Mars or Bust!

Yo, yo, yo people! We are going to Mars! Yes, we are leaving this tired old, used-up hulk of a planet to the trash heap. Soon enough global warming will bake this ball of space dust into a shriveled-up cinder incapable of supporting even a cockroach. Time to get out of town! 

Yes, NASA is working on plans to develop a one-way manned mission to the great beyond. OK, no jokes about who you might like to reserve a seat for, because this is some serious stuff. NASA and DARPA (the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Project Agency) have embarked on a mission to build a Hundred Year Starship, a vessel intended to voyage to distant stars and drop off passengers, permanently, along the way. First stop? Maybe Mars.

"Reluctant Astronaut" Universal City Studios photo

Hard to say just how serious they are about the plan. So far the two mega agencies have coughed up $1.1 million in start-up fiunds, an amount dwarfed, no doubt, the by the Pentagon's budget for donuts. Still, those in the know say they might be blasting off the first ship in as soon as 20 years. Since we've let the home planet go to pieces, the plan is to get to Mars, carve out a foothold, then terraform the place and start all over again. (Note to self: This is why those fat-cat, greed-monger CEOs and banking execs need to make obscene amounts of cash and don't care about trashing the planet and its people in the process--They're saving up for tickets!) 

 Here are a couple quotes from a Popsci story about the effort. (Illo above is "Atomic Avenue #1" by Glen Orbik. Hat Tip: DRB)

“The human space program is now really aimed at settling other worlds,” Worden said, according to a Singularity University blog that covered the event.

Incidentally, thats exactly the proposal in a new paper in press in the Journal of Cosmology, a relatively new, peer-reviewed open access journal. Dirk Schulze-Makuch and Paul Davies suggest sending astronauts to Mars with the intention of staying for the rest of their lives, as trailblazers for a permanent Mars colony.

They would get periodic supply missions, but they would be expected to fend for themselves for water, shelter, nutrients and mineral/chemical processing. They would be expected to develop some kind of homegrown Martian industry, which could ultimately serve as a hub for an expanded colonization program. Plus, leaving some people on another planet would probably ensure that we’d want to go back, to visit them and see what they created.

Thinking about enlisting? Sign up for a tour to see future real estate hotspots such as the Tharsis Volcanic Region or the Utopian Plains. If you like what you see, become a Martian citizen

On Mars, new settlers can revive the great traditions of our earthly past. They can slaughter the hapless natives (as in the Donald Newton illustration above), raze the landscape, build soaring cities (like the one envisioned by Frank Paul), and get busy extracting and plunder anything and everything of possible value--like maybe whatever shimmering blue liquid lies lakelike in the crater below (in a scene actually photographed by NASA on the red planet). Then after another couple years, they'll have to head off for the next stop.

Sorry to rain on this particular parade, er, launch, but a change of address isn't going to solve our problems. No, relocating humanity, even seeding it throughout the universe, is not the answer. We don't need to change our location, we need to change our values. We have to try to live in harmony with--rather than in domination of--the place we call home. Our species managed just that for tens of thousands of years, until fairly recently. How hard can it be? 


Fab Foliage Friday

Today's fab foliage is not a plant, it's an idea. The idea that you don't need anything but leaves to make a compelling garden vignette, This big leaf bonanaza comes from the ever-amazing Longwood Gardens, from a spot deep inside the coils of its vast conservatory. Don't know whether this particular chlorophyll-filled chamber has an official name; to me it is always the Hall of Steroidal House Plants. Whatever you want to call it, the plants speak for themselves. Eloquently.


Me @ BBG

I'll be doing my PowerPoint presentation on The Crazy Mixed-Up Border at the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge, MA next Saturday, Nov 6. I've taught and lectured there in the past and always love returning to stroll the inspiring grounds. My talk starts at 10 am-for more info or to purchase tickets, go here.

Gardyn Music

There's probably no one out there who hasn't already seen this video by the Australian sound artist Pogo (aka Nick Bertke)...but what the heck! I find each viewing more compelling than the last, so I keep watching it. The flow of time in this video seems frozen yet fluid; I consider that feeling of loopy suspension to be a big part of the magic. This is a work of sonic genius (the visuals are pretty good too), a notion affirmed by the video's selection as as one of the 25 most innovative, unique and groundbreaking video works of the past two years, as determined by the YouTube Play jury. This video, along with the other jury picks, was recently celebrated at the Guggenheim Museums in New York, Bilbao, Berlin and Venice.


Wordless Wednesday 10.27.10

Photographed @ Longwood Gardens


The New Amazonians

I don't intend to chronicle the discovery of every new species, but they are always worth noting. In an era with more than 25,000 annual extinctions, it seems as if we're hurtling toward another mass die-off, an evolutionary gateway that has swung shut--killing off 50-90% of the species calling earth home-at least five times in our planet's past. The last mass extinction, the Triassic-Jurassic die-off 65 million years ago, killed off the dinosaurs and made possible the rise of mammals. Some scientists believe global warming, with an assist from other human-driven catastrophes--pollution, land clearing and overfishing--could lead to another mass extinction as early as 2100.

So when a new species is discovered, it's as if there is a new star in the sky, a new reason for hope. It suggests we are not killing things off faster than we can discover them. I hope. Anyways, the latest discoveries come from the imperiled Amazon basin, the vast, green lungs of our planet, which are being ravaged by settlers, loggers and miners for short term gain. World Wildlife Fund researchers and others have discovered 1200 new species--a rate of one every three days during the last decade, a feat detailed in Amazon Alive..

Among them are the electric-looking fish at top, Apistogramma baenschi (photo by Kris Weinhold), one of 257 species discoved in the mother of rivers and its tributaries. How about the stylish spider with the pink slippers, Avicularia braunshauseni, a tarantula with a sharpshooting talent for blasting pesky intruders with perfectly aimed jet of excrement--accurate to 3 feet (photo by Karl Csaba). Then there's the Rio Acari marmoset (lensed by Georges Neron) and the last of this little sampler, a boon for all you flower lovers, is this handsome bromeliaceous Bromelia araujoi photographed by E. Esteves Pereira. Long may they shine!


Making an Impression

My efforts at garden making, diverse though they may be, tend to rely largely on contrasting the shapes and textures of foliage. Flowers too (and how about those way cool dahlias and Lantana trfolia-a plant I am so hunting for next year.) And since, when it comes to gardening, I'm one of those more-is-better guys, I like dramatic juxtapositions of plants with wildly differing attributes. But on a recent whirl of garden visiting I had to admire an approach almost opposite to mine, an approach that often groups plants by their similarites rather than their differences, an approach that I find ethereal, airy--almost to the point of spectral, and oh-so appealing. Perhaps its allure lies in the likelihood that this is an effect I rarely strive for--with any measure of success--in my own gardens, because the truth is that I have utterly no idea how to go about achieving it, so...I'll just appreciate this vaguely impressionistic effect that to me uderscores a garden's fragility and its transitory beauty.

Take the opening image of Nicotiana mutablis, its pinky white flowers creating a starry firmament above the clouds provided by Euphorbia characias 'Glacier Blue' and Agastache 'Acapulco Salmon and Pink.' The scene looks fragile, almost ghostly, as if it might disappear in a gust of wind. But this vignette at the Ladies' Border at the New York Botanical Garden exhibits real staying power, it will provide that punch for weeks if not months. It's all about the massing of tiny details.

Likewise. on the other side of the NYBG conservatory, I happened upon the Seasonal Walk, this year a Dutch treat courtesy of uber-designers Piet Oudolf and Jacqueline Van der Kloet. Oudolf is known for the creation of evolving, seasoanlly rich plantscapes--many of whicxh are built upon the very frilly, linear shapes which so baffle me whenever I try to group them into combination. But there's no denying the windblown beauty of their creation, and the sheer eye-popping pizzaz of those dahlias nodding amid the plumes of grasses.

Farther afield, at Chanticleer, a similar scene revealed itself. And though horrid lighting prevented capturing a good representation of the tableau, there's no denying the effective use of lots and lots of linear shapes. The grasses, the yucca (is that a rostrata?), and the rest gathered in festive celebration of the airy line. That it works, no doubt. How the conceptual process that pulled it all together evolved, no clue.

Finally, this Chanticleer reverie really got me motivated to try some of these more impressionistic approaches to garden making. Foliage is doing nothing for this flowery fantasia, but the ethereal beauty of these colorful clouds-in primary hues of red, yellow and blue--make this something worth striving toward. And so I shall work next season, once again, to make my own scene that is more gauzy than gaudy, one that relies on likenesses rather than differences, one that is subtle, not shocking. Maybe I'll get lucky.


Fab Foliage Friday

Clatter Valley may have a tropical flavor-at least for part of the year--but as yet there's very little in the way of that most iconic of tropical plants, the palm tree. Now and then I'll pick up something sold as a houseplant at Lowe's Depot and plunk that in the garden for a palm effect, but I never took them too seriously until I happened on a specimen of silver Mediterranean fan palm (Chamaerops humilis var, cerifera). Wowza! What a foliage plant. A symmetrical dome of fan-shaped silver foliage -each leaf comprised of long splintery, slivers of silver--crowns a knobbly , primeval looking trunk. Those glorious leaves, which glimmer like moonlight, are perched atop long stems lined with hooklike thorns which look like a raptor's claws.

It's a plant brimming with beautiful details: the blades of the rounded, fanlike leaves, the thorns, the knobby trunk, the silvery hue, the overall silhouette--this thing's a keeper. And this native of Morocco's Atlas Mountains is among the hardiest of the already hardy (relatively speaking) fan palm clan. It grows a mile up in those semi arid mountains, where the weather is often cold enough to provide the palm a dusting of snow. Which means I can leave it out in its pot at least until Thanksgiving. And since it is so slow growing, this plant is a great candidate for containers. All it needs is plenty of sun (though color isn't bad even in part shade) and excellent drainage. Once it grows too cold outside here, my silver Mediterranean fan palm will come indoors for the winter to live as a houseplant. It's definitely worth the effort-this one's a keeper.


Wordless Wednesday 10.20.10

Photographed @ Chanticleer


Fall Finale at NYBG

With the garden season winding down to winter, I made a trip to the New York Botanic Garden to get a look at their last hurrah in the Irwin Perenial Garden. It's always a great show, from the large scale of the inviting entryway, to the smallest detail.

As always, I was on the lookout for sizzling combos created by juxtaposing bold, broad-leafed thingies against more delicate, airy companions. like, for example, the bigger-than-a-bathmat leaves of this banana rising from a surround of Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) , coleus, assorted dahlias and more.

Color ruled the day in this similarly scaled community of canna, accented by an orange swoon of cigar plant (Cuphea 'David Verity'), with its emberlike tube-shaped flowers all aglow in the overcast. Further firing up the scene were the bigger blooms of a few orange dahlias, smoldering like floating campfires. I know, I know...not everyone likes orange. But I do! Unapologetically. It's more accommodating than red, not as strident as yellow. I find it to be at once both fiery hot and pleasingly mellow.

Back to bold, how about these cool elephant ears (Colocasia esculenta 'Tea Cup'), floating above the filmy firmament of thread leaf bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) without benefit of saucers? Oh, and a few red zingers, courtesy of Dahlia royalty 'Bishop of Landaff', make the display ever so much more pleasing.

More thread leaf bluestar never hurts this time of year. While many may plant this standout for the galaxies of starry blue flowers that cover it in late spring, I find it far more valuable in fall, when its fine foliage turns a shimmering gold.

Speaking of gold, if there's a plant that's worth its weight in that precious substance, I'd have to say it's gold Japanese forest grass (Hakonechloa macra 'Aureola'), or any of the similar cultivars that bring so much bling to whatever setting they are placed in. Not only is there that gloooooooooorious color (typo, and it stays), there's the plant's ever-so-appealing lax habit, likened by so many to a waterfall. Long may it flow!

One of the most valuable yet simple garden design techniques is repetition. Repetition. You can never go wrong by adding more than one of a kind, and it gets even better when they are spaced out at roughly equal intervals, or if you're more eclectic kind of gardener, at irregular intervals. My feeling is that regular intervals are best because they bring an element of structural formality to a planting, and the more structure you've got, the freer you are to make merry with the rest of the plants. So, ironically, the rigor of regular repeats are ultimately a liberating force. And speaking of repetition, I'm going to have to get back to this garden soon.


Fab Foliage Friday

Furcraea are freakin' fantastic! I've proclamied my undying love for all things bromeliaceous or agavaceous in the past, and my ardor shows no sign of abating. Here's why: These plants have a supremely sculptural quality, for my money, one of the best shapes in the whole plant kingdom. Its sturdy, meaty leaves thrust purposefully from the ground. Like broadswords, they parry the elements, slashing at wind, and cutting through the rain. The plant's resolute nature gives it an elegant, classical quality.

As a collector of plant oddities, I am always on the lookout for plants that are like little works of art, and consider my garden (at least parts of it), to be a living gallery of chlorophyllic, sculpturous shapes and textures-furcraeas fit right in. They also appeal because they are spineless-which is not to say they have no presence--on the contrary! What they don't have are spines, or, colloquially, prickers, stickers, thorns or whatever you want to call the lethal protrusions that make handling agaves a dicey proposition. Put a furcraea in a pot (or better yet, an urn), put the pot anywhere there's enough room, and presto-you have just  improved the neighborhood. Sadly these things aren't hardy in my USDA Hardiness Zone 6 garden, but they seem content lolling away the winter in my basement, illumined by a few florescent lights. I photographed these specimens at the New York Botanic Garden, so not certain of the species or cultivar name but probably Furcraea gigantea 'Variegata'.


New Guinea's Newbies

It's always good news to hear about the discovery of new species, rather than the disappearance of those already known. Happening upon unknown life forms reveals magic and mystery in the world we inhabit, and offers proof positive that one need not journey to the bottom of a deep ocean trench or distant star system to encounter terra incognita.

New Guinea continues to provide new finds for the most special of treasure hunter-those seeking life hitherto unknown to science. The latest discoveries come from the Muller mountains of Papua New Guinea and the Nakanai mountains of nearby New Britain, off New Guinea's coast.Some 200 new species of plant and animal were observed by Conservation International researchers.Their finds included the freaky looking tube nose fruit bat (previously seen but still little known, though scientists have verified that he is not related to Yoda) and the spooky pink-eyed katydid (both photographed by Piotr Naskrecki). The cute tiny frog, a member of the genus Litoria, also hails from the Muller mountains and was lensed by Stephen Richards.

Discussing the new finds, Richards, the team's leader, told AP, "They tell us how little we still know about the world. There's a lot of concern, quite rightly, about biodiversity loss and climate change and the impacts on biodiversity and what biodiversity means to us. ... Then we do projects like this and we discover, 'Hey - we don't even know what biodiversity is out there.'"


Fab Foliage Friday

So many coleus, so little time. As a longtime leaf lover, I'm always flying my freaky foliage flag high--which means I can always make room for a new coleus or or two--but I also reserve a spot-or five-for returning favorites. Topping the old-but-good list of late is 'Sky Fire' a boldly hued coleus that grows to about 18 inches wide and high. Its deep, dark burgundy, shimmering chartreuse and yippie-yai-yay yellows make it invaluable in the hot color combinations on which I thrive.

As you might guess from their square stems, this genus (Solenostemon) is a member of the mint family; as you might not guess, they were first found on the Indonesian isle of Java, but have since been hybridized with countless near relatives to create the rich assortment of lovely leaves we know today. These dedicated garden workhorses serve as star players in pots, in the ground and just about anywhere you can put something with roots Contrary to popular opinion, they thrive in full sun, which gives the leaves their most vibrant coloration. Next year, as usual, I'll have many more, but one thing is certain-'Sky Fire' will be back, blazing away in the garden.


Bee Happy!

Melting ice caps, dying coral reefs, droughts, heat waves, famine--amid the tidal wave of environmental disaster, today gives us a reason to be thankful. Researchers have discovered the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder, the mysterious affliction that is decimating North America's honeybees and thus threatening production of almost every fruit and vegetable we eat. No cure yet, but understanding the cause is step one, Read all about it in the NYT. 


Mindo Lindo

Our ongoing search for magical places that fuse our passions for amazing landscapes, abundant plant life and exotic birds led us to Mindo, Ecuador, a tiny town clinging to the cloud-forested western slopes of the Andes. This teeny little place, not much more than a wide spot in the dirt road, was worth every bit of effort it took to get us there. Even the fruit stands were a work of art.

Mindo is all about the river, which thunders down from the mountains to bisect this lush forested valley. The river, with its water-polished stones, and at its side the sleepy, lost-to-the-world ambiance of Mindo itself, made me think of the town as a real-life Macondo, the mythical, mystical village at the center of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's masterpiece "One Hundred Years of Solitude." 

There are few bridges in this part of the world so to cross the flow, we had to hop aboard a tarabita--a sort of hand-hauled cable car with seating for one-to reach our absurdly oversized cabin. Birdboy loved this kind of commute. I did too. 

The river's soothing voice was the constant soundtrack as we hiked  local dirt roads and muddy paths, on the lookout for plants (about which more in a future post), birds and other exotica-like giant spiders dangling from huge webs. One night we went hiking in the pitch-black jungle to see nocturnal life-a panoply of even stranger insects and such than we'd seen during the day.

Wherever we walked, outageously oversized tropical foliage was everywhere. It was so tactile, begging to be touched. And it came in handy as umbrellas for the Artiste and Birdboy, and, in the case of this dried out cecropia leaf, a hat. 

Our favorite outing took us along a an amazing dirt road (torturous for anyone, like me, with a fear of heights) clinging to the spine of a mountain range just east of Mindo.

We bumped along for a couple hours befiore dismounting and plunging into steep and deep jungle, where our most excellent guide Fernando led us to a research station in the middle of absolutely nowhere. There we had a tasty surpise-a breakfast of all kinds of fruits, eggs, bread and hot black coffee (all very welcome, since we'd set out well before dawn). We followed paths through valleys darkened by layer after layer after layer of vegetation. Butterflies flitted about, and birdcall--more than 350 species can be found hereabouts--provided a musical soundtrack. Finally we emerged at this spectacular waterfall.

The sheer height of the waterfall, coupled with the massive leaves of the elephant ear in the foreground seemed to complete the notion that we were some kind of Gullivers, adrift in Brobdingnag, where EVERYTHING is bigger than real life. In the end, I had just one question about Mindo: When can we go back?


Fab Foliage Friday

I know I've crowed about elephant ears before, but this is a new one! Colocasia esculenta 'Elena' is a winner, with nicely ruffled chartreuse ears providing snappy contrast for the purplish veins that run through them. This appears to be one of those easy-to-please, foolproof plants that look good just about anywhere. As yet, I haven't tried it everywhere, just among these coleus, cordylines, canna and cacti, so I know for certain it works well with any plants beginning with the letter "C." Next year, I'm going to be trying some "D" plants. That would be a lot easier if I lived further south-the Plant Delights write-up says this baby is hardy clear to Zone 7b, at least. Here in Zone 6, I'm going to try overwinter this in my cool dark basement. 


In the Galapagos: Change We Can Believe In

Just about everybody knows the strange Pacific Ocean islands of the Galapagos were the jumping off point for Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.Those isolated bits of land seemingly adrift in the vastness of the Pacific offer a glimspe into the crucible of life and, literally, a textbook study of the concept of natural selection. The island birds, esp the finches (such as this cactus finch on Genovesa, aka Tower Island) and the mockingbirds, have evolved distinct species on different islands.

So, when we think of evolution, we tend to think of the animal kingdom, but the Galapagos also reveal a slower kind of evolution, the gradual transformation of barren volcanic rock to rich rainforest. Look how it all starts in these islands, which, like Hawaii, are the result of a hotspot, a leaky hole in the Earth's crust far below the surface of the sea. Lava oozes out of the hole and over the millennia forms massive mountains The tips gradually emerge from the sea to become islands, the Galapagos Islands.

Soon, the lava cools. Colonies of aptly named lava cactus appear. This rugged pioneer plant is one of the very first to grab a toehold on the forbidding, sun-baked lava flats. Gradually it spreads its roots into the lava, cracking it apart, and beginning the torturously long, slow process of turning stone into soil.

As eons pass, sea life washes up onto the lava shelfs to die and decompose, adding nutrients to the soil.

As the lava slowly breaks down to a sandy substance, the little, silvery whiskbrooms of tiquilia arrive.

Color arrives as soil is enriched by the decay of pioneer plants, animal matter and the like. The era of grasses dawns, along with thorny shrublets and mats of sesuvium, a succulent that turns fiery colors in the dry season. Land iguanas love to prowl through this stuff.

These amazing creatures look utterly prehistoric and exhibit amazing diversity, lumbering past in a paintbox set of hues comprised of yellows, reds, and oranges.
Trees rise. The Galapagos are parched during the dry season, when trees such as palo santo, the holy stick, drop their leaves. It leafs out and blooms around Christmas, with the return of the rains, Palo santo is related to frankincense, and its sap contains an aromatic resin burned in mainland Ecuador's churches as incense.

Along with the trees, a variety of cacti begin to reach for the sky.

Among them are various prickly pears, which here rise to exceptional heights. Their towering stature is due to another freakish characteristic of life forms that have evolved in island isolation over many thousands of years, gigantism. Think of Komodo dragons, the famed Galapagos tortoise (similarly sized tortoises can also be found in the Aldabra islands, an isolated archipelago in the Indian Ocean), or, heck, even King Kong. In the Galapagos there's a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg question that goes with gigantism--did the prickly pear get big to keep its fruits from being consumed by giant tortoises, or did tortoises grow big to reach more prickly pear fruit? Maybe it's an exotic example of symbiotic co-evolution.

Life begets life. At some point, the diversity of plant and animal species increases and, as if through some synergistic magic, increases yet again. The older islands are actually quite green and diverse, while newer bits of land are still baked lava crust supporting a paucity of species. For most of the birds for which the Galapagos are so famed, and for many of the other critters, the islands aren't much more than a place to nest and take a rest--all their food comes from the surrounding seas. At any rate some day, as here in the highlands of Santa Cruz, the islands support a rich, almost rainforest abundance of life. Thus, a new Eden is born.