A sunken jungle – Ascog Hall Fernery

After a day in Victorian Rothesay, we decided to visit one of the island’s attraction, Ascog Hall Fernery, which is located a couple of miles South, along the coast. We weren’t exactly sure of what to expect after reading the words “Victorian” and “sunken”, but got pleasantly intrigued after getting a glimpse of it for real:

Sunken fernery (2)

The fernery was built around 1870, using a unique shape and design. By being “sunken” into the ground, this allowed temperature and humidity to remain fairly stable, creating an ideal habitat for ferns. This is a print from the Gardener’s Chronicle in 1879, which shows the inside of the glasshouse…


And this is the glasshouse now:

Sunken fernery (9)

The fernery was rediscovered in 1986 by new owners of the estate, having been neglected for decades. There was no more glass, and most of the ferns had been replaced by brambles. With the help of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, which re-supplied many of the plants, the fernery was reopened in 1997. Here’s a before- after:


In addition to the unique structure of the fernery, the plant diversity is astonishing:

One fern in particular survived the neglect over the 20th century, the now called “1000 year old fern” Todea barbara. This is an imposing plant, thought to be the oldest fern growing in the UK:

Todea barbara - the 1000 year old fernTodea barbara

In a very Victorian fashion, the fernery comes complete with a stream, little fountains, delicate cast iron railings and sculptures:

Sunken fernery (14)

The fernery is the most unusual feature, but certainly not the only reason to visit Ascog Hall! The garden around the fernery may be small for Scottish standards, but it is full of style. At this time of the year (May), the reds and pinks of Rhododendron and Primula contrast with the striking blue of Meconopsis, and the tender green of the tree ferns’ new leaves:


Some close-ups of interesting plants that can be found in the garden:

A nice sign on the story of Cedrus deodara (Himalayan cedar), and how the tree was brought to Britain by plant hunter Thomas Thomson, also famous for his introductions of rhododendrons. The climate at Ascog Hall seems to suit it well.

Story of Thomas Thomson, plant hunterCedrus deodara

A more formal garden, with huge gunneras and colourful borders:P1220368

There’s also a dry garden, with grasses and coastal plants:


Even the walk back to the house is stunning, the deep red maples and berberis contrast so well with the yellow rhododendron and grasses. Note the Araucaria at the back – monkey puzzles were popular at Victorian times, and there are many left on the island!


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A glimpse of Victorian Scotland

A change of scene (and country) for my next posts, which will be taking you to Scotland. The first stop on our trip is the Isle of Bute, a tiny piece of land located 30 miles West of Glasgow. Bute is usually reached by a ferry which arrives in the delightful town of Rothesay. This is the view from a golf course located above the town, with gorse in full flower:


Rothesay was a very popular tourist destination in the Victorian era, and a lot of that heritage is still visible, with seaside villas, a promenade and “winter gardens” pavilions. We even got to see the PS Waverley, the last passenger paddle steamer in the world:


The stone walls of the town are home to many ferns and mosses. But one plant in particular seems to be growing well on Bute, the fairy foxglove (Erinus alpinus). This is a native of Central and Southern Europe mountains (Alps, Pyrenees…) which has become naturalised in Scotland:


A walk on the heights of Rothesay led us to a nice little woodland path. At that time of the year (May), bear’s garlic (Allium ursinum) is in full flower:


The flora of the area is not uninteresting, with pignut (Conopodium majus), opposite-leaved golden saxifrage (Chrysosplenium oppositifolium), wood Speedwell (Veronica montana), Rustyback (Asplenium ceterach) and Dryopteris fern:

An interesting first-timer for me is the thimbleberry, Rubus parviflorus, a North American bramble species with large pure white flowers:


After this quick botanical walk, we decided to visit Ardencraig Gardens, a small walled garden in Rothesay now owned by the local council. The garden, established in the 1910s, was part of a larger estate which was built on, so it is a bit weird to find it in the middle of 1970s housing. The glasshouses, restored recently, host a range of old-fashioned potted plants such as Solenostemon (coleus) and begonias:


Interestingly though, one of the glasshouses is home to a completely different set of plants – cacti, and particularly the National Plant Collection of Mammillaria:

National Collection of Mammillaria (10)

The Collection contains over 160 species and forms of Mammillaria, many of which are threatened in their natural environment (deserts in Mexico and Central America):

It was rather informative to see the progression of pea-sized seedlings to young and mature plants:

National Collection of Mammillaria (18)National Collection of Mammillaria (11)

The grounds of the garden are home to traditional bedding plants, which were not yet out in May (this is Scotland!), so unfortunately I can’t say much about it, but official summer pictures say it all…

The gardens


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Ten days in Vietnam part 9: a glimpse of the Mekong Delta

The Mekong river, which rises in Tibet, ends its 4350km course in the South China Sea via a large delta covering over 39000 km², close to Vietnam’s largest city Ho Chi Minh. This means a boat trip to the delta is a very popular day trip for tourists, and we obviously got tempted. The view we got from the boat after a two hour drive wasn’t exactly the most exciting, with dark skies, brownish waters, and industrial estates as surroundings…


After disembarking, we are led into a farmyard where a variety of crops are grown: from the big yellow flowers of luffa gourd (Luffa sp., eaten in Vietnam in soups and stir fried dishes), to the weird spikes of the Creeping spinach (Basella alba); tentacles-like stems of Hylocereus cacti (pithaya), and funny winged pods of the asparagus pea (Psophocarpus tetragonolobus).

Flowering shrubs are also grown in the plantation, such as the spectacular Pagoda Flower (Clerodendrum paniculatum) and the Vietnamese mickey-mouse plant (Ochna integerrima):


Closer to houses, orchids are abundant, mainly colourful Vanda and Dendrobium hybrids.


A nice surprise landed on a neighbouring leaf as I was trying to take flower pictures: the white tiger Danaus melanippus, a large butterfly, cousin of the most iconic North American butterfly, the monarch.


We embark on little trucks for a tour of the coconut palms and banana plantations. A bumpy tour I should say – the area is so wet that roads have disappeared in places.


The roads are lined with street merchants selling fruits, herbs or fibres:


After an hour or so, we are loaded onto small boats for a tour of the mangrove. The palms are all Nypa fruticans, the only species truly adapted to the brackish environment. The leaves which can reach 9m long are used for weaving and roofing; the fruits are eaten raw, and sap can be fermented to produce alcoholic beverages.


On the banks, it is very easy to spot the showy flowers of the tropical bindweed Argyreia nervosa. I was more puzzled by the plant on the right, which looked a lot like a holly. It is in fact called the sea holly, but has nothing to do botanically with the real holly (Ilex sp.) as this is  Acanthus ebracteatus.


We ended our tour with a funny fried fish meal, and headed back towards Ho Chi Minh for our last day in Vietnam…



For those who want a little round-up of our Vietnamese trip, here’s a link to all the blog posts: :)

Part 1: Hanoi
Part 2: Off to Sapa
Part 3: Mount Fansipan, 1940m to 2250m
Part 4: Mount Fansipan, 2250m to 2800m
Part 5: Mount Fansipan, 2800m to 1940m
Part 6: from Hanoi to Lan Ha Bay
Part 7: Cat Ba National Park
Part 8: Last day in Halong Bay

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Ten days in Vietnam part 8: Last day in Halong Bay

Our next trip in the National Park was the village of Viet Hai, which seems to be a forced stop for tourists who land on Cat Ba Island during their boat tours of the bay. The view, especially around sunset time is pretty:


The village in itself has little charm, with its shops selling overpriced fruits and drinks. Streets are lined with tropical crops, such as mango or litchis. I was quite shocked to discover the Australian tree Acacia mangium in plantations. This species is apparently widely planted in tropical countries to produce timber, and also to improve soil nitrogen levels.


Of all the trees in Viet Hai, the ones that get the most attention are probably the milk trees (Alstonia sp.), whose white clusters of flowers fill the village with a lovely strong scent:


After a nice calm night on the boat, we headed to a more open area of the bay to visit some rather smelly floating fish farms. Fishing boats carry light bulbs which are used to attract fish at night, particularly squids:


I am not sure of the health of the fishes which are farmed in those tiny enclosures, but the wildlife certainly looked interesting, with colourful sponges and clams attached to the floating plastic containers.

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Our final stop of the trip was a trip to Hospital Cave, a bomb-proof hospital which was built in the sixties, and used during the American War. Concrete was used to create 17 rooms, an operating theater, kitchen and even a swimming pool inside the natural cave. It is dark, wet and cold, which makes for a nice change from the exterior conditions.

P1180300 (Copier)
The entrance of the cave was cleverly devised to be hidden by vegetation, so the cave never got discovered by helicopters during the war. The top of the stairs by which it is accessed offers a great view over Cat Ba:

P1180295 (Copier)

And we even found the lovely gesneriad Chirita hamosa in flower at the entrance of the cave:

P1180296 (Copier)

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Ten days in Vietnam part 7: Cat Ba National Park

I have been ignoring the blog lately, but I think it is now time to finish my little Vietnamese adventure tales.
After a night on the boat in Lan Ha Bay, we stopped the next morning on Cat Ba island to visit the 160 km² National Park.

We opted for the walking option, which gently followed a concrete path before reaching the borders of the park:


The flora along the way is diverse, from large gingers (Hedychium sp.) to palm trees, cacti (Hylocereus undatus, which bears dragonfruits/pithayas), and shrubs such as the hemp relative Trema orientalis :

After a few minutes, we reach a small lake with rocky banks. Among the grasses I spot a distant, trailing cousin of acanthus, Dicliptera sp., and the ubiquitous weed Malvastrum coromandelianum.


The path gets shadier, with larger trees, and a succession of rocky tunnels. On the roadside,  there are palms, ferns, big Alocasia, and we are walking to the sound of crickets:

Then, suddenly, the landscape turns to mangrove forest:


After a couple of miles of climb, there is a noticeable change of flora to hill plants. One of the most striking features is young pinkish leaves on many of the roadside shrubs and trees. The coloration is mainly due to the presence of anthocyanins pigments, which are thought to act as a natural sunscreen, protecting the leaves from high sun levels in clearings or forest edges. They could also prevent the leaves from being eaten by animals.

Some nice plant surprises: climbing aroid (Pothos sp.), a delicate ginger (Globba sp.), and a tropical handkerchief tree (Mussaenda sp.):

And some beautiful ferns, such as a climbing fern (Lygodium sp.). In this genus, the edges of the leaves are lined with sporangia, the structure in which reproductive spores are formed. It is also one of the only genus of ferns that can twine around other stems.

But the most impressive encounters in the park were the insects. Stick insects (two species in photo here, the spiny Neohirasea maerens and the very large Ramulus sp.) could be seen  on almost every branch of every trees. There were countless of butterflies, like the colourful Punchinello (Zemeros flegyas), and intriguing leaf-mimicking katydids:

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Ten days in Vietnam part 6: from Hanoi to Lan Ha Bay

We leave Sapa in the afternoon, and head back to Lao Cai for the return overnight train journey to Hanoi. After a 2 hour train journey to Hai Phong, and an hour boat journey, we arrive on Cat Ba island, one of the two starting points to explore the very famous Ha Long Bay (think James Bond beach scenes…).
Cat Ba Town is a rather uninteresting port filled with cheap backpackers’ hotels. Note the very appropriate window paintings of Father Christmas and snowman (outside temperature: 29°C)! The street trees are far more interesting than the architecture, particularly Blackboard trees (Alstonia scholaris) and their green flower heads which fill the air with a strong fragrance (it reminded me of a woodland with lily of the valley).


At dusk the view from our hotel over the bay is very pretty…


The next day we embark for a three-day cruise around Ha Long bay and Lan Ha bay. Many tourists come here on a one or two day excursion direct from Hanoi, piling themselves on enormous luxury ferries with on-board spas and shops. We went for the slightly less comfy, but so much quieter private boat. Postcard view alert here!


Ha Long and Lan Ha Bay comprise over 2000 islands (some which barely emerging from the sea), mainly made of limestone. The karst landscape was formed by the erosion of the limestone to form small mountains, valleys and caves. The water level then rose massively to form the ensemble of little islands that we see nowadays.


A benefit of being on a smaller boat was the unlimited access to kayaks, which are the best way to come close to the rocky shores:


This gave me an opportunity for a closer look at the flora of these limestone walls. The flora is very diversified, from bamboos to palms, and changes gradually upwards (as salinity decreases and light increases). Many of the plants growing there have limited distributions and some, such as the amazing Ha Long Cycad (Cycas tropophylla) are threatened.

Animals are also threatened by the intensification of tourism, deforestation and poaching. We were very fortunate to catch a glimpse of the Critically Endangered Cat Ba Langur (Trachypithecus poliocephalus), a monkey which has seen its population decrease to only around 60 individuals.


The boat is finally anchored in a tiny bay where we will spend the night. Before dinner, we swim to a small beach with a cave that is being used a shrine. There are offerings, so fishermen must come here to pray. Sadly, marine life is minimal, with mainly dead corals, rubbish (beer cans! :( ) and urchins (probably the widespread species Echinometra mathaei).


Dusk falls on the bay…tomorrow is another day.


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Ten days in Vietnam part 5: Mount Fansipan, 2800m to 1940m

After a good night sleep on the camp, we woke up to the smell of banana and (local) honey pancakes, ad were greeted by a nice blue sky.


A few nice plants around the camp include a Viburnum with striking berries, and a Gentiana:

P1170956Gentiana (2)

Soon however, we are back to clouds, and scrambling mode:


Many Scheffleras can be seen in the area, including some in fruit!


I was quite surprised to see these two fruiting shrubs, both species of Vaccinium (related to our common blueberries and cranberries).


We pause for a while on a flat area to take some pictures. Notice the tourist style on the left, and the local style on the right! I don’t think I would dare bringing a tablet over there… :D


Along the path, the layer of bamboos is very thick. But a few interesting plants can be spotted. Here are Aster ageratoides (a wide-ranging plant grown in many gardens), the bellflower relative Pratia montana…

Aster ageratoides (2)Pratia montana

…and another daisy in the genus Gynura :

Gynura lycopersicifolia

Arisaema bulbs grow everywhere on the mountain. With their large leaves and usually tall, exotic-looking flowers, they are very prized by rare plants enthusiasts. Here’s one in fruit:


I can’t say I have seen much wildlife over the past two days, maybe because the mountain was busy with climbers. Just before returning to the park entrance, I spot a very furry caterpillar and an interesting grey moth:


I hope you have enjoyed my tour of the Fansipan mountain in the last three blog posts. Sadly, this biodiversity-rich corner of Vietnam is under threat. While we were here, we enquired about the dynamite blasts that we could hear being fired all day long, and about the queues of workers going up and down carrying tools, cement, petrol etc… You can see one in the bottom right-hand corner of this pic:


It turns out a cable car is being built to the top of the mountain. It will carry up to 2000 passengers per hour, cutting the journey time to 15 min, and will be accompanied by a luxury hotel and golf course.  Read more about the project here: http://www.thanhniennews.com/travel/vietnams-sa-pa-to-lose-its-natural-beauty-for-a-tramway-666.html and see some pictures of the works: http://www.lcs-cablecranes.com/projects/fansipan-cable-car/#.VPycDPmsX8k
All within a National Park. And with no Environmental Impact study. Wonderful world… :(

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Ten days in Vietnam part 4: Mount Fansipan, 2250m to 2800m

After at light lunch at the first camp, we set back towards the second camp where we will spend the night. The sun comes out, and makes the mountain look magnificent:


In open areas, we start noticing more and more bamboo species, some compact and shrubby, others much larger and spreading.


Trees include large Magnolia, red-petioled Daphniphyllum and oaks (acorn on the left side). Because this is an area of high endemism, there are many small plant genera which can only be found in North Vietnam/South China mountains. A good example is Rehderodendron, a genus with only five species known for its sausage-shaped seed pods:


En route, we are greeted by rather lovely goats:

Goats (2)

Muddy paths are home to many earthworms, but this giant blue one is certainly the most striking:


In a narrow rocky corridor, I find these pretty Utricularia – believe it or not, this is actually a carnivorous plant which catches small invertebrates in traps on its leaves and stems. The whole plant is probably 2-3 cm tall.

Utricularia  (2)

The path becomes a little more challenging, with ladders, wet boulders and Rhododendron trunks taking the most twisted shapes:


It’s amazing how quickly the weather can change in this area. In less than 20 min, the sunny view becomes thick fog, and we end up walking in the clouds (a strange experience!):


In a slightly flatter area, we discover Zanthoxylum laetum, a distant relative of citrus fruits with impressive spines on the leaf veins. The name of the genus might not seem familiar, but the berries of several species are actually used to make a well-known spice, Sichuan pepper (which has nothing in common botanically with black pepper!).
In the bottom left hand corner of the picture you can also see Rubus lineatus with its delicate leaf pattern.


After an hour or so, the sun is back and we can enjoy yet another stunning view over the mountains, but this time a bit higher:


We continue our ascent among bamboos and rhododendrons. Another shrubby plant popular in temperate horticulture is Hydrangea. They seem to be increasingly present around 2500-2700m; I particularly like this one with creamy green flowers:


As we climb one last hill, I spot this yet unnamed Clematis with cool purple stems and leaf undersides, and a Viburnum with bright red berries:


We reach the overnight camp just before sunset, and discover our room with a view. Most of the evening is spent around a hearty dinner with Vietnamese tourists, singing traditional songs and drinking garlic wine (ouch).


The next morning we will slowly be going back down the mountain (we deliberately chose not to go to the top as it’s not the most interesting part for plant diversity)…

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Ten days in Vietnam part 3: Mount Fansipan, 1940m to 2250m

The next morning, we get up early to a sunny mountain view:


After a short car journey, we reach the permit office of Mount Fansipan National Park, Tram Ton, at an altitude of 1940m and meet with the porters who will carry our water, food and bags. Note the guide carving a bamboo stem – this would become my best friend over the next two days!

14924962793_428a390857_b (2)

After a brief flat section, the path turns into a mix of roots, rocks and mud, bordered by ferns and bamboos. But it is so pretty!


Along the path, twining on branches and climbing on bamboo stems are gentian relatives belonging to the genus Crawfurdia (left) and Tripterospermum (right):

???????????????????Tripterospermum (3)

It is very hard to choose what to show among so many pictures of beautiful plants, but here are two of my favourites: an Impatiens species with unusual, narrow leaves; and an unknown yellow gesneriad.


Hundreds of species of epiphytic orchids grow on tree trunks, even high up in the canopy. It was a bit unnerving to watch locals cut a tree and throw the orchids in their cooking fire… I also spotted a terrestrial orchid, with rather unimpressive flowers!

14924960823_9a9a5ffe4d_oTerrestrial orchid

At times, the path offers great views over the neighbouring mountains:


Several species of Magnolia grow in Fansipan area. This large tree was growing in the most bizarre position, almost horizontally, hanging over the bamboo forest. Magnolias have rather shallow roots, which provide them with good anchors, even in rocky soils. Right is a cone of Magnolia, with its pretty jewel-like red seeds.


The other large genus of plants that is well represented in North Vietnam is Rhododendron. I cannot count how many different species I have seen, sadly identification can be pretty difficult out of their flowering season:

RhododendronRhododendron (3)

On the ground, we notice acorn-looking fruits. These are the fruits of Lithocarpus, a genus related to oak and native to Asia. Two species here: one with grape-like fruits, and one with solitary, giant acorns (L. pachylepis; camera case as reference, it is 10 cm long).


Among the exotic-looking plants that can be spotted along the way are numerous Schefflera. Distantly related to ivy, some of the species can be hardy in the UK and make spectacular garden plants.


Of course it is not all about large trees and pretty flowers. The Fansipan has a tremendous diversity of ferns, mosses and lycopodes:

Fern (2)Lycopode

Arriving close to a small stream, Uoc spots on a branch two giant moths belonging to the genus Loepa. With almost a 15cm wingspan, these make for an impressive sighting!

Loepa sp

We walk for a while along the bank, but soon find ourselves ascending again. Climbing the Fansipan can feel discouraging at times because there’s actually a lot of descent within the climb (which means even more effort to climb it back!).


Under a rocky wall, we spot a Begonia species growing vertically and sporting a wonderful iridescent foliage:


On the forest floor, we see dozens of strong-smelled, star-like fruits. They should look familiar if you enjoy cooking: they are the fruits of an Illicium species, the same genus that gives us the well-known spice star anise.

Illicium fruitStar-Anise-Hero

We reach the 1st camp, at an altitude of 2250m, by midday, under pouring rain and stop for a well-deserved lunch:


But we have to get moving again if we want to reach the second camp before dark…

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Ten days in Vietnam part 2: Off to Sapa

While Hanoi is almost always hot and humid, the North Western parts of Vietnam, close to the borders with China are mountainous, offering a temperate climate with occasional snow and frosts.


To visit the small and touristy town of Sapa, the commonest way (but not easiest way, as we learned… afterwards!) is to take a night train from Hanoi, arriving in the early hours in the industrial city of Lao Cai. 9 long hours of extreme air conditioning, non-existent suspensions and snoring neighbours later, we reached Lao Cai where a driver was waiting to take us to Sapa (only 30 min drive).


We met with our local guide, Uoc Le Huu (I’m sure the name will ring a bell to some :) ), and after a hearty meal, set up for an afternoon trek around Sapa. Because of road works, we couldn’t reach our starting point by car, so had to walk along the road…


Even walking along a road proved full of surprises, since we were basically walking along a natural green wall. Highlights included several species of Rubus, gesneriads and melastomes, spectacular lycopodes, Pyrrosia ferns and even dwarf Rhododendron.

After a brief climb, we found the starting point of the walk, a cultivated field.


Among rice, cabbages and artichokes, there were trellis crumbling under the weight of Su Su (Sechium edule), a bland but nourishing crop used in many tropical countries.


Fabulous trees can be spotted along the trek, such as Magnolia sapaensis (only brought back to the UK and described in 2011! See The Plantsman article), and the huge-leaved Schefflera macrophylla, a small tree which is quite common in the area. Both can be grown in the UK…

15358328579_4485863b15_z 15359307100_9ccf266d36_z

In the forests around Sapa, local ethnic groups such as H’mong and Dzao grow cardamom (Amomum tsaoko), a very large ginger. Here’s our guide Uoc surrounded by cardamom plants:


On a rocky slope, I spot a yellow Rhododendron (possibly R. emarginatum) and an Aeschynanthus.

Rhododendron emarginatum15358300279_5b2d8a5bcb_b

The walk yields more large-leaved surprises, such as an Aesculus with leaves twice as big as my head; Exbucklandia tonkinensis with its uniquely shaped leaves; an Impatiens with yellow flowers; and interesting Begonia.

Over a just a few hours, we also spotted a fantastic diversity of caterpillars:

And some really cool insects, such as this leaf-mimicking treehopper, whose back patterns cleverly imitate leaf veins:


Fog and night come fast in the Vietnamese mountains, so we had to start our descent back to Sapa (a few bamboos may have been hurt in the process!).


Sapa in itself is a very touristy town, with dozens of backpackers hostels, restaurants and shop selling fake branded outdoor clothes. We were very lucky to stay in a hotel slightly outside of the tourist center, called Sapa View. By day:


…and by night:


Tasty, isn’t it? Next we embark on a journey up the Fansipan (or Phan Xi Păng), the highest mountain in Vietnam, to discover the even richer flora of that area…

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