Painterly Whites

The ribs on the Caladium Lindenii pictured left, look like they're painted on. In the background of the picture on the right, what looks like green paint spattered on white paper is Diffenbachia Star Bright I think, hard to tell with so many variations that look quite similar. The papery leaves in the foreground with the broad watercolor stripes belong to variegated Arrowroot, Maranta Arundinacea, possibly my favorite of this trio.

I inherited these guys from my parents garden, which along with a collection of fragrant white flowered plants, I started organizing into a 'white corner'. To be honest the situation was not ideal- too hot and sunny for these shade lovers, the plan was to get some larger plants and some climbers to protect them. It took a while for that to happen so in the meantime it was virtually plant abuse as I would forget and find them bone dry, scorched which would lead to yellowing and brown edges. Not Pretty.

Things are better now, there's a fair amount of dappled shade. A few repottings have also happened which with regular mulching with compost keeps them in good shape. In return the corner is looking good, these variegated whites provide an illusion of being icy cool- its a joy to catch a glimpse of them on a hot sunny day. At night there's an added etherealness to their appearance which in combination with the evening perfume of the many scented white flowers gives this spot a unique personality of its own.

Now that I have this section and my eye catches white flowered or white variegated plants when I'm plant shopping or just browsing online, its quite extraordinary how many plant there are that fit into this category. Just as I was surprised to discover a while ago the prevalence of white in the fall garden at NYBG and Cape Cod, I'm now finding the same in tropical plants. What a huge range of perfumed white flowered and white variegated leaves there are - many of them native to this part of the world.

The problem still remains that this spot is pretty exposed and can get very hot and dry except in its deepest corner which is where these painterly whites are currently thriving. Next week I'm going to do some moving around, repotting and fence repair so who knows I might end up with a little expansion of this space.

Craftsman's Garden

This was my second visit to the garden at the National Craft Center in Kuala Lumpur. I had returned primarily to take another look at the garden having been really impressed with its design on my first visit. The visit reiterated my original impressions of the garden being not only well designed but uniquely suited to the purpose of the center to celebrate Malaysian handicrafts.

The garden is not large, inhabiting space between buildings at the complex with a few small artisan cottage studios at its center where artisans work and sell their wares. That in itself is instructional in garden design - what it manages to pack in this small space is extraordinary - a small stream, a pool, lush plantings and an interesting variety of hardscapes that lead the visitor through the artisanal commune, see the album of photos.

Not only are the hardscapes interesting and visually compelling, the collection of assorted earthen containers, large driftwoods and boulders are completely in keeping with the spirit of the center as a craftman's haven. Its hard to tell sometimes if they belong to the garden or are waiting to be worked on by an artisanal hand or just completed by one. The terracota pots have grooves and grids that collect moss and the logs and driftwoods add extraordinary visual texture. There's always a knowing mix of geometric forms and patterns juxtaposed with organic ones like gnarly roots and paving stones, or a pile of boulders and a twisted trunk set against the decorative grid of air bricks.

The color palette is masterful. There are painted surfaces in a warm ochre that resonate with the terracotta and ceramic pots as well as picking up shades in the boulders and pebbles. The grayer shades of the stones are in tune with the gray of bark and driftwoods pickled and bleached by the equatorial sun.

Its surprising how well these colors look combined with a lush green tropical planting. The colors are are also cleverly knitted together in the design, bright green moss in the grooves of the terracota and the hollows of driftwood or wrapped around pebbles. The ochres are picked up in the color of coconuts or foliage as they yellow and clumps of yellow stemmed bamboo. The green color is also purposefully limited to foliage - largely ferns, palms and bamboos, with little to no flowers to be seen.

It happened to thunderstorm quite heavily during my visit which revealed yet more layers to the design. Water thundered down gutters and splashed in the pools and small stream and bounced of large leaved plants providing an audio sensory experience unique to this part of the world - when it rains here - it really rains.  There was movement - large bamboos and skinny palm swayed and the rain rendered erratic staccato movements to the leaves. There was also the added glossy textures and darker colors that the rain also brings.

A measure of a beautifully designed garden is to want to visit it again, and I certainly do and the other is whether it inspires to find ways of incorporating its ideas into your own garden and I certainly will.

Autumn Leaves, Sort of

Now that I am living in an endless tropical summer I realize how much an ever changing temperate environment drives you forward into new cycles of activity or states of mind.  The longing for warm summer days, the thrill of fall in New York City when everyone is back from their summer sojourns, the inertia of winter and for gardeners the rush of a new growing season.

I have come to the realisation however that the botanical changes that define each season from bud to flower and fruit and then bare branches is something that happens here too - just not in synchronicity. Take the visual spectacle of autumn leaves happening now in northern temperate countries that will soon crescendo into a glorious show of color . The science of why that is happening, is happening here too except for slightly different reasons and in an unorchestrated way.

We have here, leaves going through the same end of life process, yellowing and turning brown as well as an anthocyanin fueled range of oranges and red that happen as a biological strategy to protect new emerging leaves from the hot tropical sun. So we are seeing this palette of colors thoughout the year, not in a huge burst  but in a continual cycle that layers into all the other typically green leaf colors.

Pictured right is one I see all the time, young red leaves of the Wild Cinammon, Cinnamomum Iners that is almost weed like if given a chance. On the left, a tree that I see everyday walking the dogs and have yet to identify is almost constantly in this state of autumnal color. Another, that has become endemic in our landscape, since it is a favorite of local municipal landscapers and private homes as a easy to grow hedge, Syzygium Myrtifolium. Almost everywhere we see the burnished oranges and reds of its new growth.

Yesterday, when I took these photos in my neighborhood, it was late afternoon just after a heavy shower. I enjoy a slight microclimate here being slightly elevated and in close proximity to a  small forest, a heavy shower at a cooler time of day will elicit a slight mist. The mist, occasional piles of leaf fall, short bursts of autumn leaf color as described above and and I couldn't help but be transported back to the memory of autumn walks in New York City and Westchester. Minus of course the chill and the slight dread about where this colorful autumn road will eventually lead.

The Patient Path

In the last few weeks, the stone path I laid in the dark verandah has finally 'clicked'. It's taken the best part of a couple of years. It's a short path that takes you from the concrete verandah, through the border and an opening in the bamboo fence. I found most of the 'stones' in the orchard where I think many years ago some renovation had occured and these broken pieces ended up being disposed there. They are really chunks of cement and gravel but having been laying around for years in the cooler shade of the orchard, had become mossy.

Having transferred and laid them, which took a few tries to get right, their new site was a little sunnier than what they were used to and the mossiness started to fade. I planted Hemigraphis Alternata and Peacock Ginger, Kaemferia Elegans on one side and Piper Betel on the other. Every few weeks I bought a bag full of Centella Asiatica from the farmers market (sold as a salad green but still with roots on) and stuffed them into all the spaces in between. They were all slow to take and sulky. Both the Hemigraphis and Kaemferia elegans would disappear and return again in a slighty different spot.

Now, some of the stones are lush with moss, the Hemigraphis like a multi hued purple wave lapping this mossy shore. The Kaemferia's complex patterned leaves is regularly accented with a shot of purple flower. The Betel leaves are a vibrant lime color punctuated by the darker green of a Pennywort, Hydrocotyle Ranunculoides self seeded from a nearby pot. The path instead of leading your eye out, now with all these textures and colors, holds your interest and even encourages you to stop to crouch and take a closer look.

The change happened as I started to fill the verandah with more and larger plants. I also put in a bamboo grid arbour- more about that later, both of these have created a significant change in the amount of shade this path  now receives. It's almost been a lesson in Zen, there I was thinking that I was patiently waiting for all these plants to get their act together and all this time it was them waiting for me to create the conditions that now makes them thrive.

Malay Apples

In the last few years of living in New York City I tried consciously to eat more seasonally which was all well and good in the summer months but as the seasons progressed into the colder months the selection would inevitably thin to root vegetables and apples. I ate a lot of apples. But then I did love going down to the farmers market at Union square and filling up my backpack with them.

Here now in the tropics there are no heirloom apples to be found - just the bright red or green homogenous supermarket varieties - Granny Smiths and Red Delicious from Australia and New Zealand. Their perfectly shiny uniformity lack the attraction I found in the odd shaped Braeburns and Cox Pippins with their more complex tangy flavors and hard crunch.

I miss them but I also I don't primarily because there is so much other fruit here and I might add, incredible fruit at that.  Can't complain when there are four or five different kinds of Mangoes, Bananas and Pineapples available in its place, pretty much year round.

There is however a kind of substitute in Malay apples or Water Apples or Java apples. Not actually an apple or related to apples but in the Syzygium, Myrtle family (which includes Cloves):  Syzygium malaccense and Syzygium samarangense or Syzygium javanicum. Never quite sure which is which, they come either green pink or red in either a longish shape like the one pictured above or shorter and plumper and sometimes more fluted.

There is a crunch when you first bite into them but the sensation quickly shifts into a spongier texture so it doesn't really do what the much denser apple does. There is much variation in flavor in every batch from bland watery to sweet and tart but always with a faint rose scent. Better to get them from a regular reliable source, and there's a local fruit farm grows them organically and often has them for sale at the night market in Pelangi.

Growing up, our neighbour had a tree growing in their yard and we often were climbing  it to score a few fruit to take home and eat as the locals do here with a sauce of dark soy and sugar. It remains a good way to flesh out its flavor profile. In New York I did something similar mixing soy sauce, lime juice and Peanut butter as a dressing for apples in a salad.

I'm not tempted to grow the tree myself as I've seen many a sad looking tree full of fruit - too much perhaps with much of it ending up rotting on the ground. At Desaru fruit farm- how they grow it organically is to barrier protect by wrapping each individual fruit with a physical barrier, that's too much work. I'll stick with buying them at the market, which also means I get to cycle through the slightly different varieties.

They don't do well in the fridge, better eaten up quickly before they bruise and soften but on a hot day a couple of refrigerated ones are just the thing to snack on for a little cool respite. Here's where their lack of density actually works in their favor as you can do this a few times a day.


Tropical Chocolate

Its amazing how a few small changes can substantially change the look of a garden. A few new acquisitions for the Dark Verandah have done exactly that. Last saturday on my usual hunt at the farmers market, I found not one but two chocolate colored coleus. Week after week this one vendor would have coleus but always in brighter colors of reds and pinks, then this week he had these two - a ruffled chocolate edge one and one with chocolate splashes.

Having had some experience now with the shifting personalites of Coleus I'm going to keep these two in pots and in heavier shade. I've found that shade keeps the lime colors greener (they seem to get more yellow in sun) and the chocolate, darker (they get redder in sun).  Keeping them in pots will allow me to move them around to where they keep the color values I like best. I must also propagate frequently as they wax and wane quite dramatically left to their own devices.

Yesterday on a visit to an orchid farm, I found a couple of pots of the black cordyline pictured above left. I think its Cordyline Fruticosa Black Magic, and what I really like about it is that it does not have red or pink tones that I frequently see in Cordylines for sale here. This one is largely black with some green. The nursery owner was reluctant to sell it, but thankfully I convinced him to part with one of those two plants.

I've had the Christia Obcordata for while, with its pretty chocolate striped leaves that look like butterfly wings. I'd been keeping it in the shade thinking that's what it liked. Although it continued to grow, it remained spindly until a few weeks ago I moved the pot into the bed where its a little shaded by a neighbouring plant but does get some sunshine. It quite literally transformed, doubling its size and becoming an important feature with its unusual coloring shape and pattern.

So a nice boost to my chocolate palette and a little further along the learning curve on how to manage this palette better by playing musical chairs, moving these potted beauties around. 

Riverine Wilderness

A while ago, I visited Tanjung Piai, a listed Ramsar site, ie a wetland of international importance. To be honest, it was depressing. Poorly maintained, you could see from the boardwalks, garbage tangled in the mangrove roots. There was a stench that distracted from the beauty of the surrounding flora and as soon as you reached the coast edge, the horizon had a line of tankers en route to nearby Singapore and beyond. The fluctuations in tidal waves they create erode the shrinking coast, their illegal dumping of toxic sludge poison it further. It was hard to connect with this wilderness without being horrified at the obvious threat that it was facing.

Recently I visited another wetland closer to the city at Kampung Sungai Temon where there is a community of indigenous people called Orang Seletar. Instead of a boardwalk, we went in small boats that they skilfully navigated in and out of the forest. The experience here was quite different. The environment seemed healthy. There was no stench, the water clean, crabs scuttled all over the trunks of trees and the rich diversity of this particular wilderness came alive.

Besides the tangled roots that are iconic of these forest there were also stands of trees that just looked like a forest in a flood or submerged at high tide. Occasionally there would be sightings of rattan palms, a mangrove in bloom or a fruit that the Orang Seletar would tell us was edible or used for medicine. They showed us where they caught shrimp and fish, their trained eyes picked out birds and monkeys that they thought would interest us. This was really different. The longer we were there the more the environment became familiar and we understood the deep bond this community of indigenous people have with it.

When we headed back for lunch at the village, I talked with our guide, the son of the village penghulu or leader. He described how their catch was shrinking, how some species of flora were disappearing or harder to find. Their traditional livelihood of subsistence now requires supplementatiom with work in nearby urban factories or as guides for visitors like us. They own one of the two restaurants in the village that draws the city folk to enjoy fresh caught seafood in a rustic setting. All this was fine they said but they were visibly upset that they were under threat of being relocated.

The area is not gazetted and targeted for development. The community is fighting their eviction orders which you can see stresses them. They just want to be left alone to carry on the way of life they have always enjoyed just as the environment that sustains them wants the same.  It is sad to think that this beautiful riverine wilderness, is something that I have only recently become acquainted with and will shortly mourn its loss.

Painted Nettle

The painted nettle or Coleus has become a favorite in my garden. Although still much in use, the name Coleus is apparently defunct and should properly be called Solenostemon scutellarioides. Can't say I'm adjusting to that terribly well. In the Dark Verandah garden the few that I've planted there have become important color accents adding shots of lime or splashes of yellow or adding dark chocolates and charred purples to the dark theme.

They also grow fairly vigorously so quickly fill the many blank spaces in in the border that desperately need filling. This growth habit is also part of its challenge, as soon as a gorgeous stand takes to take shape, it starts to fall apart. They start to fall over, the leaves that have started to get huge start to be replaced by much smaller ones as the plant starts to take issue with an environment that it seemed to be perfectly happy with before.

They don't all do this, the purply one is guilty of the above and I've learnt to just get into the rhythm of simply snapping a healthy branch and sticking it into the ground and voila a new generation arrives to replace the one that's petering out. This one also complains if it gets a little too sunny and being my first purchase I assumed that this was the case for all Coleus but that's not true.

The maroon one with the pink splashes is quite the opposite. It was doing just ok in a pot in shade and I moved it to a really sunny spot, and forgot all about it. I found it a changed character a week later, thriving twice its size in its new favored spot. Of all the coleus, the large spikes of violet blue flowers of this plant are the most handsome, partly perhaps because of its strong contrast to its red hued leaves.

The splotchy one top right, has been a crowd stopper pulling as many admirers as any flower I've ever known. Regular requests for cuttings perhaps is the key to its success as it remains growing steadily without any crazy spurts, happily enjoying its sunny position. It's also done something odd. One of the cuttings has mutated into a plant that doesn't have the burgundy splotches but is attractive in its own right being just lime and yellow. Fine with me as it looks almost like a completely different variety.

Its actually been difficult to find them in colors I like, many for sale are too gaudy a mix of pinks and greens that don't fit with what I have in mind. You can practically hear my squeal of delight when I see one for sale that does with my palette of greens, yellows and darks. I covet the delicious colors I see on foreign seed catalogues and will soon resort to ordering from them. For now, a friend who has gone on vacation in the US has promised to look for seeds for the black coleus that I used to have and I must admit the thrill of the hunt on Saturdays to the farmers market to find a new one, like the one a I got a couple of weeks ago with the bright lime spot in the middle, is a fun addiction.

Coleus are also native to this region and therefore perfect for the dark verandah where I want to showcase as many natives as possible. Thankfully their wonderful colors helps to provide the balance that is sometimes missing in tropical gardens as native plants tend to be more about foliage than flowers. This explains the the immense popularity of brightly flowered tropical South American species like heliconias that now dominate gardens here. Here in my garden they help draw the eye to the interesting textural and sculptural values of the the other tenants.

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