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Singing Saul

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This week I’m departing from the topic of gardening because I’ve just had a wonderful weekend during which I had the privilege of singing, along with 599 other people, in the Sydney Opera House.

Each year, for the last thirteen years, Chorus Oz has provided enthusiastic choristers with the opportunity to take part in a massed choral performance of an oratorio. This year, Handel’s ‘Saul’ was performed.

In case readers get the wrong idea, no particular expertise is necessary, apart from being able to sing in tune, and being prepared to pay a fee. There is no audition.  Prospective choristers are sent a score and a CD with the the voice part (in my case soprano) on it. The rest is up to the participant: practise the part at home until you know it well, and then present yourself in Sydney on the long weekend in June, prepared to take part in a workshop, a rehearsal and a performance in the Sydney Opera House! It’s not a small undertaking really if like me, your music reading skills are fairly rudimentary. There’s certainly a challenge and also a great sense of achievement when you realise you’ve mastered those trills and high notes and learnt the eighteen choruses.

On Saturday, expectant choristers met together at the rehearsal venue for a full day workshop with our musical director, Brett Weymark. In he bounded, leaping up on to the rostrum, flinging his arms in the air and carolling, ‘Hello-o-o!”, his fingers fluttering like five-winged dragonflies. A one man song, dance and comedy band who soon had us all in his palm like ants to a sugar cube. We found ourselves doing faintly ridiculous warm-ups like pretending to chew steak while singing scales. Try it! The day flew by as we sang our hearts out, laughed and were entertained by this multi-talented person. Oh yes, and we worked very hard too.

The whole of Sunday was spent at the Opera House: just the choir in the morning, polishing and re-polishing, getting the correct intonation, diction and volume, and practising our sits and stands. No one wants the choir leaping up to sing at the wrong moment! In the afternoon the orchestra and the soloists arrived, and we rehearsed with them. It was an amazing achievement: none of these groups had rehearsed together before this day, and it all came together almost without a hitch.

Finally, assembled before an audience in the huge, vaulted Concert Hall, there we all were: a 600 strong choir, soloists and an orchestra complete with harpsichord and carillon. It was an electrifying performance and thrilling to be part of a huge musical enterprise as we swayed and sang, and even marched on the spot and sang. Swaying and marching don't usually happen in an oratorio, and I'm sure our actions added spectacle to music that is already full of drama.

I didn’t have much of a voice left at the end of it all, but I was uplifted and inspired by the experience and am already looking forward to next year's performance of Beethoven.

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Taking photos during a performance is quite rightly, not allowed at the Opera House, and most of the photos I took with my phone during rehearsal were blurry. I must have been too excited to hold my phone still. The photo above was taken during our rehearsal with the orchestra.   The photo below, however, was taken just before the start, by my daughter who, with my son, attended the performance.

 

 

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Did I manage to fit in a trip to a nursery on my trip to and from Sydney I hear you ask?  Of course!  Two, in fact.

Tropical Glasshouse

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Recently, whilst enjoying the Royal Botanical Gardens Melbourne, we visited the Tropical Glasshouse. I've thought long and hard about writing a post about the glasshouse, because what I know about tropical plants would fit on - I was going to say a tropical plant leaf, but they seem to have quite large leaves, so it would have to be another kind of leaf: a salvia leaf, perhaps. However, the visit was absorbing and the plants unusual to me, and  I thought I would share it.

The building of the glasshouse began in the early 1900s but it has been added to twice since then.  It is heated by natural gas.  The minimum temperature is 16 degrees C (obviously this climbs higher during the day),  and humidity is about 70% or more.  We certainly noticed the difference when we entered it on a grey Melbourne day.

All the plants are in pots, so repotting is an ongoing business.

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There were many different Bromeliads, so fascinating with their varied leaf designs: zig-zaggy stripes, green splotchy dots on purple, greyish-green with shocking pink tips and white pinstripes.  Bromeliads always have a little water tank in their centre which needs to be flushed out periodically.  Mosquitoes can breed in them which also makes it a good idea to do the flushing. These plants are epiphytes and don't need to be in a lot of  soil. I've learnt that they do just as well in orchid mix or sphagnum moss.  Unfortunately there were no flowers on the bromeliads when we visited.

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This pitcher plant  (Nepenthes truncata: it had a label) has a leathery feel.  Those rolled rims around the top of the pitcher are slippery and insects, or sometimes even a mouse or a frog, slide down only to become trapped and digested in the enzymes at the bottom of the pitcher, providing food for the plant. The pitchers themselves look like quivers for Hobbits' arrows! If Hobbits had arrows.

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Anthuriums are also strange looking plants.  The brightly coloured waxy looking part is a spathe or modified leaf, and not ( as I had thought) a flower. The tiny flowers can be found on the fleshy spike or spadix.

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In the centre of the glasshouse is a trickling streamlet surrounded by many plants and rocks covered with  small ferns, mosses and other damp-loving growths.  I  thoroughly enjoyed examining these microcosms with their different organisms. They're like a rainforest in miniature.

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Finally, a view of the interior of the glasshouse.  I have discovered, too late, that there are two Titan Arums in there and can't believe we didn't see them. Obviously they weren't in flower, because I'm sure their putrid smell would have been noticeable.

Botanical gardens usually have a glasshouse for visitors to wander through.  Have you been to one you enjoyed?

Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne

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It was a dull day in April when we visited the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne, but our enthusiasm was not dampened by the louring clouds as we wandered around the 38 hectare site with its Autumn leaf-covered lawns, its lofty trees and waterways.

The RBG was founded in 1846 and is an idyllic oasis in the middle of Melbourne only a short walk from the skyscrapers which can occasionally be seen above the trees. Like most botanical gardens,  it's divided into areas such as the Australian Forest Walk, the Tropical Glasshouse, the Southern African collection and the Perennial Border to name only a few.

Because it's a big site, it isn't possible to see everything in one visit, but although we missed quite a lot, we were well satisfied with our morning's meanderings.

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Banksias and chubby-trunked Boabs greeted us near the entrance to the gardens. I think these Boabs are youngish because I read that there's one in Western Australia that has a girth of 14.7 metres! It's thought to be 1 500 years old.

 

 

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We first wandered along the Australian Forest Walk, photos above.  Here native trees majestically imposed themselves on the landscape: Corkwood, Hard Corkwood (which is apparently  different  from not-so-hard corkwood), Cabbage Tree Palms and Queensland Kauri jostled for space amongst the Eucalypts,  Corymbia, and Angophoras (which look like 'gum' trees with typical gum-type leaves), and they in turn sheltered the ferns, Dracaenas and Queensland Firewheel Trees.

Firewheel trees-'Stenocarpus sinatus'- have spectacular flowers that really are in the shape of a wheel, unfortunately not depicted very well in my photo on the right.

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In another part of the gardens, known as the Oak Lawn people were occupied with enjoying the day even though the sky was grey and threatening. Schoolchildren played organised games or completed projects set by their teachers.

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In the ‘Camellia Collection’  blooms in many shades of pink could be seen.  Autumn is the best time to see Camellia Sasanquas flowering in Australia.

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A Wattlebird sipped nectar from a Floss Silk tree, Black Swans, native to Australia, swam in the lake, and an Eastern Spinebill (so difficult to photograph) found his lunch in the Echeverias.  Can you just see him there on the right?  He has a very long slender beak.  I'm happy to say I have Spinebills in my own garden, although I haven't been able to photograph one yet.

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A wander through the rainforest provided us with an idea of what it would be like to be in a real rainforest.  This area is kept damp with frequent waterings and there are tall sprayers placed frequently but unobtrusively throughout.  It's full of huge ficus trees with buttressed roots, epiphytes, ferns, and a wide variety of palms. A delightful stream runs through, wending its way down the slope, finding its way under roots and finally into one of the lakes on the lower level of the gardens.

 

Finally, with our feet aching and the sky threatening rain, we headed off back to the city, anticipating a delicious lunch at the highly recommended 'Chin Chin' restaurant.  I had to take one last photo which wasn't strictly in the gardens, but I couldn't resist this unusual combination of colours.

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Do you have a favourite public garden that you like to visit?

Traversing the Flat Land

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Our recent touring holiday, a journey of about 3 500 km, took us on a round trip to Melbourne and back, stopping at eight different towns and seeing a lot of Australian countryside in the process. From arid marginal land to rolling countryside of glorious green on the coast, we covered a lot of ground, and yet, looking at a map, it was only a small part of the south-eastern corner. We all know and understand that Australia is a huge country, but its immensity really becomes apparent when you start driving around in it.

Our first two days (from Mudgee to Griffith and then Griffith to Mildura), were fascinating in their own right, although many folk would only see the journey as something to be over and done with as soon as possible. Each day was a long drive: about five hours not including a short stop for lunch.

Much of that part of New South Wales is unrelentingly flat. If you could make a 360 degree turn, the land would be almost completely flat in every direction. And yet there is so much to see!

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The road surface is good, which is surprising considering the number of trucks, called road trains, that use it on a daily basis.  They are huge and rumble along at a steady 110 km/ph -as fast as they're allowed to go.  In the distance ahead of us, they reminded me of  sailing ships becalmed in the doldrums, seeming to be suspended above the heat haze, until they approached  and passed, on three occasions flinging up gravel. The gravel, which had been laid recently, flew through the air in an alarming fashion, like small meteorites, peppering our windscreen with chips and cracks.

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On each side of the road, it's possible to see that farming goes on: wheat, mostly, except around Griffith and Mildura which are irrigated areas, where citrus fruits, rice and grapes are grown. Occasionally there’s a copse on the horizon. Now and then an emu can be spotted, or a bird of prey. Sometimes remnant scrub can be seen. Or a lone farmer ploughs a paddock big enough to contain a small town.

The very enormity and emptiness of it is, in itself, fascinating. I found myself wondering about the tenacity of the people who cleared this land and the terrible wholesale removal of trees to create arable land. Towns along the way are far apart, and small: usually a few houses, a servo and a pub, and in one case a wonderful mural painted on the side of an old silo.

In recent times, silos have been replaced with more modern methods of storing grain, but the old silos have found a new life.  Artists are painting murals on them, and in fact, there's a Silo Art Trail in western Victoria. Visitors to this area can see enormous murals honouring local people,  painted by well-known artists.

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Both Griffith and Mildura are on rivers: Griffith on the Murrumbidgee and Mildura on the Murray.  The effect of entering them after the journey on the open road is as I imagine entering an oasis to be. Suddenly there are trees and lawns. There's an air of busyness.  People are out shopping or sitting at footpath cafés in the  sun, the shadows of street trees casting patterns on the footpaths.

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We met some great people along the way, from the woman at the service station at Weethalle who said she prefers to shop in Griffith (round trip 200 km),  to the friendly man in Hay who helped us decide whether we should replace the windscreen or not -we didn't.

While it wasn't a trip I'd want to make on a daily basis, as truck drivers might do, I wouldn't mind making it again one day, perhaps in a good season when rain has fallen, when the countryside would look completely different.

Have you been on a long road trip or do you prefer to stop in one place for a longer stay?

Lambley: late Autumn Garden.

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I've been inspired by David Glenn's Lambley Garden in Central Victoria ever since I became a serious (but uneducated in the science of horticulture) gardener about eighteen years ago. I've bought quite a few plants from there by mail order. So it was with much anticipation that I approached Lambley a couple of weeks ago, during our recent road tour of Victoria. We had been staying in the charming town of Daylesford, and Lambley is only a short drive away. Victoria, like so much of Australia, has been starved of rain for some time, and the countryside we passed through, although very beautiful, is also very dry.

Although I didn't get to meet them, I've learned that David and his artist wife Chris Canning have lived at Lambley for nearly thirty years.  Soon after arriving there David realised that the climate dictated that he would have to concentrate on the kinds of plants that could cope with extremes of temperatures,  from mornings of -8C in winter to highs of 40C+ in summer, rather than the gentle flowers of his native England.

Lambley is a series of 'rooms' containing a dry climate garden (which is seldom watered), a Mediterranean garden, a flower garden and a vegetable garden all connected by gravel paths and tree-shaded walks. Around the perimeter of the whole is a two metre high European privet hedge which helps to shelter the gardens from the hot dry summer winds of this area.

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The Dry Climate garden is entered through a single opening in the impressive hedge. Inside are five lofty olive trees, the branches of which have been pruned high so that the sun can reach the hardy plants beneath. The visitor can follow gravel paths and admire a selection of plants from Australia as well as from Turkey, Mexico, California, Southern Europe and other places where hardy plants are found. The occupants of the garden are watered in at planting and then left pretty much to their own devices. Apart from whatever rain falls, the dry garden might receive three more waterings a year if necessary.

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The Mediterranean garden has  an abundance  of bee-laden perennials filling wide borders with bounteous colour and volume, overflowing  onto  paths, and at this late stage of the season, creating a mesmerising tangle of hues and shapes.

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Here Nepeta has all but obliterated the path to an urn in the background while Clematis competes with bright uplifting dahlias for a slice of the action.

Above: Here Nepeta has all but obliterated the path to an urn in the background while bright uplifting Dahlias compete with Clematis for a slice of the action.

And looking at the urn from the opposite direction, the visitor sees a much more formal aspect with carefully clipped hedges flanking an immaculate path.

And looking at the urn from the opposite direction, the visitor sees a much more formal aspect with carefully clipped hedges flanking an immaculate path.

The pear walk, planted with Pyrus Calleryana, has an underplanting of white Japanese anemones and a beautifully kept grassy sward. Look how the sun dapples through the leaves onto the path.

The pear walk, planted with Pyrus calleryana, has an underplanting of white Japanese anemones and a beautifully kept grassy sward. Look how the sun dapples through the leaves onto the path.

Another formal walk, this time flanked by Mediterranean cypress, Cupressus Sempervirens. The blue seat is a very Italian touch.

Another formal walk, this time bordered by Mediterranean cypress, Cupressus sempervirens. I thought the blue bench was Italian, but I’ve learnt it’s an English Lutyens bench, thank you Christina. I expect if I’d read more about Gertrude Jekyll I might have known that! It looks striking at the end of the walk.

We had a more than pleasurable visit to this garden and it certainly  lived up to my expectations.  I loved walking along those paths admiring all the plants and the dedication that has gone into making this place such a showpiece. Was there a nursery?  Yes, there was, but bearing in mind that I was going to have to keep my plants alive, in the car, for the best part of two weeks, I was circumspect in my purchases and bought only  some small pots of perennials and some tulip bulbs.

One more word about Lambley: there is no charge to enter!  David Glenn says he wants everyone to be able to enjoy the garden. Nor is there any pressure to buy, but of course you want to, having just seen such amazing beauty.

 

Have you been to an open garden or nursery that you really enjoyed? I'd love to hear about it.

You can click on the links to see more of Lambley (and there are gardening notes) or Chris Canning's artwork.

Japanese Gardens in Red Earth Country.

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Dubbo (red earth, in English) is a city of nearly 40 000 people 90 minutes' drive from where I live. The red earth of Dubbo is very fertile and in good seasons the countryside around the city abounds in wheat rippling in the breeze and fields of canola adding a brilliant yellow to the landscape. It's good country, but if there isn't enough rain, as there hasn't been for some time now, everything struggles. So far this year, Dubbo has had 35 ml (2.1 inches) which isn't much when the temperatures have been in the 30s most days and quite often into the 40s.  It's been a battle there for both home and professional gardeners.

I recently visited  Dubbo and dropped in to the Japanese Gardens.  They are part of the Dubbo regional Botanic Garden along with a Biodiversity garden, a Sensory garden and Oasis Valley, a showcase of dry  'rainforests'.  A dry rainforest sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s merely a term which differentiates this forest from a tropical rainforest. You can find out more about a dry rainforest here

The Japanese garden was opened on November 23rd 2002 on the 153rd anniversary of the founding of Dubbo.  It was my intention on this warm Autumn day to see how the gardens have fared in difficult conditions and hopefully to enjoy a pleasant morning in the sun.

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I read that 'Shoyoen', the name of the garden,  means 'strolling and refreshing garden'.  I was there as soon as the garden opened (9 am)  and it was indeed refreshing to be there before the heat of the day and I did stroll around. There is certainly evidence of herbaceous struggle, but on the whole I was pleased to see many trees and shrubs flourishing in this garden which is maintained with hard work by local people,  as well as gardeners from Dubbo's sister city Minokamo in Japan.

I had a short conversation with a gardener at the beginning of my visit who told me how difficult it has been to keep the cherry trees going: some of them have already been replaced twice, because  unfortunately their trunks get sunburnt and this causes cracking and eventual death of the tree. The gardeners have now wrapped wadding around the trees' trunks to alleviate the problem of sunburn, as can be seen in the photo below.

The cherry tree on the right has wadding protecting its trunk.
The cherry tree on the right has wadding protecting its trunk.

The garden is centred around a lake containing an impressive selection of multi-coloured koi which smartly rise to the surface when a person passes,  their mouths gaping in expectation of food. Winding around the lake, a gravelled path takes the visitor past plantings of  cherry trees and ornately twisted Japanese pines up to the tea house on top of a small man-made hill.  From the summit  there's a view over the top of a waterfall to the lake and its surrounding gardens.

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My visit to these gardens was a delight. I enjoyed wandering along the meandering pathways, the sound of the waterfall in my ears.  It's a peaceful location in which to spend a morning.  Gardeners have worked very hard in adverse conditions to keep plantings alive, and indeed healthy, there were birds enjoying  seeds and waterways,  and the sun shone brightly but not too strongly.

 

If you would like to read more about the Japanese Garden in Dubbo, you can link to the website here

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One Central Park

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As the Sydney visitor grinds by bus  along Broadway (we're often not very imaginative in our naming of streets or buildings here in Australia), he or she passes a sight that gladdens the heart of those who are interested in, indeed passionate about, sustainable architecture. I'm a visitor to Sydney myself these days, and I never fail to be uplifted by the vision of One Central Park.

This glossy shopping mall/apartment building, erected on the site of an old brewery,  was opened in December 2013 and has received many accolades including a five-star green rating and winner of the World's Best Tall Building award in 2014.  It has many features of sustainability, but I'm most interested in the  hanging gardens decorating the walls of the building. I've learned that these hanging gardens were very challenging to design and build, requiring special planter boxes, each with its own irrigation system, supported by floor slabs in such a way that the plants can grow without disturbing the building's walls. A special mix of soil was used in the planter boxes.

As well, there are vertical green wall panels attached to the building.  Creator, French botanist Patrick Blanc,  insisted that plants could grow on these panels as long as they had something to attach to.  There are three layers in the green wall: one of PVC and two of felt. In the outer felt layer, pockets were cut so that plants could be inserted and stapled in. The plants were tested in a wind tunnel to ascertain their suitability for this project as they have to able to withstand gusty wind, high temperatures and humidity.  It's hydroponic gardening, and water and nutrients are delivered artificially to the panels from within the building.

In all, there are about 350 species  of plants on the walls, some of which are quite rare: a variety of both exotic and native plants,  and mosses. The idea for many of the native plants came from the vegetation found around  the Wentworth Falls area in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. Patrick Blanc said, “the vertical gardens will appear like a natural cliff as though  [one has] cut a giant slice of the Blue Mountains and put it in the middle of the city.”  Over time, microclimates have developed on the panels.

A close-up of a panel.
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I was outside this building a few days ago and gazed with great pleasure upon it, admiring the lush greenery on its walls and the panels soaring up 33 storeys.  It was a grey and rainy day, so in the photos the building appears somewhat sombre, but no matter, I'm sure that even though a bright blue sky is missing, the benefits of this building are apparent: a building that transcends the usual concept of a city building, and brings the benefits of greenery, gardening and nature to the city dweller.

 

Have you experimented with a green wall? Or seen a wonderful example somewhere?  I would love to hear about it.

Late Summer blossoms in Sydney

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Being on the coast, Sydney has a completely different climate from where I live. Hot, humid Summer, glorious Autumn, not-very-cold Winter and Spring filled with every kind of flower. Almost anything can be grown in Sydney.

The inner suburbs of Sydney are amongst the oldest  in the city.  A great many of the dwellings are Victorian and Edwardian: a mix of workers' cottages and grand mansions. They're not so old when compared with houses in Europe, but Australia's European history didn't begin until 1788. I love to walk around these areas,  looking at the houses with their filigreed cast-iron decorations, quaint balconies and ornate architectural decorations.

Sydney has suffered from a lack of rain too, during the last few months, and gardens are looking rather dry.  But some plants do well  no matter what the weather throws at them. On a recent trip I took some photos of flowers in the gardens of some of these old houses.

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Tibouchina
Frangipani
Frangipani
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Little shoots appear on the trunk of a very old buddleia
Little shoots appear on the trunk of a very old buddleia
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I'm so fascinated by this buddleia that I had to post a second photo.  It's in the garden of a California bungalow (popular here from about 1913) and it looks as though it was planted when the house was built!  I've never seen a buddleia  with a trunk so thick and convoluted: maybe many trunks grew together to make one tortured elephantine  shape.

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When we lived in Sydney, we had a hibiscus exactly like this one growing in our garden.  Often our black cat took great delight in climbing the tree, 'picking' a flower and bringing it inside to us. He always let us know he was coming by giving out a hibiscus-adjusted blood-curdling miaow. Black cat and pink hibiscus: striking combination. But not in the middle of the night, which sometimes happened.

Cockspur Coral tree
Cockspur Coral tree
Ixora
Ixora
Crepe Myrtle
Crepe Myrtle

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A Splash of Colour

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During this driest of dry Autumns,  when many plants are struggling, it seems nothing can stop the red iron bark (eucalyptus sideroxylon) from flowering in a splashy way.  This splendid tree is a short walk from our house. Thousands of bees are bustling around its rosy pink blossoms going about their nectar-gathering business while the sun shines down from a relentless blue sky.