The Great Azalea Blowout of 2019

A Big Welcome to a Banner Spring!

This sounds like a car dealer’s come-on. But I can’t help it. We’ve gone from soaky  sloshy  soggy to splashy spectacular in just a couple of months.

George Lindley Tabor southern indica azalea, a favorite of ours, grown from cuttings, heavily planted in our garden. This type of azalea does well here but is too tender for northern climates. Deer usually leave it alone

How wet was it? It was so wet even the earthworms hugged the surface, apparently preferring the odds of becoming a robin’s dinner to certain drowning in subterranean ooze. How do we know all this? We spotted worms immediately when we dug holes that flooded immediately.

Big preparations for digging in and moving plants. Photo by Susan

(Reflections on digging. Yes, we know there are rules about not digging when soil is wet because its structure can be destroyed, though, frankly, it’s difficult to imagine any structure in muck. Trouble is, by May the muck has dried to concrete, which leaves little time for our traditional spring transplanting ritual.)

That’s when we move plants around the garden in a botanical rendition of those grand Monopoly and Sorry games, sans dice. Kind of like playing Musical Plants with us as maestros.

Susan visited during the middle of April to help with musical planting. She was a good sport about digging in clay soil that clogs cultivators, sucks in shovels, and mucks up trowels.

Strategies for improving drainage: creating raised beds within a raised bed by boxing up lengths of  pressure-treated timber; adding sand and compost to wet soil. Photo by Susan

(Further reflections on digging. After thirty years of adding tons of chipper-shredded yard waste, store-bought mulch, sand, piles of dead leaves, ground-up tree trimmings, sheep manure, chicken manure, scientifically composted horse manure, composted cotton dirt, peanut hulls, Ranger truckloads from a local soil processing plant (moved out of town, alas), and, finally, “black dirt” (with weeds) delivered in a truck that “don’t dump too good,” the basic character of our soil has not changed.

Despite amendments, the clay keeps asserting itself. During heavy rains clay lenses float to the surface and the slabs must be re-integrated. With patience and time, it all blends to become rich, lumpy, heavy soil that gives countless gifts and can be forgiven for its persistence in mucking up shovels.)

Reliable Rutherford pink once rebelled against our poor drainage, finally adapted after we added heavy doses of amendments

These are the plants we move during spring musical plants rituals:

Impulse buys off sad-sack racks that I will surely rehabilitate.
Volunteers that are just too good to toss, not sure how many Stoke’s asters I really need.
Plants in pots that lost their places during previous spring games.
Plants that were labeled 4×4 but somehow became 8×8.
Plants I can donate to local plant sales (See Volunteers above).
Plants that have struggled for years but surely would thrive if I could only find the right spot.

Axiom: There are always more plants than empty spaces.

A variety I coveted twenty years ago when I spotted it in Bellingrath Gardens, Mobile, Alabama. Serendipitously I found them for sale for $3 a piece  in our local supermarket. They were never part of the Musical Plants games

So, there we were slogging with shovels during light drizzles while the miracles of spring were calling us to play hooky.

How do plants do it? Afloat in winter, parched in summer, year after year. We’ve finally figured out that the truism is true: dreary winter showers are Mother Nature’s prescription for lavish spring flowers.

George Tabor paired with variegated Solomon Seal the length of our side garden. Purple blossoms emerge whimsically from one branch

Occasionally Susan took breaks from muck-wrestling to record these budding miracles. During the second week in April she caught the garden as it was beginning to re-awaken after daffodils retired in glory. Quince, redbud and viburnum and the first azaleas are in bloom. The sky was bright cloudy and the garden green and glowing from drizzles.

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My pictures were taken a week or two later, at the height of azalea bloom. By then, clematis and weigela, dogwood and deutzia gracilis, deutzia ‘Chardonnay Pearls’, and double reeves spirea had joined the celebration.

Also in bloom, but stubbornly non-photogenic at times, was a beautiful North Carolina hybrid with a big name:  sinocalycalycanthus raulstonii ‘Hartlage Wine.’ It’s a relative of passalong plant Sweet Betsy (or Carolina allspice) hybridized by the first director of the J.C. Raulston arboretum in Raleigh.

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It was a spring to remember, but it didn’t last long. Old man sun lasered the azaleas with 90 degree rays, and that signaled the end of the show.

Summer is here.

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Spring Always Catches Me in My Pajamas

Is that you, Spring, Knocking at my Door. . .Already?

Could you come back another day, give me a chance to comb my hair? Maybe set a spell, have a glass of tea. . ..

Never fails, I spend the entire winter out in the freezing cold, raking, weeding, pruning, mulching.

Well, maybe not the entire winter. And maybe not in the freezing cold. Thankfully, there was all that rain and drear to keep me inside on the couch with a book.

A winter caper: Freezing weather bursts a hose and enshrines a hydrangea in ice

Every year I pat myself on the back. This will be the year, I say, that I will glide around the garden in chiffon skirts and satin slippers and posies in my hair instead of baggy britches and muddy boots and a dingy straw hat on my head.

Well, Spring says to me, Y’all (I guess she’s got some southern blood) complained so about the rainy winter. And I still feel bad about leaving you out in the cold last March. So I thought I’d surprise you and slip in for a quick visit to perk you up.

Daffodils planted in woods flattened by Hurricane Isabel in 2003 still going strong

Uh, how considerate. Were you thinking of helping with chores, or were you planning to cheer on the weeds?

Oh dear, I don’t mean to get in the way. I could leave now and you won’t have to see me again till oh, maybe some time beginning-middle of April.

Well shame on me for being so saucy. (Where’s my southern hospitality?)

From inside the house we can watch blooms of  quince ‘Jet Trail’ explode,  early native honeysuckle weaving its way through the “sticky’ bush

But Spring is such a tease, don’t you think? Pops in for a minute, then skiddoos away. Winter may be doing the dealing, but Spring is the wild card, a joker in the weatherman’s game of poker.

Problem is, the plants (and sometimes the gardener) think it’s the real deal. They’re sure they have winning hands. They start throwing out aces, kings, deuces, whatever they have, with the giddy highs of winners.

After all these years, they still haven’t learned when to hold ‘em, or maybe even fold ‘em, quit being over-bold, take a pass on winter’s cold.

Magnolia ‘Leonard Messel’ seems to tolerate cold days

Those wily winter weeds, now, they are the big winners, kings of the Craps Table. They can parlay a stingy roll on a cold day into a meadow. Not a loser among ‘em. High rollers all.

Their blossoms roll into seeds that roll into new plants that roll into blossoms that roll into seeds. . . And the winnings pile up and the gardener kneels down.

Quince ‘Toyo nishiki’ interrupted by a red ‘mistake’ lifts eyes and spirits away from weeding

Don’t go, I call out, apologetically. It’s true, you’re early but. . .

Truth is, those daffodils get positively perky in your late afternoon sun. They don’t mind winter’s chill, what with that zippy sugar-water anti-freeze in their veins.

‘Ice Follies’, a reliable bloomer in our southern wet land

And the forsythia’s positively flouncy. And the quince is bubbling with color. And the ogon spirea, that lovable mop top, is having such good hair days lately.

‘Ogon’ spirea in fall

And when you roll that big bright ball of a sun up through the trees at 7 am, or is it 8 am now, I must confess I’m lovin’ it.

‘Ogon’ spirea today with nandina berries in the background

Who am I kidding? I’ll take your wild cards any day while winter is still dealing the weather.
I’ll put on my baggy britches, my muddy boots and my dingy straw hat and cheer.

Star Magnolia seeks center stage among blooms of our favorite camellia

Can buds, blossoms, and birdsong be far behind? Do stay a while. Only can’t we slow everything down and stop for a cup of tea?

And by the way, Mademoiselle Spring, I do like your sun on my back

Posted in Garden Humor, spring bloom, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Truly a Heron’s Garden

Or, Hold those Fireworks!

(Note: Except for one photo of “our” heron,  pictures of herons in this post are from the internet.)

In the beginning we did not understand that the herons had first ownership. We accepted the great blues as belonging to the watery woodlands, invited their loafing and fishing in our slip, became heron watchers from our porch.

Perfect form

It was a treat, catching glimpses of the deep, steady, beat of wings, arch of neck, coat of velvet during majestic flights up the canal. Here, we said, are nature’s true aristocrats.

(Except when herons squawk. Head-turners those squawks are, like cockney spilling from the mouth of a powder-wigged earl. Or, to latter-day ears, blasts from a croaky klaxon.)

Herons are most patrician when they stand silent, solitary, watchful — for how long? — on our turtle log, once a fulsome pine, now retired, taking the waters.

An orderly line-up, pretty much on a first-come basis, though there is some jockeying for position — not that you would notice

Turtles count the log as their territory, but when the big guy sails in, they plop speedy and graceless into the water, well clear of that controlled, balletic landing eased by wings that double as parachutes. We laugh. They are the jester’s counterpoint to royal lineage.

Moving out of the way — fast — but no plopping, yet

Each landing is a perfect touchdown — on a slippery log, mind you — though long toes with talons give strong grip. My, we exclaim, what wonderful balance.

Still as a sphinx , he scans the water. For how long? Probably not for long by his reckoning, but we who never learned that waiting on line is good for the soul become impatient.

Waiting. . .

When is he going to do something?

Ah, there, did you see that? How he stabbed at the water?

Uh, no I didn’t, I must have been distracted by the cardinal that flew in, or maybe I blinked.

No matter, he missed that time. Yes, herons do sometimes miss the mark, more often when they’re youngsters.

First the stab and then the gulp

When he doesn’t miss, now that is something to see. By rights, the impaled fish should remain stuck on his beak. Not so. With a flick of his head the heron releases the fish, tosses it easily into the air, and gulps it down whole. So fast it’s hard to take in. If the fish is big enough, we can watch the lump make its way down that long neck.

Considering the regal behavior we have witnessed, I never expected what happened one day several years ago.

I was practically face down into the soil, planting iris near the slip, when I heard frenzied squawking.

I followed the noise and spotted a bird in trouble, wildly flapping his wings, teetering on a branch.

Our heron? In disarray? What in the world are you doing up there? I called. Come on, surely you can take off and fly? Must be a kid testing its wings.

I continued planting. The squawking continued, maybe louder, if that were possible, and the balancing act, too. I scolded. He squawked. I scolded. He squawked. What did he want? I turned my back square. Squawk away, if you like.

The squawking stopped.

Silence at last. Back to planting irises.

I began to feel a spooky sort of presence. The world was too quiet. The back of my neck tightened. Where did the heron go?

Purposefully casual, I turned ever so slightly.

The heron had landed about fifteen feet behind me. Silent. Patient. Waiting as long as it would take for me to acknowledge his presence.

Once I turned full around, the clucking began, a sort of confidential tete a tete. Or was it pleading? I murmured questions. The bird murmured answers. Back and forth we went, crooning gibberish to each other, each of us immobile, gazes locked.

“Our” heron on the turtle log, majestic from a distance

The bird was patient, more patient than I, it would seem. Edgy, I escalated the gibberish. “Tell me, what is your problem?”

The bird sensed my change in tone and escalated his squawking.

Frustrated because this biped was not getting the message? Was there a threat implicit in the squawk?

The heron began to approach me in that measured way herons have of placing each foot down square as they consider the next step.

I’d never thought much about the size of a heron – but let me just say that they are much bigger up close than you would think from images in books or binoculars.

Nor had I thought much about that dagger-beak, since it was only targeted for fish, wasn’t it?

Even during those intimate murmurings, these things hadn’t occurred to me.

Nor was I prepared for how scraggly the bird looked. This was one unkempt, tired-looking bird. Stringy, matted feathers.

Apparently grooming was not a priority. The long views of velvet-in-flight were replaced now by close-ups of raggedy ringlets.

As the heron approached, I began to think about all these things.

I had an epiphany.

This garden wasn’t ours. It belonged to the heron, and by golly, he was welcome to it whenever he wanted to claim it. Okay, okay, it’s all yours.

Scrambling like a turtle-jester falling off a log, trampling plants along the way, I retreated. When I turned to look from a safe distance, the heron was gone.

I never figured out what happened that day. Maybe an errant young bird needed help and a frazzled parent was trying to make things right. But where from? There was no rookery nearby. Surely we would have heard it, maybe even smelled it.

A single nest

Herons create group hobo camps when they breed, build their twiggy nests in the branches of unlucky trees. Nobody tends to housekeeping, so by the time the demanding, noisy young gobble fish regurgitated by their parents, then splatter poop everywhere, the colony can quickly become a whitewashed slum with a nose-busting stench.

So many nests the tree finally died

You can ask the residents of a certain street in Santa Rosa, California if you doubt me. Herons and egrets have adopted a eucalyptus tree there as their rookery.

During breeding season there is so much guano and such foul odors, neighbors sometimes go berserk. One lit off firecrackers at the base of the tree. The herons didn’t notice. Fishing was too good in the nearby lagoon.

What do you know? Who would have thought that Mr. Majesty was such a mess up close – and a crafty thief, to boot.

That reality hit us later, when we decided to clean out our small pond near the porch. We didn’t think it needed cleaning, but everyone with a pond said it was important to clean a pond regularly, and so did the books.

Frankly, we thought the few goldfish we had looked pretty good, even though they were mostly hidden among pickerel weed and arrowhead and one water lily that sent its pads out to all corners.

Mr. Majesty gets a bird’s eye view of fish ponds

It was a lot of work, but we said we would be speedy. No need to remove the fish.

We drained a good bit of water and removed the plants, which exposed the fish, which speedily alerted the heron during one of his flyovers, which prompted the lawn-chair barricade, which began the rout.

He landed some ways away, skulking, no doubt assured we wouldn’t notice him. (Pretty difficult to miss a bird that stands five feet high with a six-foot wing span.)

He stalked, graceful, pink-panther-like. Dipping low, slinking behind two-foot azaleas, playing for invisibility. Tiptoeing fast, like a roadrunner, to cross open space.

Sidling around tree trunks. Rubbernecking.

Planning the next move, crafty. Rubbernecking.

Scooting behind billowy grass. Rubbernecking.

Would he be bold enough to close in? No. Too near the house. Too many obstacles. Remember those lawn chairs? We turned our backs for a few minutes. . .

Much later I read about a heron gorging on fingerlings in a nursery pond, tricking young fish into surfacing by alighting where the caretaker stood when he fed them.

Looks like this guy needs a meal

He almost got away with the pilfering, but the weight of that feast in his tummy was too much drag. He could not take off properly. He tried to disgorge ballast. Alas, he never saw the truck coming down the pike.

Sounds like a fable, but we had learned well that herons try any ruse to snatch a fish. That’s why gardeners top their ponds with metal cages.

Contented green frogs thinking about canoodling in our pond

That’s why we don’t clean our pond or feed the fish any more. The pond remains fine and healthy. The few fish make a living beneath healthy stands of plants that camouflage the water surface.

A perfect hiding place

A resident green frog chirrups around lunchtime. And dragonflies loaf on spikey stems of pickerel weed.

And so we discovered that the great blue heron is not all royal velvet. Behind the façade are noisy croaks, sneaky ways, a certain gluttony, and slovenliness.

Yet the vision remains. We ignore the tarnish. It’s like being finessed by a smooth orator and discovering the Wizard of Oz and dismissing the discovery as propaganda.

In the end, we made a truce with the heron.  We accepted the heron’s ownership of our garden. He doesn’t exact much tribute from us. It comes down to sole possession of the turtle log when he wants it. But he is leaving our fish alone (probably because it’s impossible to find them among the plants.)

Into the skies for reconnoitering



Posted in Great Blue Heron, Pond Life, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 5 Comments

The Frayed Waistcoats of Winter

A white sky steals color. In still air, the wet mists of winter take advantage of a sun that’s gone missing for several days and settle down for a spell, polishing leaves that are already forgotten.

They erase distance and seamlessly fold onto our plot, reflecting still water and shadows of trees.

Shorn of color, isolated by mist, the rangy bones of the garden, the storm-scars and misshapen ancestry of former seasons emerge.

Over there is the crushed canoe and near it, the pop-up trees, bowled over by wind, crowns and limbs chain-sawed off, now reaching tall like wacky headless soldiers.

A winter garden is stripped of its frippery.

There are some exceptions. Still in full dress, this native red maple, by virtue of its stature, presides in glory dimmed by the mists. After a peel-off and a short nap it will be first to bloom in spring.

And the camellias, fall bloomers fading, spring bloomer in the wings. That single blossom on an aging ‘Yuletide’ is especially satisfying, since the plant lost most of its girth to a cold winter.

Sho a no saki is but a shadow now, resenting puddles at her feet on rainy days, but still she adds grace to fraying edges.

Birds take full advantage of the fraying, happy that I don’t trim the tatters, leave remnants for them. Silent, practically invisible, they dart from thicket to thicket, mining for berries, seeds, bugs.

Small flocks alert to trespass, noiselessly explode into the dark safety of a crowded windbreak of camellias and azaleas watched over by our whimsical Puck,  long-ago carried home from England swaddled in a duffel bag.

Even the brash Carolina wren is put off.

The chatter is gone from the garden.

The ramrod tulip tree, whose seed germinated the summer we built our house, stands like an emperor blending quietly into the woods behind.

An eon ago, barely remembered now, spring called out to us, Watch me! Watch me! And we did, will do so again, captivated. During midsummer madnesses we reveled in, though we complained, too, about hot wild colors dancing under a hot wild sun.

Even gentle autumn was extravagant with flames and fruits, and the wheelbarrow was not idle.

But misty-gray’s winter wardrobe has no sparks or crackle.

And that’s why we ignore a winter garden. There is no noise. After all, it’s only an interlude between acts.

Of course, there are those certain days when snow mantles frayed petticoats, when crystals ricochet sunshine, and we rejoice in a perfect wonderland that crackles with icicles. We adore snow pictures. (Until we wreck them with our footprints.)

And sometimes, in the blue light of a stormy sky there is a dramatic entr’acte. In this year-old picture, the pittosporum shaping the beds still live. They will be lost a few months hence.

But mostly there is a certain peace that attends aimless wandering in a faded garden. The conscience is quiet. (Must not disturb those birds picking at cast-offs.)

The wheelbarrow waits. Raking. Pruning. Chopping. They can all come later. The garden bids us trespass, poke around its tattered tapestry of bleached stalks and russet seed heads.

Didn’t someone once talk about the world standing still? Perhaps he or she one day walked in a winter garden with a patch of sprawling spent chrysanthemums and an empty wheelbarrow and a lonely bench and unraked leaves.

Of course the garden isn’t truly standing still.

Invisible to us, it’s primping for spring, when the dressing room becomes a full-blown stage and curtain calls are lavish with standing ovations that we can only give a nod to, because we can’t stand still for very long, what with the need for all the planting, weeding, and cutting the sunshine brings on.

Yes, as I write, the sun nudges and the wheelbarrow needs exercise and the wren calls and the hellebores are nodding and taking bows for their first curtain calls. Time to get cracking and quit lollygagging.

(Photos taken over a two-year period)

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Galicia Encantada. . . Part IV

During 2018 I took a trip to an enchanted land. Reflections of my visit to Galicia are told in four parts: the land, the camellias, the holy city of pilgrimage. And, finally, my travel back to reality, brightened by portraits of camellias in the gardens we visited.  Specific gardens are discussed in Great Gardens under two entries on Galicia.

In which I Become A Smuggler, A Vagrant, A Loiterer, and A Person of Suspicion

Five AM on Saturday came too soon and it was time to leave this enchanted land. I had one last taste of Galician hospitality at Santiago airport. A security agent took it upon himself to help me with my bags and escort me through the small airport.

During the quiet pre-dawn moments we stood chatting I learned that he had some years ago lived in Astoria, New York, only a ten-minute walk from where I grew up. Having exchanged life histories, which we happen to do very well in North Carolina, we said goodby and wished each other well.

From Santiago to Madrid to London to Miami my Carolina home seemed to be calling: seatmate from New Bern, Swiss basketball player visiting his host family from NC college days.

And then there was the Miami airport. Where every plane in the world – and maybe outer space, too — converges at precisely 8 pm. Battalions of travellers emerge to do the maze-creep to Customs.

Time for a reminder of Galicia. . .

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I thought I had sailed through Customs . . .

Until the cutest, friskiest, little beagle/terrier mix wagged his tail at me. He was so proud of himself, wiggling his little bottom like he wanted to dance. Such a sweetie I almost leaned down to pet him but I kinda thought, even with that wiggly tail, his capacity might be official.

He likes your fruit, his handler said. Huh? It’s your fruit, she said.

I’d forgotten. The parador had packed a lovely picnic for me, most of which I’d nibbled on during the day. But squirting orange juice on a seat mate, or dribbling pear juice on luggage didn’t seem appropriate, so I was saving them for my overnight layover in Miami.

Reluctantly I gave them up and started to go on my way.

It’s a little more complicated than that, she said. You didn’t declare them. You’ll have to get checked out at the Official Search Me Center. (I can’t remember its proper name, but you get the idea.)

You know, there is a $300 fine, the Search-Me Control Official said, pausing for effect. . . not for possession — but for falsifying your forms.

Three-hundred-dollars! How about jail-time instead? Might be cheaper and I wouldn’t have to hunt for a hotel room.

Mr. Search Me must have noticed my utter shock. Don’t worry, he said, I believe you.

He gingerly searched my bags, careful not to shift much around, while I privately thought he was the nicest, sweetest man I’d ever met.

By the way, he said, you have a very small suitcase but you manage to pack the whole house into it.

I thanked him. I wished I had the nerve to ask for my fruit back — that absolutely perfect, succulent, juicy pear and orange duo I’d forgotten about so completely but now suddenly craved.

Time for a taste of Galicia. . .

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At ten pm rooms in Miami, if you can find one, go for $329 a night (with or without tax?) and, sorry, shuttle service ends at 10 pm.

Judging from the clutter of luggage and travelers who had already staked claims to seating in the airport hotel lobby, I was not the only one in this pickle. There is discipline and skill to staking a proper claim, I soon learned.  Make the mistake of leaving for a very short minute, or shifting momentarily, and you lose squatters’ rights.

It didn’t matter. Promptly at 11:30 pm the hotel-lobby sentry, who took his job very seriously, told us in no uncertain terms that we could not spend the night in the lobby.

Like true vagrants we did not stir. We were a still and sullen bunch. The sentry, on the other hand, who took his job very seriously, became more strident. We pretended not to hear. Would it be a standoff? We did outnumber him.

Finally, the sentry, did I mention he took his job very seriously, ordered us out in no uncertain terms Would he take action if we did not move? He said if we wanted to camp out, we could find some cots at the far end of the airport on the fourth floor.

This is a very bad joke, I thought, but then again, the sentry took his job very seriously, so he was probably not the kind to make jokes. Reluctantly, dripping with passive aggression, we scattered.

Back to Galicia, if only for a moment. . .

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Then I met a couple who had sailed in Galicia waters. Together we searched for cots, but I declined the offer of the gentleman, elderly but wiry, to carry my bags.

He was already hefting not one but two duffle bags half his height. I couldn’t in good conscience ask him to carry a bag that was packed with the whole house.

There truly were camp cots on the fourth floor. (You should know this if you are ever stranded in the Miami airport, God help you.) They gave us sterilized blankets and pillows, water and granola bars and someone was around at all times.

The experience was, maybe, a taste of disaster relief you see on television after hurricanes, but the room was very dark and there were no TV cameras (I assume).

Which was a good thing. I would not want my TV debut to record pictures of me falling/crawling/hauling myself onto or off of a tipping/slipping/flipping camp cot.

Sweet dreams of Galicia. . .

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Speaking of flipping, my flip phone was my life line to sanity and home. Now the phone was giving me urgent messages about imminent battery death.

No problem, this over-confident technophobe thought. I am fully prepared with my handy dandy cell phone charger. I’ll just plug this thing in wherever it is that people plug these things in.

Is there some trick to this? Nothing is happening.

Oh, a shop girl said dismissively, most of the charging stations don’t work.

I got bold. I found some official who was chatting in the ticketing area and asked him to show me an outlet that actually worked and could he plug it in and check it for me. How could he say no?

Then I waited. In an airport I believe that is known as loitering unless you are an official.

Loitering is not boring. Every official who passed me chatted me up, casually, politely trying to find out why I was doing absolutely nothing but observing the passing parade instead if joining it. Add “person of suspicion” to smuggler, vagrant and loiterer.

What fun it would be to loiter in Galicia. . .

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In addition to knowing about camp cots on the fourth floor, you should know that the Miami airport stretches from Florida to Maine in a straight line. Packing track shoes is a good idea. On the bright side, you don’t have to worry about taking a wrong turn.

I did, however, wonder when my gate number would be posted. I can never understand why major airports that handle a million flights a day seem to have a problem posting gates for planes.

I used to think the numbers came from some hush-hush game of craps played on the fourth floor. Now I know (having spent time on the fourth floor) that there is no game.

Anyway, I hadn’t yet figured out that the airport was a straight line from Florida to Maine, so I asked for directions. Just get in the closest security line to my gate, I was told. Otherwise you’ll be walking forever. That my gate was not listed seemed to be a mere detail, eventually rectified by walking from Florida to Georgia, where I could hover over the departures board like a race-track junkie until odds are posted.

Bring back those memories of Galicia. . .

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I was there! The gatekeeper to security checked my IDs and stopped the line. We have to wait for the dog to get here, she said. And wait we did. Let me tell you, this was not the cute beagle/terrier that had nailed me last night.

This one was bigger, lankier, not cute, and he took his job very seriously. This dog knew his sniff – he could sniff people out without even sniffing. He was obviously a high-level sniffer. But he didn’t sniff me. No, he didn’t sniff me, and he was gone by the time my bags went into x-ray.

Well, the x-ray got me. The X-ray Official rooted around my bags swabbed everything except my underwear. Unfortunately, in her zeal, she did not realize I was carrying the whole house in one little bag, so there was a moment of suspense before she succeeded in rezipping my bags.

Back to the walking, even though I got in the right line, I swear I did, because you are absolutely forbidden to get in the wrong line, I wound up walking from Gate 1 to Gate 60, from Florida to Maine, and me toting the whole house, kind of like backpacking the Appalachian Trail without rocks to trip over.

Or maybe following camellias in Galicia. . .

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A keen sense of observation is required of travelers flying out of Miami’s Gate Number 60. That is because there are five (5) Gates Number 60. Each of the five has three flights listed on its board. Aha, a new kind of vision test? Or maybe they were testing number-recognition in old people.

And here I thought I wouldn’t have enough reading material to last me till my flight left.

Well, everyone seemed content in that waiting area, like they all knew where they were going. But I didn’t believe it. Every time I ask a direction of a traveller who is going my way, just to get a little confirmation, mind you, before I get on an elevator that will take me to Venus when I’m really looking to go to Mars, no one can seem to give me a direct answer. So I think most people are putting on a big show to cover up their insecurities.

One thing about being old and maybe not so sprightly, people think you are either half-blind, half-deaf, or half-brain dead, or half-all-of-the-above, and they are quite willing to help you out.

A kind attendant came up to me and asked my destination. My all-night maze-running, cot-wrestling and airport marathons must have been catching up to me because it took me a moment to lose my vacant stare and focus on remembering where I was going on this particular flight. Which no doubt reinforced the stereotypes described above.

She promised to help me board. This process, incidentally, required another quarter mile of walking outdoors to choose a plane, any plane, from among several waiting on the tarmac. How do people know these things? But I didn’t see her again.

And while I am about it, did you know that they are making seat numbers harder and harder to read? Or maybe that’s the half-blind stereotype. This can be a particular problem when a flight attendant apparently misdirects you on a jumbo jet and you have to swim upstream to find your seat, saying Excuse me, Excuse me, Excuse me, Excuse me at every pass. On the other hand, maybe that is a result of the half-deaf stereotype.

I fell asleep as soon as I got on the plane. All memories of destinations, flight times, flight numbers, gate numbers, seat numbers, and buses, trains, escalators and elevators whisking me to parts unknown vanished into oblivion. (That is the half-brain-dead stereotype.)

One last farewell to Galicia. . .

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The best part was yet to come. Though I’d been gone for twelve days, I didn’t miss springtime, which sometimes comes and goes in a minute here. All blooms waited especially for me. (Snow and cold weather had nothing to do with the delay, I assure you.)

I felt doubly treated — memories of camellias from across an ocean, and a springtime tour of my own garden. I know I can get lost here for hours and be neither smuggler nor vagrant nor loiterer nor person of suspicion. (Some who know my gardening style might question those assertions, but that is grist for another story.)

Here is the picture that started it all. . .

For more about camellias and Galicia, visit the links below.

Galicia Encantada. . .Part I                                    Galicia: Three Gardens I

Galicia Encantada. . .Part II                                  Galicia: Three Gardens II

Galicia Encantada. . .Part III

Galicia Encantada. . .Part IV

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Galicia Encantada . . .Part III

During 2018 I took a trip to an enchanted land. Reflections of my visit to Galicia are told in four parts: the land, the camellias, the holy city of pilgrimage. And, finally, my travel back to reality, brightened by portraits of camellias in the gardens we visited.  Specific gardens are discussed in Great Gardens under two entries on Galicia.

Santiago de Compostela

Breaking News: I could find no evidence of Puss in Boots in Santiago de Compostela. You may remember from the movie, Shrek 2 that Puss boasted of being the great cat burglar of Santiago de Compostela during one of his past lives.

Rooftops below the old city, bonanza for a cat burglar

I’m sorry to say that nobody here remembers seeing him. But that, I guess, is the nature of cat burglars.

Unabashedly I admit that the cavalier Puss in Boots was my first introduction to the city.

Since that movie, the name of this city has rolled off my tongue with cadence and lilt. It was such a delight to my ears, even though I didn’t know a thing about the city.

Now that I have visited, I know that Santiago de Compostela is one of three great pilgrimage cities, the other two being Rome and Jerusalem.

Eighteenth century parish church near our parador

Whether you come as pilgrim or tourist, your travel through Galicia must lead you to Santiago de Compostela.

It is a city of legend and great faith, of soaring cathedral and spacious squares, of history and hallowed dreams, of busy shops and crooked streets.

I came as tourist, initially with the Ciceroni tour group, then later, when my flights home were delayed, I spent time wandering on my own.

When I left I was almost beginning to feel at home in this ancient city with crooked streets where ATMs and grocery stores, fresh produce and  florists, and a large indoor seafood hall (selling Galician mussels, of course) are tucked into ruas with porticos and iron balconies.

Venerable as the city is, I am pretty sure they still pull up those crooked streets at night and rearrange them. Each day presented a challenge for this walker accustomed to city grids.

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If you hear the story behind Santiago de Compostela you will have some understanding of why this is a holy city. It goes back to 44 AD when the apostle James is beheaded in Jerusalem. He is the only disciple of Christ to be martyred.

With the help of angels, the apostle’s disciples spirit the body away, through the Mediterranean, along the Iberian coast, ending in an overland trek to present-day Santiago de Compostela. A perilous 3000-mile journey, like crossing the Atlantic in a skiff, but quite doable when guided by a heavenly host.

Detail of a finely wrought reredos (altar screen)  in the cathedral museum

Fast forward to 700 AD and a shepherd looks out on his field (compo) at brilliant starlight (stela) focused on the burial site. The discovery is so momentous that a church and monastery are built to honor the relics. Three hundred years later moors burn the church to the ground, and construction of a finer, grander cathedral begins.

The name of the city is on tongues across the land: Sant Iago de Compo stela The miracle of St. James becomes the foundation of great faith that inspires pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela.

St. James with staff on cathedral facade (Detail of Internet photo)

A wave of Christianity explodes throughout Europe. St. James becomes the patron saint of Spain. He inspires holy warriors in their Crusade to defeat the enemies of Christianity: moors, muslims, and arabs. The city becomes the touchstone for celebrating a new, stronger faith.

St. James as Matamoras, the moor slayer

Likenesses of the martyred disciple appear in a range of guises. The bold sculpture on the facade of the Monastery of San Martino Pinario celebrates St. James as moor slayer.

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Santiago de Compostela becomes a destination for pilgrims. A network of routes known as caminos begins to crisscross Europe and converge on this holy city.

The Way of St. James is not an easy way. In the beginning there are no maps, no direct roads, no signs. Pilgrims follow the stars, propelled by faith, informally creating their own web of trails. Terrain is rough, bandits attack, and health often fails along the caminos.

An AD 1140 official guide book listed four major routes with feeders. Since most pilgrims came from France, all pilgrims tended to be called Franks. Though wars and plagues might drastically reduce numbers, pilgrims never ceased coming. Internet map

Prosperity dawns in towns along the way. New churches are constructed, roads improved, hospices and hospitals are built for sick and weary travelers. Shopkeepers offer services — like repairing shoes — to a new clientele from out of town. Itinerant artisans contribute talent and skill to this vibrant awakening during the late Middle Ages.

As hosts of pilgrims arrive, Santiago de Compostela becomes a destination for tradesmen: shoemakers, tailors, bakers, cooks. And artisans, too: stone masons, carpenters, painters, brick layers, and silversmiths. A thriving city emerges.

Ferdinand and Isabella order construction of a hospital for tired, sick and hungry pilgrims. It is a remarkable building, large enough to house a self-sufficient community, with chapels, dormitories, great kitchen, infirmary, apothecary, even a jail and eventually an orphanage for foundlings.

The Royal Hospital is run like a town, staffed by clergy, cooks, gardeners, doctors, nurses, apothecaries, artisans. 

The facade of the Royal Hospital, now a Parador

Our group stayed in the hospital, this rich depository of history. Today it is one of the finest paradors in the country, part of a chain of hotels established by the Spanish government. It still offers free meals to a limited number of pilgrims who apply.

Photographs capture imperfectly the detailed sculpture around the entry, which is designed as an altar screen with a cast that includes Adam and Eve as part of an allegory of man’s sin and salvation.  On either side of the entry are large prominent medallions of the Catholic monarchs. The cloisters in the pictures below were originally functioning areas. 

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The great heart of Santiago de Compostela is its cathedral. Its towers soar. They are the skyline. They are symbols of a saint. And they are abiding landmarks for a wanderer who may not always pay attention to street signs and lesser landmarks.

The baroque facade and main entrance of the cathedral that faces Obradoiro Plaza. Note statue of St. James in center near the top

Medieval cathedrals weren’t built in a decade, or even a century, and this cathedral proves the precedents. A millenium passed from the building of the first church, now in ruins under the altar, to the completion of the cathedral.

Partial reconstruction of the old choir is exhibited in the Cathedral museum

Though it was consecrated in 1211, early romanesque, its architecture goes with the flow of centuries, from romanesque to gothic to baroque. It is a grand cathedral, complex in its footprint, with imposing entrances that open on to spacious squares that in turn complement imposing palaces and ornate centuries-old buildings.

The interior  is large and dusky with wide aisles to accommodate the press of pilgrims who would make their journey of faith toward the altar. The baroque eclat of the altar is not apparent at first, until you come close. Then its opulence overwhelms. I kept my camera hidden.

Below the altar, through a small passage, lies the ornate silver crypt of St. James, a giant gilded leap from those uncertain days of the first century.

Since reconstruction barred the main gates, we entered the cathedral through the gate with the scallop shell near shops selling silver and jet stone, or azabache. On our way, each day, we would pass a Galician playing the bagpipe, a tradition, in this palace archway.

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During those early days, the cathedral was a smoky scene, result of air-freshener incense liberally dispersed by a huge botafumeiro to sweeten the odors of unwashed pilgrims attending masses.

The large, lavish silver censer was managed by eight tiraboleiros who would swing its ropes across the transept with such speed and precision that the botafumeiro would fairly fly up to the vaulted ceiling, then dive back down to just miss worshipers seated in front rows.

The ceremony takes place in modern times, but only under special circumstances. Internet photo

If the cathedral is the heart of the city, surely it is the stonemasons and sculptors who gave the city its soul. Stonework and sculpture on buildings and statuary astonish. Who were these artists and artisans and how did they produce such magnificence over centuries? Most of it in granite! Originally in color!

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If I could sail back  into medieval history, Santiago de Compostela and the Praza do Obradoiro  would be my port of call.

Here, beneath the baroque facade of the cathedral was the workplace for teams of artisans. What a scene that must have been. Cluttered workshops. Tools clanging. Workmen running errands, hefting statues, balancing columns, scaffolding great heights. Each team signed its work, not for recognition by posterity, but to be sure they got paid.

I crossed that stone plaza many times, and each time I remarked how hard it was. New York City’s pavement, set on bedrock is said to be the hardest in the world, and I’ve walked many miles on it. But this grand square of granite stone laid on granite bedrock is made of sterner stuff for soles.

What stories these stones could tell

You can’t see any signs of workshops today. Instead, the Plaza is a gathering place for tourists and pilgrims, and activists and others, though we saw few pilgrims  in March. Pilgrimages are better made in fairer weather.

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In recent decades, partly in response to promotions by the Galician government,  more pilgrims are walking the Way each year, 300,000 of them in 2017. Most carry “pilgrimage passports” stamped at each station as they walk the required 100 km (or bike 200 km).

If they complete the walk and profess spiritual purpose, they receive a compostela, or certificate of accomplishment. It is, in fact, a life-changing experience for many.

Pilgrims may begin the Way of St. James because they are in mourning, or troubled, or seeking fulfillment in their lives. Often they experience deep spiritual awakening that changes them indelibly.

Along the way, they are guided by the symbol of St. James, the scallop shell, which may be affixed to sign posts and mark trails, or worn by pilgrims.

In earlier times the scallop served as water scoop and bowl

Across the avenue from the once-walled city is an elegant park, the Alameda, crisscrossed by paths that invite strolling and lead to overlooks above the city. Here you can find lovely camellias and ancient eucalyptus and lemon trees and banana trees, and palm trees. And hundred-year-old oak trees, called “carballos” in Galician.

And churches and monuments. Two of my favorites depict a pensive Rosalia de Castro, 19th century Galician romantic poet, and the Marias, eccentrc sisters who daily walked the park.

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The Alameda is now almost two centuries old and it bustles in early evening. As I was leaving, I passed two tatterdemalions, tall-and-burly, and lithe-and-slender, having a wonderful time dancing and laughing. That started me laughing. Nobody understood a word of conversation. It didn’t matter. What could be more universal than laughter.

I gave them a few coins and as I was turning away,  tall-and-burly ran after me to plant a spontaneous kiss on the back of my head. (My second continental kiss, the first by a leprechaun helping me down stone steps. Will there be a third?)

Magnolias in bloom, spotted as I was leaving

For those who like statistics, Santiago de Compostela is the capital of Galicia and a UNESCO World Heritage site, a city of about 95,000 people. Its university system has a population of 40,000 students and 2,000 teachers.  Like the rest of the city, the roots of this institution lie in the late Middle Ages. Fonseca College was founded in 1532 by Archbishop Alonso III, constructed on family property. It encloses a lovely cloister.

The cloister with the statue of Alphonso III

And so we leave Santiago de Compostela: its cathedral, its squares, its ruas, its park, parador, and palaces, with reverence for the faith and talents and industry of pilgrims and builders, thoughtful leaders and everyday people, who created this masterpiece long long ago. The cross of St. James remains a symbol of their devotion.

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Next:  Part IV, The Journey Home

For more about camellias and Galicia, visit the links below.

Galicia Encantada. . .Part I     Galicia Encantada. . .Part II

Galicia Encantada. . .Part III    Galicia Encantada. . .Part IV

Galicia: Three Gardens I       Galicia: Three Gardens II

Posted in Galicia, Galician history, Santiago de Compostela, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Galicia Encantada. . . Part II

During 2018 I took a trip to an enchanted land. Reflections of my visit to Galicia are told in four parts: the land, the camellias, the holy city of pilgrimage. And, finally, my travel back to reality, brightened by portraits of Galician camellias.  Specific gardens are discussed in two entries on Galicia under Great Gardens.

Camellias: The Flower of Galicia

Such happy plants! We visited during March, when japonica camellias and their cousins, the robust reticulatas, were boasting their best. They added elegance to gardens, embraced ancient chapels, anchored avenues, strewed blossoms across public squares, sheltered coastal buildings, wound along paths, surprised us around corners.

Camellia japonica at Pazo Quintiero da cruz

They bloomed with gusto, in loosely trimmed hedges, as young specimens barely able to support mature blossoms, as buxom middle-agers, as century-old trees. Older shrubs and trees were sometimes sheared to shape in formal settings, with masses of leafless twigs on the interior supporting outer shells of blossoms and leaves.

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They grew in full sun with or without protection from the elements, though leaves, still healthy sometimes turned bronzy or yellow, and a recent storm had damaged some blooms. Supplemental irrigation did not seem critical, except perhaps in the driest and hottest of summers or for the newly planted.

Carpet of petals as colorful as the original blooms

Thinning plants for healthy air circulation so the proverbial dove can fly among the branches did not seem to be part of the playbook.

I saw no signs of the pests that can take the shine off our camellias: tea scale or twig dieback, for instance.

Though I’m sure there was regular tidying, nobody mentioned conscientious rakingof fallen blossoms to prevent blossom blight and assuage gardener-guilt.

Full disclosure: These are my cursory observations after only a few days. The gardeners who must do the work of maintaining camellias might have different stories. Still, after seeing hundreds of camellias in good health, I feel a certain confidence in my conclusions.

Even on hazy days, you can appreciate the rolling terrain

Galicia, half a world away from the Orient where camellias grew up, is the home away from home for these immigrants.

It is a kind of utopia for them.

Balmy coastal weather. Gentle terrain for fine drainage. Fertile, acid soil eroded from granite bedrock.

Misty days and nights. Ample rainfall.

Mild winters by our standards, and dry but generally cool summers.

Gardeners, Are you ready to pick up your plot and move to Galicia?

Not a camellia. Perfectly pruned Leptospermum scoparia, or Tea Tree  from New Zealand, so named because Captain Cook used its leaves for tea

What’s good for camellias is also good for other plants. That is probably why so many exotic plants survived during plant-mania of the 18th and 19th centuries.

That’s when happy, minding-its-own-business vegetation was uprooted from home to endure rugged voyages across oceans and begin the experiment of assimilating (partly to please collectors who coveted the new plant on the next ship).

And we gardeners today think we are plantaholics! Be comforted.

We have simply inherited the addiction via some gardener DNA mutated long long ago.

Most camellias came to Galicia as youngsters propagated from plants brought back by Portuguese explorers.

Happy accommodation among aged plants in Alameda Park

If you prefer an alternative tale, you can hang on to the legend that one day an itinerant monk brought a magic flower to Galicia. It grew and flourished in the land, and it was called the camellia. In reality, the camellia was named after Jesuit botanist-herbalist-pharmacist George Kamel, who lived and worked in the Philippines.

Cows like Galicia, too. Someone once called this “the land of one million cows.” There is even a cow that is special to Galicia. What do cows have in common with camellias? Well, apparently, what’s good for camellias is good for cows. Cows give gifts, too. Maybe those new camellias got cow-gifts.

The point is, the camellia might have been the queen of blooms, but it was coming into a farmyard. An elegant farmyard, perhaps, and it was probably potted up initially, but I bet it was a farmyard where happy cows were hanging around.

Pazo de Quinones de Leon in Vigo

Here is how it began. The gardens we visited are called “pazos,” galician for the Latin palatium, meaning palace, or, loosely, manor house. Many of them were fortresses in the middle ages, but some time around the 17th and 18th centuries, feudalism lost its allure. A new age of exploration and discovery set the stage for a new wave of agriculture. Prosperity attended a fragile peace, particularly for nobles who lived in pazos.

Orange trees among hectares of camellias and grapevines edged with box

Fortresses became manor houses with large landholdings that practiced what we would call today an ancient form of “sustainable agriculture” — a reasonable assumption, since there were no global monopolies distributing fertilizer or pesticide.

They were like miniature towns, these pazos, self-sufficient properties with permanent structures built out of always-on-tap granite. Granite! Not wood. Not plaster. Granite. It lies beneath our feet, ancient bedrock, toilsome to the chisel but practically indestructible.

Dwellings, outbuildings,  niches, benches, steps, fountains, stone crosses (often with carved figures of Christ and the Virgin Mary), walls, and supports for grape vines — all granite. For a devout people, a chapel of granite was requisite.

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Horreos raised up on granite pilings with stone crosses on peaked roofs stored grain.  They are everywhere,  their size and variety limited only by space and  ingenuity of the builder.  Round dovecotes roughly hewn of granite housed pigeons or doves that provided meat, eggs, and fertilizer.

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Gardens and orchards served up fruits and vegetables. The albarino grape, growing wild and free until it was supported on granite pillars supplied enough wine for family and friends.

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Aside:  Until someone much later said this is good stuff. With a little special attention we could tame those vineyards to produce even more wine — and income. Today, Galician wines are produced under strict quality control. Members of our tour group will readily vouch for the quality of the albarino wine we drank each day.

Vineyards roll on, a part of the Galician landscape

Enter the exotic camellia and its associates from around the world: rhododendron, boxwood, euonymus, hydrangea, cryptomeria, cypress, juniper, cedar. All familiars in our gardens, too.

Rhododendron pruned as a tree?

Land that had evolved from fortress to farm made  space for the pleasure garden, oasis of beauty and leisure and entertainment for the household. (The cows had moved to green pastures by then.)

Mixed border in Pazo de Fefinanes in Cambados

Gradually, the pazo  evolved by custom into three distinct elements: the “reservado” around the house with orchard and garden for the family, the farmland, and, on the outskirts, the forest.

The “reservado,” Pazo Rubians

It’s no accident then, that our tour listed visits to “pazos” and not simply gardens. Our group enjoyed visits to some elegant homes that echoed of history and old customs and generations of family. But the pazo is a union between home and garden, architecture and landscape. It is today a mosaic of land use, at once elegant and pastoral, that fuses the color, fragrance and form of exotics with the land that is Galicia. There is no concrete in these gardens.

Stone cross tucked into woodlands. Note height of camellia on left

Unlike gardens measuring only a century or two, or even gardens with history, like Florence’s  Boboli, or that most loved Parisian garden, Luxembourg, these pazos speak of romance and great age. Of mossy benches and  boxwood, of leisurely paths and ancient trees, of rustic stone steps and fountains and statuary. Does it come down to climate, that moisty misty hazy blanket that snugs this land with the gentle patina of age? Or is it that pithy granite that binds with its bones? Or both.

La mundo, quilted with moss and speckled with lichen. Pazo Santa Cruz de Rivadulla

Of manicured lawns there are none. Instead, casual washes of green, speckled with wild flowers, create vistas and organize groups of plants.

The gardens we visited lie along a part of the coast known as the rias Baix (low estuaries in southwest Galicia). Each garden is independent, but they are all part of the Route of the Camellia, which is maintained and promoted by Spain and the province of Pontevedra. They promise that 8,000 varieties of camellias, that “most beautiful flower under the heavens,” lie along this route. This includes many hybrids and species not often seen.

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In fact, our group got to see some of these blooms on display when we visited a camellia show being set up. I couldn’t help comparing shows in the US, where displays are formal and camellias precisely positioned, with exhibits in this show at Castle Sotomaier.

Formal groupings lined tables here, too, but imagination took the reins. Exhibits had themes ranging from classic to whimsical.  They  would be judged on creativity and quality of blooms. Look for the yellow Camellia nitidissima.

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And finally, I must tell you about the greatest of all  camellias.

The Pazo Quinones de Leon is an elegant park and museum in Vigo that is open to the public. You can stroll through the rose garden (in season), the French garden, formal, with parterres, and the more relaxed English garden.

There’s a pond with ducks, a miniature model of the pazo on an island in the pond, and when we were there camellias and rhododendrons and early azaleas were blooming.

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What, you ask,  is so special about a certain camellia here? Well, it is probably the grandest and the oldest camellia in Galicia. It is over 200 years old and its trunk at ground level is 24 inches in diameter. That’s a measure of over six feet around. The camellia is called Methuselah. A miniature army of boxwoods stands guard around Methuselah to give it the majesty that this survivor deserves.


Once you’ve seen this plant, the debate over whether camellias are bushes or trees becomes moot. With camellias, it takes a long time, much more time than we gardeners have. A humbling thought. Like heavenly light that takes millennia to reach us, the gardens in Galicia are a tableau of time.

Moments in a castle garden: the fading bloom, the young bloom emerging, and scattered cones whose seeds will soon begin a journey of their own

Next:  Part III, Santiago de Compostela

For more about camellias and Galicia, visit the links below.

Galicia Encantada. . .Part I        Galicia Encantada. . .Part II

Galicia Encantada. . .Part III     Galicia Encantada. . .Part IV

Galicia: Three Gardens I      Galicia: Three Gardens II

Posted in Camellias in Galicia, Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Galicia Encantada. . .Part I

During 2018 I took a trip to an enchanted land. Reflections of my visit to Galicia are told in four parts: the land, the camellias, the holy city of pilgrimage. And, finally, my travel back to reality, brightened by my portraits of camellias.  Specific gardens are discussed in Great Gardens under two entries on Galicia.  

Where is Galicia? And Who are the Galicians?

Raindrops stung as I walked toward the large hanger that anchors the airport in Vigo. It was the beginning of March and I was on my way to meet a small group for a week of touring gardens in Galicia.

Spain and Portugal, Galicia, part of Spain, in red. Wikimedia map

Touring gardens? In March? In the rain? In Spain?

Friends laughed when I told them I was crossing an ocean to see camellias. Stay home, stay warm, stay dry. You can see camellias from your window.

But I had seen a picture of bright pink camellia petals strewn like a royal carpet across an expanse of green that ran up to aged stone steps.

I was hooked. Camellias that shed like that must be worth seeing. And where did those stone steps lead?

Where land meets water, old towns grew up on or around granite outcrops

I shivered as I slipped into a cab that had been waiting over an hour for our weather-delayed flight.

Gray skies weren’t doing much to brighten clusters of nondescript homes climbing steep hills above the city, but rain shined up outcrops of granite along the roadway.

Those crooked, cracked layers! Something big happened here. Was I seeing remnants of mountains rising from middle earth?

Or continents torn asunder? Yes, there really is a part of Galicia on the far north coast of North America.

A hazy view of a land of rolling hills

But the Galicia I was visiting is an enchanted land that sits quite comfortably north of Portugal in a small green corner of Spain that stays green even in summer, when the rest of Spain is yellow.

It’s only about the size of Belgium, and surprise! it lies on a straight-arrow course west to Boston.

This should be a recipe for cold winters, except that its neighbor, the Atlantic Ocean, moderates climate. Summers usually stay cool and winters are benign.

Our walk through the romantic gardens of Pazo de Santa Cruz de Ribadulla

Did I mention that it rains a lot in spring?


Most of the trips I take, usually with my daugher, are self-planned with a little strategic help from travel agents. But I hadn’t the vaguest idea of how to navigate this land I had never heard of.

Four years after seeing that photo I found Ciceroni Travel, who, it turns out, was already navigating this land with five-star panache. Ciceroni is based in England. They plan high quality, in-depth cultural tours to singular destinations.

Our group enjoying a break at a pazo

We were cared for like royalty. Taken about in a comfortable coach. Escorted by Manuel, our knowledgeable and engaging Galician guide.

And squired by David, who kept the tour humming and catered to our needs. Which in my case meant keeping track of my umbrella, locating my lost eye glasses, and helping me  with travel details when my flights home were abruptly cancelled.

By the time the cab pulled into the parking lot of the Parador in Cambados the sun was shining on what must be one of the prettiest coastal towns in Galicia.

(Paradors are a chain of hotels operated by the Spanish government.)

Cambados is one of many fishing communities along Galicia’s jagged thousand-mile-long coastline. Yes, tiny Galicia’s coastline is a thousand miles long. Inlets, islands, coves, bays, archipelagos and rias zig and zag, all governed by the laws of geologic change.

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Rias, whose waters slice through the land to join the sea, are lifelines for Galicians, or gallegos, as they call themselves. They are the inlets you can find on a large map, river valleys drowned by rising seas when glaciers melted.

Here I am, with river mills behind me, in a park whose waters flow into rias

Here is where rivers spilling from mountains meet salty ocean waters.

And here in these estuaries, in this mix of salt and fresh waters, is where Galicia’s wonderful seafood comes from.

In fact, Galicia ranks among the top harvesters of mussels in the world.

The city of Vigo is second only to Tokyo in its fishing trade. Octopus boiled in large copper kettles is a popular Galician delicacy.

Our lovely lunch at Pazo Rubians

Seafood was on our menu regularly. Delicious. Fresh. Perfectly prepared.

How is it harvested? From a distance, bays and harbors  look like they are spattered with strange black rectangular  islands.

Look more closely and you see manmade platforms rigged with ropes suspended in  water, just the lure for a young mussel looking to attach itself to a permanent home.

Once they mature, cranes raise the mussels up out of the sea. Then they go down easy with a glass of albarino wine from Galician vineyards.

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I took these pictures on a tour that included a boat trip around the Rias baixas (low rias) in the province of Pontevedra, the same province that celebrates the Route of the Camellias in Galicia. A close look at mussel production and fishing boats was accompanied by servings of Galician mussels and Galician wine.

Yet fifteen years ago the fishing industry was devastated by a colossal oil spill off Galicia’s Costa de la Muerte, a graveyard for ships battered during winter gales. An obsolete rust bucket, ironically named the Prestige, began to leak fuel oil. It was refused dockage by the Spanish, French and Portuguese governments.

When the Prestige finally split in two after aimless days at sea, some 20 million gallons of fuel oil fouled miles and miles of beaches and harbors along the Galician coast.

Small fishing villages like Combarro, the little mariner’s town of 18th century vintage, suffered economic losses. Combarro is known for its horreos (granaries for corn and occasionally dried fish),  its cruiceiros  (stone crosses), and its casas marineras (sea houses).

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Sluggish officialdom be damned, gallegos and others by the thousands were on the beaches pitching in, volunteering along side paid workers. They were spectacularly successful.

Old horreo amid garden in Pazo de Quintiero da Cruz

You are wondering now, when we will get to the gardens, which are, after all, what you are most curious about.

Be a little patient with me, for these gardens are different.

Unlike many gardens I have visited, they have not begun life as a grand vision in a designer’s imagination, then been carved out of the land and reassembled by bulldozers and earth movers.

Galicians are by tradition farmers. The gardens we visited began as farms and orchards long ago.

Stone fountain surrounded by camellias and woods in Pazo Quinteiro da Cruz

Their structures echo times past, and moss on old benches and dovecotes sings of age.

The gardens grew up as Galicia changed. So we need to hear the story of Galicia to understand the gardens and the people of Galicia.

Life should have been idyllic in this land of meadows and forests embraced by seas to the west and rugged mountains to the east, a land made green by misty days and nights.

It was not. It never has been.

Every noble, or ignoble, dynasty in history seems to have taken a turn at rampaging through Galicia.

I will spare you and skip those stone and bronze ages when the art of weaponry was first being perfected. Yes, I can see by the absent smile and glazed eyes that you are about to skip this entire section. Again, be patient, because our short trip will give you an idea of how the Galician character was framed.

The Celts, first recorded invaders, were later flattened by the Romans who scorned them as hard-drinking, hard-fighting barbarians, then conscripted them for battle and, under Caesar, occupied Gallaecia in equally barbaric manner.

When some nomadic Germanic tribes (Germany!) learned that the Romans were slacking off, they swept in to fill any possible abhorred vacuum in warfare.

Do you suppose this old tree was around to see any of the action? Pazo Quinones de Leon in Vigo

The Visigoths, by now good Catholics, followed them with raids and ongoing scrapping between nobles and bishops.

Lots of sword play, I suspect, probably involving commoners, too, though their arms may have been less elegant.

We mustn’t forget the Moors, who invaded, were thrown out, re-invaded and re-tossed.

Then there was the Inquisition to stamp out contamination by Protestants.

Raids by Vikings.

And a victorious but hapless incursion by the British, whose armies, to the good fortune of gallegos, were decimated by the plague.

In his will of 1473, a Knight whose full name was Fernan Garcia Barba de Figueroa (character from an opera? Or a Monty Python skit?) plaintively describes the situation:

The Age of Fortresses. This one that survived melees is the Pazo de Oca

“The Kingdom is totally scrambled in war, with so many thieveries and deaths, and ill facts: to rise up a large mob of commoners against the knights; and many knights to rise up against the King himself, our Master; and another lords of the land to make war on each others; and to dash to the ground so many houses and towers.”

Shortly before the Knight was laid to rest, Galicia officially became part of Spain under Ferdinand and Isabella, the same pair who sponsored Christopher Columbus.

Dutch artist’s fanciful rendering of the Battle of Vigo Bay. The legendary but non-existent sunken silver funded Captain Nemo’s fictional Nautilus voyage in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

Do not assume that this union with Spain magically cut the butchery. Galicia mattered little to Madrid, except for what could be taken from her – her men for armies and her taxes for wars that mostly didn’t matter.

There were wars with the Portuguese, the British (again), the Dutch, the French, and, along the way, abductions by Barbary slave traders.

The Battle of Vigo Bay in 1702 pitted the Dutch and English against the French and Spanish over silver from America.

The oil spill of the 21st century was yet another invasion.

The unkindest blows to 20th century Galicia came from the iron-fisted 36-year rule by General Francisco Franco, that bastard Franco, as he is familiarly but not affectionately called. Blows so terribly unkind because Franco was born and raised in Galicia.

Yet he expeditiously offed officials and dissidents there and strictly limited use of the native Galician tongue – the romance language he had grown up with. The point was, of course, to bend Galician will to the rest of Spain.

It never quite worked.

A prosperous farm at the Pazo de Oca today

The constant grind of war and oppression have taken its toll. Some have prospered. Many have been reduced to hardscrabble life.

The custom of minifundismo was lethal to landholders.

Dividing land equally among heirs may sound eminently fair, but it has chopped the countryside into scraps of farms that punish the owners because they cannot be worked profitably.

Out of desperation, people began to emigrate. Mostly men leaving families, hoping to find solutions, hoping to return. Women remained in the countryside, mustering the grit to endure the absences and assume the roles of husband, father, brother, son.

El Immigrante, photo by Manuel Ferrol

Though some moved from country to city, many more went into the unknown: Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, Germany, France, Switzerland. They assimilated.

Manuel Ferrol, who grew up in the early 20th century on Galicia’s Costa de la Muerte, has recorded these farewells in poignant photographs: final scenes of separation, fear of the future, grief, desolation, desperation.

For of all people, Galicians are most rooted to their land. Despite turbulence and hardship, Galicia calls to them. There is a romance in this green earth that binds them to their homes.

The Spanish word for yearning, or homesickness, is lamorrina. It can be loosely translated as intense sadness at leaving Galicia.

The Rande Bridge over the Vigo ria, site of the battle in 1702, could be a symbol of  modern Galicia

Today, the feeling is upbeat along Galicia’s corrugated coast.

The Atlantic Motorway takes tourists and locals from town to town, as does regular but limited bus and train service.

Fishing, tourism, industry, wineries, even fashion, are bringing prosperity to western cities.

Inland, though, gallegos have not necessarily felt these fair winds.

Rosalia de Castro is perhaps Galicia’s most beloved poet. Her romantic yet wistful 19th century poems speak of sadness and loss. Her simple phrases express every gallego’s love for Galicia.

Lugar mais hermoso
No mundo n’hachara
Qu’aquel de Galicia
Galicia encantada

Land most beautiful
No world can fell that Galicia
Galicia encantada

Statue of Rosalia de Castro in Alameda Park in Santiago de Compostela, capital of Galicia

Next: The Camellias, Part II

For more on camellias and Galicia, visit the links below.

Galicia Encantada. . .Part I           Galicia Encantada. . .Part II

Galicia Encantada. . .Part III         Galicia Encantada. . .Part IV

Galicia: Three Gardens I       Galicia: Three Gardens II



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Flaming Fall

Pictures from a New Hampshire Garden

The Gardener, Susan

The Photographer, Mike

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You Can Never Turn Your Back on a Garden

Or, Hope Springs Eternal under a Gardener’s Spade

(Dear Reader – What I am about to tell you is the plain unvarnished sober truth. I do solemnly swear this on the Good Garden Book of all time. We confess it, yes we do: We turned our backs on the garden this summer.

You are probably assuming that summertime was couch-and-truffle time for us. Not true. We were out there with Ranger, hauling and shoveling, building beds and laying paths – in the days of heat and humidity. (And then we headed for the couch.)

Clematis ‘Henryi’, not content with a railing, covets the chair, but we’ll let him be

Here’s the irony. We were out and about almost every day and we never noticed what was going on right under our noses. Plants are tricky.

Photos inserted in the post are prima facie evidence (fancy terms I learned from Perry Mason) of the crime wave. Some of them are depressing. So much so, I almost added a bottle of wine to the truffle-binge. In contrast, photos in the slide show were taken during spring and summer, when life was fresh and good and abloom. Here is our story.)


They’re an army of thugs, ruffians, sneaks, invaders, trespassers, layabouts, cutthroats, guerillas.

And I’m not talking about the weeds.

They are notorious gamblers, too.

Front bed behaved in spring, unruly today, daring me to cut them back

Here’s the first thing that happened in the garden this season. It rained a lot. Here’s the second thing that happened. The plants partied. They drank non-stop and gambled like the good times would last forever.

Here’s the third. I celebrated, too. No dragging hoses, no water bills. (Little did I understand that I was on a very short winning streak.)

Even the reliably neat growers rioted like demented lunatics, breaking out, shoving neighbors, smothering them. No polite, “May I have a little of your space, please?” More like, “I’m takin’ your territory and don’t try to stop me.”

Even scrawny pittosporum began to invade. See next photo

I had an epiphany. Those lovely green things that can give so much pleasure are true gamblers, grabbing tight to the coattails of a winning rainy streak.

Then they count on me to bail them out by anteing up the hoses when they hit a losing streak.

Oh, they are good. Smooth operators, they are. Pictures of innocence in the spring. Enthusiastically budding out under warm rains and balmy skies. So pretty and prim.

When we roughed up the soil for a replacement planting of azaleas, we found a solid network of pittosporum roots widespread in only a few months

Innocently I rejoiced in their sweet new growth, and, trustingly, I turned my back to go on to other chores. That’s when things got out of hand.

Instead of investing some of the excess in the future, like the ads on television say to do, they were squandering their good fortune.

Chugging that rain just as soon as it fell, gambling like big shots, sporting big leaves with a flourish and flaunting pole-vault growth — in very poor, nouveau-riche taste, I might add.

Sweet autumn clematis (that’s the old common name) (the other names, because people discovered it wasn’t so sweet: Clematis paniculata, Clematis ternifolia) is one of the worst. It’s the biggest and sneakiest guerilla in the garden, and that’s probably why it has been given two scientific names and not one.

Third growth of the season after two others whacked down. There is an azalea under there

The books say to cut it down at the end of the season for best growth next spring.

I am happy to announce that cutting it down really works. Our hundred and two small villains have grown into an army of thugs.

The books also say to fertilize the plants. Fertilize them! They’re already on their way to becoming kissin’ cuzins with kudzu, lounging over the garden like decadent divas.

The books also say they have lovely seed heads that glisten in the sun. I have to agree. The books do not mention that every seed head creates a new plant, and some, I suspect, have twins, or even triplets.

If you are a vigilant gardener, you can pluck the babes before they fly, but I am not a vigilant gardener. I tend to procrastinate until somehow a horde has grown roots clear down to Azerbejian, or some other unspellable, unpronounceable territory that you can’t find on a map.

Here clematis is climbing over Ilex verticillata, which is supposed to be berrying. Bob was cutting it back regularly

Now, don’t get me wrong, I love Sweetie (that’s my old pet name for it). (Sweetie! Pet name! Is she nuts? First she calls it a thug and a villain, now we hear it’s a Sweetie.)

Never you mind. I love it so much I have sold it at our plant sales. (Now I develop an extreme case of myopia when I see once enthusiastic buyers, formerly good friends.)

But I just can’t resist those cascades of dainty, sweet smelling flowers falling all over shrubs in August and September.

It all started innocently enough when the first Sweetie anchored itself near a quince that defoliated in August. (Don’t ask why the defoliation, just accept.)

The quince happened to grow (here I must be honest and take responsibility for this idiotic siting) right next to a path and the driveway. Great possibilities here for healthy quince thorns to scratch a car or stab unsuspecting strollers.

But I was rhapsodizing about great garden design, not practicalities. Everyone coming up the path to our house would have to pass this quince and they would all exclaim about its lovely spring blooms, if, of course, they weren’t stabbed first.

Here, clematis has made it to the roof of the gazebo

It didn’t quite work that way. Everyone seemed to visit in August. People would ask, why don’t you get rid of that dead plant with the awful spines.

And I would have to go through a long explanation of how it blooms like a champ from January to April and it is probably taking a little rest now, though I don’t know why, and don’t worry, it’ll green up next year.

(At least this quince is not one of those guerilla-gamblers.)

Then people would give me that look like I was demented, but they would never let on.

So to stop people asking me why I kept dead plants hanging around the garden, I let Sweetie smother the quince, and then people could admire cascades of blossoms instead of fretting over a dead plant. Though by this time knowledgeable visitors had learned to take a detour and didn’t notice the show.

Even the native wisteria ‘Amethyst Falls’, supposedly more restrained than the non-native, began to drape itself on the bench

But Sweetie betrayed me. She never reined in her toddlers. Just let them romp over the entire garden, leaving me to clean up the mess, and that is why I have a love-hate relationship with Sweetie.

To get back to the other gamblers, along about August, we had a dry, hot spell, and I noticed the plants were not as happy as when they were celebrating steady wins in spring.

They were struggling to keep their leaves above water, in a manner of speaking, and they had that look of wanting a bailout. I ignored them. I told them not to look at me like that and in fact I cut the cheekiest beggars back hard so I wouldn’t be tempted

The first year ever our George Tabor azaleas wilted. Maybe because they muscled their way out of their space?

They won’t try to take advantage of me again, I smirked.

Then, in September and October, despite hurricanes threatening, a bigtime dry spell hit.

You should have seen their ploys to get me off the couch and make them flush again.

The droops, the wilts, the crumpled (formerly big) leaves, the sagging stilt-stems, the browned flowers and fern fronds.

They knew all the tricks. I’m proud to say I didn’t give them a tumble. I was not going to be an enabler.

Shame on this ‘Lady in Red’ hydrangea. Usually a showpiece all summer, she  caroused too much like a lady in red this spring and look where she is today

You were high rollers in spring, I yelled. You gambled on the good times lasting forever.

You figured your winning streak would never end. You should have thought of summer and saved something for a rainy day. (Uh. . . or maybe that would be a sunny day.)

Don’t come crying to me now. I’m the one who has to bring some order to this garden.

And just be glad I’m only whacking at you.

Ditto for you, green-eyed coneflower. You’ll be cut down soon, you’ll see

Any more of this droopy business and I’ll rip you out and throw you onto Ranger’s backside and you’ll be crushed in the dump.

Well. . .I probably wouldn’t do all that.

And come to think of it, maybe I shouldn’t be too hard on the gamblers.

We gardeners are gamblers, too. I ante up for plants all the time and count on winning. And then. .

Or I rescue a sad sack. Don’t worry, I say, I can get you back on track. And then . . .

Or I put a plant in a spot that I know is not quite right for it and expect it to live. And then . . .

Joepyeweed always grows out of bounds, but if I cut it back once or twice  in early summer it behaves. Note height difference between one shearing and two shearings.

I grow broke.

Like true gamblers, we gardeners rarely announce our losses. Whatever stays green gets bragged about.

Whatever doesn’t is a best-kept secret unless we are prodded to tell the truth so we get to heaven.

We’re a little like the fisherman who can’t quite get measurements straight.

Do you suppose the plants have reformed after this year? Nah.

And always there is the reaping of the mess

With this pleasant fall weather, they are perking up, looking mighty pleased.

Got out of the hole this year, didn’t we? And we didn’t need any hoses, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah.  So there.

Now it’s time to rest up for the gambling spree next spring.

Do you suppose we gardeners will ever learn? Nah.

Hope springs eternal under the gardener’s spade.

PS  Even though I YELL at plants, I am NOT demented. Here are pictures of some plants I did not have to scold.

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