had here. 

Cool Tonics

A decade ago I read Andrew Weil's book Spontaneous Healing and it resonated with me having grown up exposed to other cultural systems of wellness that aren't 'alternative' here, a better word might be - parallel. Although we went to an allopathic doctor, we also frequently took over the counter Chinese medicines, tried local folk remedies and most of all were aware of and practised what Dr Weil was championing then - food as medicine.

On a daily basis we were reminded not to eat certain combinations of food (pineapple and milk was a big no) and not to eat certain things if we were not well (no shrimp with fevers and no peanuts with coughs).  Who knows how true these rules were- but it certainly cultivated a mindfulness about food that's become ingrained. There were Chinese soups and even desserts that were complex botanic brews and a part of everyday life. Indian Curries were no less a multitude of botanic ingredients rich in medicinal properties. These 'tonic' foods are as Dr Weil describes a way to strengthen or invigorate the healing system. This process orientated form of wellness management he regretted was not evident or disappearing in the west.

One particular form of tonics that we were not forced to partake in although occasionally encouraged to try was tonic drinks. They were a tough sell because they were invariably wickedly bitter. They are still very much in evidence here and in fact gaining a new popularity - its not unusual to see little refrigerators full of an assortment of these drinks, much like the smoothie section in a NYC corner deli, and the traditional herbal tea shops with their large dispensing vats still do a brisk business.

I've been trying quite a few these drinks and there's definitely an acquired taste issue. Some I marginally like, some I outright dislike - those would be bitter and there are some weird 'woody' and 'peel' type flavors that I just don't love. I recently learned that there's some nuanced vocabulary to describe these drinks - there's 'foo' which is outright bitter (no can do) and there's 'kum' which is bitter-ish, like the bitterness of a strong overbrewed tea - that, I can handle. There's one I love- Roselle and Hawthorn and another that my cousin made at home called 'Jook Jeh' with red sugar cane and Rhoeo Discolor leaves -it was a beautiful purple color with a sweet grassy taste- perhaps a little too sweet. I made it at home without the rock sugar, added a few leaves of Black face General or Strobilanthes Crispus from the garden and a little honey- good.

At the night market I've been seeing these bundles of red leaved Alternanthera Sessilis ( Hong Tian Wu ). It's to make the blood move, the stall vendor tells me. Sold. Although like most herbal tonic drinks the primary feature is usually that they are 'cooling' - hence the term 'leong char' or 'cooling tea'. So into the pot it went with some red sugar cane and some Tradescantia Zebrina from the garden for my next home experiment. It was a particularly beautiful color - much like the color of the source material as pictured above, but the taste was a little spinachy, a little sugar might have helped but I'd just read the piece in NYTimes about how posionous sugar is that I am now working on the principle of two out of three ain't bad- it was nice and cold and it was pretty to look at.

So now I have a few homemade tonic drinks that I rotate, Roselle, a ginger and mint green tea and this red sugar cane with 'herbs'. They have become cold drink alternatives that I freeze and keep the fridge well stocked with that feels like I've gained some ground in the pushback against cans and plastic bottles and sugary chemical concotions and in the increased use of local and backyard plant material. The NYTimes had a piece a while back called Making Tea From Plants Grown in the Backyard which was not entirely positive, complaining that often the flavor was just plain not good or not there. If you're thinking of not just getting food from your backyard but also the occasional drink, the herbal decoctions described here might provide some clues on a different direction - it's not just about the leaves or a 'tea'- its a liqour made from a broader assortment of leaves, flowers, stems, fruits, nuts, seeds and roots.


Trend guru Li Edelkoort's horticultural magazine Bloom recently looked at color from nature as a source of inspiration. Color from flowers and plants was also part of her trend presentation for Summer 2012 called Earth Matters. If you're not quite ready to fling yourself into growing a dye garden filled with woad, indigo and madder  and do it yourself dyeing there's a small area of natural coloring that might be a closer reach - coloring your food with plant material.

There's the easy ones like turmeric and the not so well known ones like Perilla which the Japanese use to color vinegar and there's the blue pea flower pictured above that is used locally here to make a sweet glutinous rice cake an unusual food color - blue. There's also drinks, my recent discoveries include Roselle and another local recipe made from stewed sugar cane and the leaves of Rhoeo Discolor that turns out a pale purple. Beet juice, chive vinegar, spinach pastas, anything with berries- there's quite a few recipes to try.

Apart from turmeric and saffron which colors up strong, most natural plant dyes tend to impart a softer shade - materials are more likely to be tinged, imbued, tinted, or stained with color. See how the brilliant pea flower just lends the rice about half its vibrancy. And therein lies the rise of popularity of synthetic dyes which have the capability to create vivid, brilliant, saturated hues cheaply and with much less effort. But they aren't so cheap in the big picture when we see the toxic and carciogenic effects of these chemical processes exert their toll on the people who work in these industries.

If we are to move in the direction of non toxic natural plant color dyes then what we must begin to do is adjust our color tastes. Li Edelkoort is encouraging creatives, designers and product developers to re discover the tinctorial arts of plant coloring and use their skills to seduce consumers into more subtle vegetal shades.

Try some food coloring experiments this summer when the garden provides material and opportunity to create mindfulness of how color really works, naturally.  Colors as we see them in the garden are not something we can easily re create without the use of harmful chemical agents. Capturing nature, might be harming it. Colors safe enough to eat is a related concept with the prevalence of it in everyday food and drinks - its principal target and victim being children. Can we rearrange our heads to make responsible consumption, delicious? We really should.

Occasional Gardening

Finally, I can report some actual gardening. It's taken a while for me to get going. First I had to just take in what grows here - the links below will describe the source of some of my decisions. Then, I needed to figure out what I wanted to 'do' without really changing what is already here - ie enhancing the basic layout without disturbing the already established plants but with some kind of point of view. Most importantly - I had to find the plants. After a trip to a small garden center in our neighborhood and then one to a much larger one in a suburb of the city which also yielded some amazing ceramic pots at outrageously low prices, I had the material and some ideas to make that start.

We basically have a small front yard and a long side yard with a brick lined skinny border already full of some fairly large mature plants. There are however quite a few empty patches in between these larger plants and right in the middle of the side yard there is a small tiled area which is the site of the septic tank. This area is exactly outside the window where our dining table is and the window is visible the minute you turn the corner as you walk downstairs from the bedrooms. So ideas about what to 'do' crystallized around making this view more interesting - which it certainly is now, I walk downstairs in the morning and am drawn to the window to look out for a few minutes before I sit down for breakfast.

In the picture you see a couple of the  new design features I've added. On the left a large saucer like water pot planted with a Water Canna or Thalia dealbata, Pennywort and Water Lettuce. There'll be more waterpots to come - I hope to cover most of that tiled area - you can see where the idea for this came from here.

In the bare patches I've added foliage that have dark or purple tones- you can see in the picture Tradescantia Zebrina, Coleus and I've also got just out of the frame some Rheio Discolor and a tall stemmed Kaempferia. I've moved a few things around and also added some new things which are all in the ginger family inspired by my trip to the Ginger Garden - there's an unnamed ginger, a Costus, a different Globba, a Galangal ( Lengkuas) a Turmeric and hopefully the Black Turmeric I brought back from Rimbun Dahan will also take root. So there's a dark and ginger thing going on in this section.

I'll describe the other ideas and plants going on in other sections in further posts but just to sum the actual physical experience of gardening here in the tropics- boy, is it hard work if you have a lot do. Moving things around and planting a few things is sweat drenching labor. I think occasional gardening is maybe the only way to go about it and I have to guiltily admit, I got a fair amount of help from the maid. I also got a lot of help at the garden centers- the local one had an older Malay lady, the larger suburban one a young man from Myammar- both were fairly knowledgeable about growing conditions and end size and genuinely enthusiastic about showing me things as we zig zagged the property looking at different things.

Golden Gardenias

I was late for the garden tour at Rimbun Dahan which started at 9 am, in fact I pretty much missed all but the last 30 minutes or so. I joined it just as they were about to enter the Rumah Uda Manap which had gorgeous botanical decorative art - worthy of another post later. As I took off my shoes to enter the house I was struck by what was in the water pot at the foot of the stairs - flowers floating in the dark water, exquisite sculpted forms, in a saffron yellow color that was stunning.

To be honest, I didn't notice the garlands of the same flower strung up around the doorways until I got home and looked at the pictures later, but that's because there was so much to look at in the house and I was tuned into the narrative of our host Angela Hijjaas as she talked about the design elements and the details of its' thoughtful reconstruction. I loved that the house was also very much 'alive' being home to one of the current resident artists Jessica Watson. Kitchen towels were hung to dry and a pile of children's toys bore testimony to that as we also peered into one of the rooms which she used as a studio. See a video poem by a previous resident artist Mike Ladd.

There is still a little more of the garden tour left as Angela announces that we are going to go see the gardenias next. Ah, it's those saffron colored flowers. We stroll under a row of trees, Gardenia Carinata,  laced underfoot with flowers and take in the perfume from the flowers overhead. I pick up a bloom to sniff. Angela picks up and hands me a smaller, much paler bloom to explain that the flowers start almost white and then as they age, they darken and also lose their scent, barely having any by the time they fall to the ground. I bring both home and the younger bloom is still fragrant a day later. Almost a week later the older bloom, though dried and withered still holds on to some of that magnificent color.

The garden tour ends and we go into the gallery where there is an exhibition of the work by the resident artists created during their year at Rimbun Dahan. There's a large painting (combined with embroidery) by Jessica of the gardenias titled "Love in Bloom", a fitting bookend to my aquaintance with the Golden Gardenia. She captures that marvelous color and adds an interesting textural element with the embroidery on the leaves.

What began as a curiousity about what Angela and her architect husband Hijjas Kasturi are doing, through their their website (found incidentally on a random google search for indigenous malaysian plants) had become after this visit, a realization of the blend of philanthropy they extend to the artist community, their dedication to environmentalism and indigenous culture.  Can't wait for another opportunity to see more of their commendable efforts to combine art, environment and local culture in a meaningful and contemporary context which now extends beyond Rimbun Dahan with their new venture Hotel Penanga in Penang.

Yes, We Still Have Bananas

I read Dan Koeppel's article Yes we will have no Bananas when it came out back in 2008 and was struck most by this sentence - There are more than 1,000 varieties of bananas — most of them in Africa and Asia — but except for an occasional exotic, the Cavendish is the only banana we see in our markets. It explained something I sort of knew noticed grown up eating a variety of different kinds of bananas- something that I am reminded of again now that I'm back here in the tropics where there are so many different kinds of bananas available it's hard to keep track of their names.

The one pictured on the left is Pisang Mas (gold banana) and is easy to remember because of it's much smaller size- like little sausages. They also remind me of a similar banana that my grandmother liked which I vaguely remember being called Pisang Monyet (monkey) which had some discernible seeds and perhaps closer to the wild species. According to Dan Koeppel's blog the Pisang Mas is starting to become available in the US under the name Chiquita Mini.

Apart from looks, the flavors and textures are also different. I'll have to do a more thoughtful comparison of a few different ones another time but the Pisang Mas for example has a warmer, peachier color, much firmer texture and it's harder to peel. Combined with a local yogurt from Little India that is both thicker and saltier, it is altogether a delightfully more complex flavor combination than 'bananas and yogurt' might imply.

I almost always buy bananas from the night market from a certain Malay lady who has a small stall with produce from her own garden or as she replied to my question  about this- 'from the village (kampung)'. The other banana pictured is also from her, one that I am not familar with Pisang Embun (dew). This is an alternate universe from that described in the article where huge economies of scale are arrived at by only supplying one type of banana efficient to produce, uniform in quality and universally affordable....all the bananas in a shipment ripen at the same rate.

The main thrust of Koeppel's article is that this singularity of banana production is capable of wiping out the world's commercial crop because of vulnerablility to disease coming from the same gene pool, it's happened before in the 60's. The diversity found here, ensures that we might still have bananas in this part of the world when that happens. Hopefully the 'grow your own' movement might eventually catch on here as it has done in the US and we might  return to what was a common practise- growing bananas in our own backyards.

Ironically, where bananas were a staple in my NYC kitchen for the very reasons that are causing it's precarious situation- it was cheap, and easily available, I don't eat bananas as often here. The reason being -there are so many other options. I eat almost 3 times the amount of fruit I did in NYC -Mangoes, Jackfruit, Papaya, Mangosteens, the list goes on but bananas only when the Malay lady has a good looking batch on her table that week.


I'm working on a couple of side design projects that are local based and have been researching the Pepper plant, Piper Nigrum.  Historically pepper has been an important agricultural product in this state since the early nineteenth century, grown together with Gambier (as an under plant). Hence the recurrence of the design motif of Gambier and Pepper intertwined as a decorative element. It can be found in the borders of old lithographs, as well as ornamental ironwork on city street lamps and carved into stone and woodwork in public places and government buildings.

Coincidentally, I regularly see fresh green peppercorns sold at the market, so this week I buy a handful of the string of green beads, like little green bracelets, to get up close and personal with them. I taste a couple - they are exactly as you would imagine, with the flavor of black pepper but fresher, less harsh and vegetal as opposed to something woody. They would be great in a sauce, stir fried with something or pounded into a paste like the Thai green curry paste. I also drop some in hot water to see what happens-  they crinkle and turn black resembling the form I am more familiar with, which after drying in the sun, would be how they would be processed to become black pepper. The leaves are also used in Thai cuisine in stir fries.

Both the design projects have strong local identities, a journalist who writes extensively about the region and a non profit that provides the means for local disabled citizens to make a living making handicrafts (rattan, bookbinding) operating since 1952. The local Pepper and Gambier motif are a shoo-in to include in the design work for both but as I research, I struggle with the Gambier part, its a plant that has lost its significance in the modern world. It was used for tanning and dyeing and also as an ingredient in the antiquated habit of chewing sireh - slices of Betel nuts, Gambier a dab of chalk, rolled in a Betel leaf.

Pepper on the other hand remains an important crop, even enjoying an increased popularity and record prices. I also happen to discover that there are pepper farms being added to the Bio Desaru Organic Food Valley, a government initiative to encourage more up to date agricultural (green) principles and (bio) technology. Pepper, besides it's stake in the state of Johor's history, will play a role in it's future. I abandon Gambier for my projects and focus on Pepper, it's modern day relevance adds meaning to it's historical and spicy connotations.

A few weeks ago I also happen to discover Black Pepper essential oil in Singapore and really, really liked it. Unlike the usual associations of pepper being an irritant and sneeze inducing, the oil has a stimulating, uplifting quality.  They also have oils from other local plants Kaffir Lime, Nutmeg, Turmeric, Ginger that I'm eager to try out. I used to make my own ointment with Oregano, Lavender, Calendula and Plantain essential oils - now it's time to configure a more appropriate tropical version and Black Pepper oil which has some interesting properties will definitely be in the mix.

How strange, I've never really been a big fan of Black Pepper, it's always a no when the waiter hovers with the pepper grinder and I rarely use it in cooking and here I am all peppered up.


What on earth are those strange alien squid like things? I thought the first time I saw them at the night market. Weeks later I see a photo of it in a cafe garnishing a drink called Roselle. It's Hibiscus Sabdariffa, the strange  squid shape is the calyx of the flower. The drink which I of course had to try, was just 'ok', nothing to write home about, the garnish was perhaps a pickled calyx- weird.

The last time I was in Singapore however, I bought a bottled drink in Chinatown from a 'tonic drink' vendor - labeled Roselle and Hawthorn and it was a much different experience - a 'wow' that's  thirst quenching, tasty goodness. When I saw alien squids available at the night market last week, I bought a half kilo to try. Researching this a little further, I discover that it is also known as Jamaican Sorrel so I proceed with the processing- boiling lightly but adding a little fresh ginger, per the Jamaican method. The result: 'wow'. On tasting it I thought, mint in this would be nice, which I discover, along with vanilla is how the Senegalese prepare it, called Bissap.

The homemade version without any sugar is more fruit juice like than a tea - somewhat cranberry like in flavor which jives with another of it's monikers Florida Cranberry. The color of the liquid is also gorgeous, a red somewhere between beet and blackcurrant juice.  It tastes and looks like something that's awfully good for you and it apparently is, being rich in antioxidants and high in calcium, niacin, riboflavin and iron. I wonder if using the dried version is as good, it's a main component of Red Zinger tea which is not a favorite of mine.

Although I haven't seen it before in these parts, according to Edible & Medicinal Flowers By Margaret Joan Roberts, recorded use of the edibility of the plant was documented in Java around 1862, so it's indigenous to the region. It has a local name Assam Susur and it's name implies that it is  considered a sour fruit which usually means its used in cooking for that property but I don't see it's inclusion in, or recipes for it. I did find however that Ulicha Keerai or Gongura  leaves are used in Tamil and Andra Pradesh cuisine, althouth its not quite the same plant but a close relative Hibiscus Cannabinus. The leaves are also used in Myammar cuisine where it's called Chin Baung Ywet.

The plant itself is quite pretty, it reminds me of that Red Okra I planted a couple of years ago which is not surprising as they are both in the Mallow family.  The obvious next step is to try planting the seeds, there's an empty corner in the flowerd bed where a few might look really good and of course there's all these culinary things to do with it -check out this Roselle Granita.

Chinese New Year Flora

Chinese New Year is about a week away. Chinatown in Singapore is transformed, there is peach blossom everywhere, the bright pink fake kind and crystal peach blossom lights have sprouted from the trees. The night market has increased tenfold, the crowds fiftyfold shopping for new year um, stuff. I survive the crush to buy myself some gaudy ang pow envelopes, gold peonies on red and bright gold metallic peach blossoms.

Much like Christmas trees, the cool temperate botanic symbols of this festive season just don't grow here in the tropics. Except the pineapple. Much of the symbolism of things here come from the double entendre of their meaning, so Wong Lai which means pineapple also means 'yellow(gold) arrives'.  I discovered this when I asked why there were all these red and yellow paper pineapples festooning the restaurant we were dining in the other night. My dad came home from the market with a Pomelo today, a type of grapefruit, with another word play - 'to have'. There's also the kumquat - also 'gold'. The symbolism can of course be literal, like the bearing of fruit hence the local supermarket stocking up on huge potted fruit laden mini mandarin orange trees for 29.99. I was sorely tempted, I'll wait till after new years when they are on sale.

Coincidentally I found a book the other day Chinese Plant Symbolisms which I look forward to perusing but a quick peek to see if there was anything in particular about New Year yielded a surprise, an entire chapter on anti demon plants. New Year is a time for exorcism of demons apparently and useful botanic material for that include garlic, peach and bamboo. The spiritual roots of this Taoist festival is more about Yin and Yang, the eternal struggle between good and evil, and not so much about it's modern drive for luck and prosperity.

An interesting bit of trivia, bamboo used to be burned because  it crackled and made explosive noises, which both frightened demons away and aroused the yang of spring- now substituted with red firecrackers.

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