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.

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