The Standing Stones of Armenia - Zorats Karer
On our second last day in Armenia we came to an extraordinary sight - a circle of ancient standing stones in a field. There was nobody there, no fences, no queues, no entry fee - just the magnificent sight of ancient stones standing in a high and lonely field, surrounded on all sides by snow capped mountains. We simply walked across the field of long grass and there they were. Some call them the Armenian Stonehenge, but Armenians call them Zorats Karer. There are parallels however with Stonehenge as both involve standing stones in grassy fields. Both are believed to be star charts, used by ancient civilisations and both have stones that line up with soltices and equinoxes. There is speculation that this site dates back as far as the 6th Milleneum B.C. and these have been called speaking stones because on windy days the sound of whistling emanates from the man made holes in the stones fashioned from the distant past.
Like Stonehenge these standing stones are completely shrouded in mystery, but in Armenia high up in the mountains, they are also often shrouded in mist. And this coupled with such isolation lends a particularly mystical atmosphere, especially when they 'speak'.
It wasn't only the standing stones - Zorats Karer - which remained from ancient civilisations once present in Armenia, but also the Celtic patterns carved into very old wood and stone. Celtic crosses in old cemeterys, and the distinctive interlacing and intricate patterns carved into old wooden monastery doors. And it wasn't just the odd one, but many. Similarities between the carved crosses and celtic patterns of Scotland and Armenia, is perhaps not so accidental remembering that over 1000 years ago Armenia was on the ancient silk route and at the height of the Armenian Empire it's borders spread as far as the Mediterranean Sea. Also remembering there was much travel and commerce between east an west, but in which direction did the influence flow? Armenians like to think it was from East to West. Nevertheless, it was unbelievable to see these ancient Celtic carved patterns which I had always thought were unique to the celts of Scotland, Ireland and Wales, here in this eastern land of Armenia, surrounded on almost all sides by Islam. It made me wonder how much religion, craftsmenship and ideas were once shared between East and West. Sadly, not today!
Another precious commodity which travelled from East to West were Tulips. Eastern countrys including old Armenia, Persia and Turkey were the original home of the tulip. It wasn't till the 16th Century that tulip bulbs found their way to Europe in the bags of early explorerers, and by the early 17th Century they had become a highly fashionable flower in European gardens. By 1600, Dutch growers had established nurseries specialising in cultivating tulips and it is around this time that tulipmania began. A brief spectacular time when bulb traders could earn the equivalent of $60,000 for a single bulb!
Knowing the history of the tulip made it all the more exciting when we came across a superb colony of them growing in the wild the day before we were due to cross the border to Iran. At the 11th hour our trusty guides, Chris and Tamar spotted them up a rocky cliff. But we weren't the only ones to discover this abundance of tulips, as the locals knew of this spot too. Like mountain goats, they had climbed up to the top of this rocky cliff-face, to places most of us could never reach, and were coming down with their booty. Bucket loads of wild tulips to be sold! Bulbs and all! We wondered at the desecration of such botanical treasure which seemed to be open slather to all. Was there no protection of such a precious resource? But why should there be, we realised, as Armenia had more important things to think about - such as survival, and even if in our view, it seemed very short-sighted, to many Armenians, tulips from the wild were there for the taking and meant a living. And despite plundering the tulips this year, they know they will be back in abundance next year. In fact they thought nothing of generously giving away in typical Armenian style, bunches of their lucrative tulips to us!
But there were still enough tulips left for a few crazy botanists to clamber up cliff faces to examine and photograph. They were all bright red and yellow tulips, similar to the shapely garden tulip. Botanical names? Red - Tulipa sosnowskyi. Yellow - Tulipa florenskyi
At the 11th hour what could be better than this tulip feast, but we weren't finished yet in Armenia. Though this time it wasn't tulips. After winding our way down towards the Iran border through beautiful emerald forest, we encountered in a rocky valley the impressive thistle Jurinella speciosus. From a distance I thought it was a pink cactus Dahlia growing out of the rock walls, but it was actually an Armenian native thistle, and very decorative it was - just like a Dahlia!
The next day we set off early to cross the Aras river which forms the border between Armenia and Iran, sadly without Chris! Because Chris was travelling under a British passport, he was seen as an undesirable in Iran as were the 2 Canadians in our party, so we had to wave them good-bye at the border. But thank goodness we still had our spunky little Armenian guide, Tamar, with us, as we ventured a little nervously over the border. We were pleased to have her as we went through border formalities and on to meet our Iranian botanist and guide, Jalil who was waiting for us on the Iranian side.
As Chris had predicted the landscape changed almost as soon as we entered Iran. The mountains and hills began to open out into vast plateaus and the high snowy peaks were further back into the distance ringing the plains. The lush forested mountains and gorges of Armenia gave way to drier plains, and a more agricultural landscape. There were many apricot orchards which we had also seen in Armenia, as well as mile upon mile of agricultural land which consisted mainly of crops.
There were many different species of Poppies to be found thriving on the stony hillsides of Iran, but none to be found that I could see, amongst the stunningly striped Gypsophyllus Hills. This great range of pointy yet rounded hills in richly coloured layers of red and grey was an amazing sight. Yet although we wandered up and down, around and around I don't remember seeing wild flowers amongst these moundy stripey hills. It's as though the Gypsophylus Hill are enough unto themselves and do not need to co-exist with flowers. Although wild flowers are there on the lower slopes and surrounding fields.
Hollyhocks! Everybody leapt out of vehicle to photograph these elegant white beauties growing along the side of the road - Alcea striata. Close up each petal of each single flower was delicately marked white on white with transparent and opaque white stripes. And a different sort of Iris paradoxa standing up like white candles on a hillside. They did have rather a truncated look though with their brown reduced falls.
More hills to climb as we skirted this high plain on the way to Tabriz, but this time we made our way up through soft pink flowery mounds.
On the road to Tabriz we passed through one of many villages where people were living in mud brick houses built in the old tradition from time immemorial. Through the narrow dusty streets of this decaying traditional old village, we encountered the quite unexpected sight of adolescent village boys racing around on noisy shiny motor bikes!
We were delighted to find just beyond the village beautiful fields of wild flowers alongside a stream
On the other side of the stream we were dazzled by masses of Anchusa azurea - and azure they certainly were. The brightest blast of blue I have seen for a long time. They were interspersed with tall pale yellow spikes of flower which reminded me of lupin. Nothing as common as the yellow lupin, of course. But they could have been Pedicularis comosa or Phlomoides laciniata
Botanising in ArmeniA
I found myself in Armenia and Iran because of a book - a large, and visually beautiful book titled Flora of the Silk Road. Jointly written with photographs by botanists, Christopher and Basak Gardner, it is a fascinating pictorial story with stunning photographs of the landscapes and the plants and flowers growing in their natural habitats throughout the countries which make up the fabled Silk Road.
Chris and Basak also organise botanical trips through their company, 'Vira Natura' and a trip to Armenia and Iran was coming up soon. Unable to resist botanical journeys to exotic and far flung places, I knew this would be an opportunity not to be missed, especially after reading about the rich botanical habitats, history and cultures of these countries. My friends, Penny and Jane thought so too, so we all went to discover "Armenia and Iran - Irises and Ancient Art".
Armenia is renowned as one of the worlds botanical hotspots, and when we arrived from an early New Zealand winter, it was late spring there - perfect for Irises, Fritillarias and all manner of late spring flowers growing in the wild.
We all cried stop - stop to our driver, as we flashed past this lovely field of wildflowers. There were poppies galore almost as far as the eye could see, but it was the tall spikes of bright blue flowers in this particular field which stopped us in our tracks. Looking like Larkspur or Delphinium it's botanical name is Consolida orientalis. Part of the natural background shrubbery includes the striking silver foliage of Eleagnus angustifolia, known as the Russian Olive.
Situated at the southern end of the Caucasus, on a high mountain plateau, this tiny country is overflowing with the grandeur of stunning and diverse mountain landscapes.
New Zealand is not the only beautiful country in the world!
In Armenia we encounter majestic craggy mountain ranges, and deep wide river valleys all within a country only two thirds the size of Canterbury. Though there are no coastal lowlands or evergreen flora, as in New Zealand, there is a great diversity of plant habitat. Sandwiched between Georgia to the north, and Azerbaijan to the east with the giants Turkey to the west and Iran to the south, Armenia straddles Asian and European plant habitats and this along with the influences of a temperate climate to the north and a Mediterranean climate to the south means it is caught in a rich botanical cross current, unlike New Zealand's farflung islands isolated in the south pacific ocean.
But this was not all. There were different forms of Corydalis, Anenome, Lathyrus, Allium, Primula and much more. And there seemed to be sheets of yellow Primula almost every day. And one day up a rocky cliff we were amazed to see a swathe of Dictamnus albus, a treasured garden plant if you can get it to grow. So to see it growing in such a lush and fulsome way in the wild is a rare treat indeed and so worth the scramble up a rocky bank to find and photograph it. Another day, I was delighted to see Eremurus - only once, and just the pale yellow form, but still exciting to see growing in the wild.
There is so much more to be said about Armenia - the mysterious standing stones, the celtic patterns carved into the stone and the age old wooden doors looking as authentic today as they did centuries ago. The natural forests of the south, the apricot orchards, and many more plant and flower species growing in the wild, including tulips - oh the tulips! There will be more, so watch this space.
Such is Armenia today, a small jewel of a land between east and west, north and south full of the wonders of nature and botanical beauty.
For several years, I had been reading Noel's regular articles in the english 'Gardens Illustrated' magazine, and always liked what he had to say. So when I read that he was to lead a tour to the Gardens of the Northern Dutch Provinces in July 2013, including a workshop with Piet Oudolf in Piet's own garden at Hummelo, I knew this was something I shouldn't miss. Especially as I was sorely in need of inspiration, following damage to my garden after a series of earthquakes. When I shared this information with my garden friend, Penny Zino, she was a definite starter, as she too, had been thinking about making some changes to her large country garden. So together we enrolled for the tour and it exceeded all expectations for both of us.
We saw for real, the perennial and grass meadows we had previously only read about and were inspired.
It wasn't only the gardens, it was the people we met as well, the clever and eccentric gardeners of Northern Holland including the modest and unassuming Piet Oudolf. We felt English gardens had some catching up to do!
It was Noel and his wife Jo travelling each day with us, who we really became acquainted with. Despite our invitations for Noel and Jo to come and visit us in New Zealand, he was rather half-hearted, although there was a definite spark in Jo's eye.
Noel felt New Zealand was too far away, and wasn't the native flora -well - boring, with little floral content and virtually no perennial colour? All true we had to admit, but there are lots of other advantages we insisted - like the primeval quality of our native vegetation, and spectacular landscape. Was there a spark of warmth developing in Noels eye after all?
There must have been, because four years later here they are! For a whole month on their way to the Melbourne Conference, and Noel, in spite of past doubts, does seem interested in discovering native plant communities in New Zealand, despite the lack of native perennials.
And in this image above, Noel and Jo are doing just that. Even though spaced out by jet-lag, they were keen to discover New Zealands unique vegetation, so we headed to the nearby Christchurch Botanic Gardens, just for a taste of native. Even though this photo was not taken in original native forest but at the Botanic Gardens at one of the entrances to the Cockayne Memorial Native Plant Collection, this garden does give a feel of native plant communities growing in the wild.
But they were to discover brighter and better as they headed off for the weekend discovering gardens and native plant communities on idyllic Banks Peninsula, before tootling south in their 'Jucy' campervan.
Just as they begin their adventures, cyclone Gita which has been trawling around the South Pacific creating mayhem in it's wake, is about to hit central New Zealand. They will need to avoid central and western areas for a few days. to escape the worst of the cyclone, but I hope that eventually they will be able to head to the wild West Coast where hundreds of miles of some of the best of New Zealand native forests and plant communities can be found growing in the wild. We wish them well.
It is now summer - January 2018 - and Lily's are flowering and flourishing in the garden like never before!
The tulips have long had their day along with other spring flowers, as well as early summer flowers and also the roses which are well over. My mini prairie garden is coming into it's own as summer perennials start to flower, rising up between the grasses. But dominant amongst these are the lily's, particularly the lily pictured above. I have no idea what it is called or what area of the lily family it comes from. All I know is that it is very tall and impressive, and it's the first time it has ever flowered like this with many multiple heads on a strong single stem.
Starting with tulips in September, then the Tree Peony in October along with Irises, Geums, Hemerocallis and Wisteria reaching into November spring changes into early summer and roses. Need I say more!
My last post was about planting bulbs - I think mainly tulip bulbs. Can I just say that those bulbs have long since flowered!! Amazingly, as for so long nothing happened, and even when a few green tips start to appear through the ground they seem so small and few - where are those 50 bulbs I planted? I despair thinking nothing will ever happen. But gradually the the green tips multiply and the foliage fills out and develops until the bare soil is almost covered with green. Eventually stems with buds rise up through the strong rosettes of foliage and I heave a sigh of relief after all that anxiety. Perhaps there will be tulips after all. And there are - just exactly what I had ordered - 100 'Temples Favourite' standing up huge, orange and blowsy on their long stems. But now that it is November they have long since gone and much of their foliage has died away too, and is fast being covered over with iris, day-lily, geum and other perennial foliage, so that there is practically no trace left of their flamboyance. l do try to protect and prolong their fading foliage where I can as this is what feeds the bulbs encouraging them to flower the following year.
Meanwhile this lush Tree Peony starts to flower, so tulips are soon forgotten in the face of this fleeting beauty. It's quality rather than quantity in it's apricot short lived beauty. And before we know it things are happening thick and fast in the spring garden.
I planted 100 tulip bulbs last week. 'At the end of June?' you might exclaim. 'Thats far too late?'
Not for me. I always plant my bulbs late, and they come up and flower in spring just like everybody elses.
My small prairie style garden is so thickly planted with perennials and grasses that even at bulb planting time in Autumn, it's impossible to see where there could be be spaces for any bulbs.
I must wait until this abundance has gone before I can see where to fit in bulbs. As I no longer do the big autumn clean up in order to appease my tidy mind, decaying foliage is allowed to linger through winter and the garden to die back in it's own time. I've grown to like a bit of messiness, and am learning to appreciate not only autumn seedheads but also the structure and shapes of last summers detritus. I merely snip away a little bit here and there when something looks too dreary - like frosted droopy Dahlia foliage. That way the winter clean up is a gradual process, which can last through to at least the shortest day or even spring.
While Dahlia foliage looks sad and droopy, the seedheads of the Lychnis chaledonica 'Maltese Cross' are golden and beautiful adding height to the garden on their tall bare stems. Canna lily foliage (see pic). too, adds height and structure to the fading garden with it's tan-brown crispy foliage. I shall enjoy that for a while yet before cutting it back.
So it's not until the garden finally begins to look empty (see below), when most of last summers detritus as been cut back, that I can see spaces to plant the bulbs. Even then it will be difficult because beneath this apparently bare earth, there are tufty fibrous roots from summer flowering perennials which I must squeeze the bulbs between. Also I have to try and dodge lily bulbs and tulip bulbs which have survived from last year all hiding themselves below the ground. The new bulbs could easily find themselves planted over the top of last years bulbs or even worse, sliced in half by my trowel, probing and digging around trying to find space for a new bulb.
In this garden behind the cottage I have planted together 25 'Ronaldo' which are a rich dark burgundy tulip and 25 Pink Diamond, a soft pale pink tulip which should complement the claret, pinks and blue colours of this garden.
But it's quite a different story for the front garden - see below. Here I have planted 50 'Temples Favourite' - a perfect tulip for my prairie style garden because it's tall strong stems will force their way up through the grasses, and it's large orange blooms sing with the bronze Carex buchananii
Two weeks ago I walked through the very last of the golden weather early in the morning in Hagley Park. Winter sunlight was filtering through an avenue of trees casting long shadows across grass and pathways and the leaves still clinging to some trees, were lit up in a blaze of gold, while others already stripped of their leaves were skeletal against the sky. And a golden carpet of fallen leaves, lit up my path, as more yellow leaves fluttered down around me.
Walking along a pathway beside the Avon River which winds it's way through a shaded area of deciduous woodland, you turn a corner and there is the sun - a low ball of silver fire in the sky. You catch your breath at the sight ahead of sunlight falling as a brilliant patch of light filtering through half bare branches lighting up the pathway. While distant trees still clinging to the last of their leaves in one last glorious burst of gold contrast with the dark bare shapes of trees still in shadow.
The Maple Border of the Botanic Gardens in Christchurch is one of my favourite places. There is something beautiful happening at every time of the year. In early winter the sculptural shapes of maple woodland are highlighted silver white by winter sunlight. They contrast with the last few maple leaves glowing golden in the background and the muted colours of Hydrangeas, crinkled and papery after frost. As these eventually drop and we are left with bare bushes, it's comforting to know that the emphasis will shift as the green of the Hellebores beneath, which have been understated all summer, will soon transform into a carpet of muted claret, pinks and white to add a fragile beauty to the winter scene.
Light is everything in a garden. Especially in late autumn when long slanting rays of sunlight touch the brilliance of the last of the autumn leaves. This is especially true of the ornamental grapevine, Vitis cognetaie, as it's leaves transform from lush summer green into fiery red iridescence, the most brilliant of autumn foliage. Draped across the verandah of my cottage, catching the morning sun, the red leaves become transparent as the light reflects through the window at the end of the verandah. The reds, oranges, pinks and burgundys of those last lingering leaves intensify as though trying to cram in every last moment of of light and life before they must drop and shrivel away. We know that this is the last fling before the light fades, the dimmer days of winter set in, and only the bare skeleton of the vine remains.
The low slanting sunlight of late autumn is perfect for highlighting the colour of the fiery leaves of the ornamental grape - Vitis cognitiae. Its varying tones of burgundy, scarlet, crimson and orange just sing in sunlight, draped against the blue painted house.
This is one of gardening's happy accidents, because long ago when I found this cottage with its sunny verandah, I planted this particular flamboyant grape to sparkle up the original paint colour in the background. And it didn't matter that the ornamental grape is non fruit bearing - colour was more important than food!
Nondescript, would describe perfectly the colour of the cottage as it was then - boring stone-beige, hardly deserving of this brilliant vine. It wasn't until the autumn after I finally decided to branch out and paint the cottage blue, that I discovered the happy accident. I was more concerned that the blue of the cottage should match the grey-blue colour of the roof, rather than foliage of the humble vine. But as the grape foliage changed from summer green to fiery crimson against the blue house, and the colours began to bounce and sing to each other that autumn, I knew this was a flash of accidental inspiration. Fleeting though it is, because later in May, just when leaves reach their most fiery iridescence, they will start to drop, until we are left with just one lone red leaf, clinging to the bare vine, flapping mournfully in the cold grey wind.
nbelievably, in spite of cyclones and the coldest rainiest Autumn I ever remember, there are still some summer flowers in the garden which amazingly, have escaped the sad soggy end which has been the fate of so many. The garden may be almost devoid of the colour of flowers, but it is the lushest and greenest I have ever seen in autumn, and so are surrounding lawns, gardens and trees.
It all looks so abnormally emerald, and out of character for Canterbury. At this time of year, when the air is usually crisp and golden with blue skies, and when trees and foliage, are dry and gasping and lawns brown and dusty, everything looks unnaturally green and lush, as though dreadful irrigation pivots have been at work.
But no, it's all natural! Or is it global warming, as there is no hint of any frosts yet? Is Canterbury going to become green, humid, damp and lush instead of blue, gold, tussocky, dry and spiky?
I purchased 2 of these dwarf Abutilon 'Lucky Lantern Orange', at the final Ellerslie Flower Show held in Christchurch in 2013 . They have proved to be one of my best buys, as their orange bell shaped flowers are the perfect colour for my garden, and situated either side of my front gate they flower prolifically, nonstop from early summer till the frosts come.
This Abutilon never outgrows it's welcome, keeping its compact rounded shape all year. The leaves may droop a bit during frosty weather, but all I do, is give them a little clip and shape in early spring and away they go again sending out new spring growth with the promise of new seasons flowers.
Are these the blackest Dahlias you have ever seen? It is an unnamed Dahlia which was given to me by a friend - perhaps 15 years ago? She didn't know how it had arrived in her garden either - just that it was gorgeous. Unthinkingly, all those years ago I planted one tuber in a wildish part of my garden, then completely forgot about it. Utterly neglected it survived, and comes up faithfully every year, finding it's way up through Hostas, Hydrangeas and a prickly Japonica bush. It does grow long and lanky, as it knows it needs too, to reach daylight.
It's not a prolific flowerer, and has the old fashioned look of one of those obscene double heavy headed Dahlias. But it isn't! Instead it has an enormous bud which opens into an almost single flower, it's dusky dark crimson petals opening wide to show a cluster of prominent golden stamens. How lucky am I to get something so stunning from such unassuming origins.
Autumn and 'mellow fruitfulness' at the little yellow cottage across the road
I remember when the Quince tree across the road in the garden of the yellow cottage, started off as a smart little white Japonica Chaenomeles 'Alba' on a standard! This was when the original owners were restoring the cottage and 'landscaping' the garden. Subsequent owners have been much more 'relaxed' about it all and gradually the white Japonica known as an ornamental quince, reverted back to its original species - the fruiting Quince, known botanically and rather dauntingly as, Cydonia oblonga. A large fruiting tree, it has become increasingly popular as an ornamental landscape tree in it's own right, because of it's attractive umbrella like shape, and lush green leaves, not to mention it's spectacular golden fruitful globes in Autumn, and pretty white blossoms in spring.
I think the golden globed tree, Cydonia oblonga is much more impressive in front of the yellow cottage than the clipped and primped standard Chaenomeles 'Alba' could ever have been.
While back at the blue cottage it is all 'Season of mists'
'Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness' - that overworked quote from the Keats poem
'Ode to Autumn', but it is this single line which to me epitomises Autumn better than anything else I know. And makes me want to read more - so more you have my friends - well the first verse anyway just to whet your appetite.
"SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness!
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees, 5
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease, 10
For Summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells."
And this is only the first verse. If you don't already have an anthology on your bedside table, now is the time to unearth a volume containing Keats poetry, and 'Ode to Autumn'. Even on dreary rainy autumn days like today, this poem will bring mellow autumn sun into your life.