Behind the monoculture

I have recently moved to North East France, my home region. Around here, most fields at this time of the year are filled by wheat, barley, rye or oats, making wonderful golden tinted pictures in the sun. But in some fields cereals are all that can be seen. Not a single weed in sight, not the slightest green leaf to be spotted, like a dry, barren desert. And it gets even worse post-harvest, when heavy machinery has crushed the soil.

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Post harvest desert. Luxembourg in the distance

Hundreds years ago, one would have seen a flurry of colour on the margins of the fields, filled by arable weeds, or as we call them in French, “plantes messicoles” (from latin messio, harvest – this definition is slightly more restrictive than arable weeds). This beautiful little book from 1914 found in my grandfather’s collection describes over 100 plants from cultivated fields.

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Sadly, decades of pesticide use and a change in cultural practices (increase in crop rotation, fertilisers…) have lead to a sharp decline in their abundance. In France, out of 102 recorded species, over half are in poor conservation status and 7 are presumed extinct.

But a 10 minutes walk in nearby fields still reveals some hidden diversity…this is one of my favourite arable weeds, Sherardia arvensis, a plant related to cleavers.

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Fields are in fact dry, disturbed places, so they are often home to plants that can also be found in wastelands, along roads etc. such as Polygonum aviculare (hover your mouse on the pictures for names):

Two vines which creep around cereal stems and can be confused when in leaves are the false bindweed (Fallopia convolvulus, a distant relative of Japanese knotweed) and the true field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis):

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But the stars of the show are the true “messicoles”, plants which are so closely associated with harvest times. Two very pretty ones, Viola arvensis (a relative of garden pansies) and Kickxia spuria (a difficult to spell groundcover with spurred flowers also called cancerwort).

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I was very shocked to see for the first time a wild cornflower (Centaurea cyanus), the iconic species symbol of the 1st World War fields, and also an important medicinal plant. Once common, they are now in decline, and are increasingly difficult to spot in summer fields. They are also threatened by the introduction of pink and white cultivated forms in popular wildflower seed mixes.

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Of course one can’t think about arable weeds without mentioning the humble poppy (Papaver rhoeas), also a war symbol but this time for the UK and Commonwealth.

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The French Botanical society TelaBotanica has launched a citizen science project, “Observatoire des Messicoles” to record the diversity of arable weeds still found in the country. They have also recently published an identification guide to the rarest arable weeds in France which can be downloaded here.
In the UK, arable weeds are mostly found in the warm cultivated fields in the South, so the situation is hardly better than in France: 54 species are considered as threatened, with 7 already extinct. For more information, and see this useful summary produced by the charity Plantlife: New Priorities for Arable Plant Conservation

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An ode to the unsung heroes of spring: buds

Ask ten people what they like about spring, and half of them will probably mention flowers – lovely bright daffodils, carpets of multicoloured primroses, streets filled with cherry trees… Gardeners wait eagerly for shrubs and trees to emerge from their winter sleep and become covered in tender green leaves.

But before that, there’s a very short, very temporary stage which seems to be so overlooked, even though it is crucial in the development of any plant: buds. So here’s a little photographic ode to the noble bud. All pictures were taken today at Richmond Park‘s Isabella Plantation in London (scroll over the images to see who each bud belongs to…you could even do a little ID game! :))

Of course, some plants were already well into flower, such as magnolias and rhododendrons. The Isabella Plantation is home to the Plant Heritage National Collection of Wilson 50 Kurume azaleas (a group of 50 Rhododendron varieties brought back from Japan by famous plant hunter Ernest Wilson in the 1920s, known to be outstanding plants). Well worth a visit if you are in South West London!

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Austria, from Christmas markets to alpine flora

A trip to Austria’s 4th largest city, Salzburg, in mid-December, surely this means spending days in Christmas markets, tasting bretzels and buying baubles? Truth is, we did try a fair number of mulled wines (and even better, Glühmost, made with apple cider and many spices…hmmm). We enjoyed the sparkling lights, the hearty food, the joyful music and the handmade decorations:

But behind the tourist attractions lies a beautiful town, offering plenty of distraction for plant lovers, even in December. First, St. Peter’s Cemetery, with its colourful plantings of heathers, bouquets of holly and big crowns of Asplenium scolopendrium ferns.

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Average temperatures in a normal December month are around 2°C, so town plantings have to be sturdy – grasses, heathers, shrubs with colourful berries and many types of cabbages. Kale is not a fancy health food in Salzburg, but an effective bedding plant, providing pretty shades of purple or green:

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In the grounds of Mirabell Palace, baroque curved rows of pansies do a good job at brightening up dull days. As this seems to be a mild winter though (like everywhere in Europe), the daytime temperature was closer to 10°C, and roses were still flowering!

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Plants can also be found in Salzburg’s artwork. This painting by German artist Carl Ludwig Frommel shows the garden of the Capuchin Monastery in 1832 with foxgloves (Digitalis) and mulleins (Verbascum), sunflowers and a colourful range of poppies being contemplated by a monk:

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On many walls and wooden ornaments of Salzburg’s fortress, a strange coat of arms featuring a…turnip can be seen. This is the symbol of Leonhard von Keutschach, Prince Archbishop of Salzburg in the 16th century. The legend says his uncle once hit him on the head with a turnip, and that’s how the symbol came to be…

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A hike on Salzburg’s Mönschberg hill, home to the modern art museum, shows how the city is surrounded by mountains:

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Despite the low altitude (424m), it is very easy to find alpine flora on Salzburg’s rocky walls. Here’s a liverleaf coming into bloom, Hepatica nobilis and a lovely little alpine bellflowerCampanula cochlearifolia:

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For a trip in “real” mountains however, it only takes a 30 minutes bus ride to reach the Untersberg cable car, which takes you in 8 minutes up to 1800m:

The views from the top are spectacular, despite the lack of snow. The landscape is dominated by Pinus mugo subsp. mugo, the Dwarf Mountain Pine.

When we visited, it was a balmy 2°C with no wind and sunny skies, but conditions can get very harsh on those mountains. Plants rarely grow tall, and in fact are often very tiny. This Saxifraga was barely bigger than my fingernail:

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A good range of alpine flora can be found on the Untersberg, such as the hairy Rhododendron hirsutum, and its cousin Rhodothamnus chamaecistus. Here’s a small selection (hover your cursor over the pictures to see what they are):

I shall leave you with a picture of a ring-tailed lemur (Lemur catta) taken in the city’s countryside zoo. I’m usually not fond of animal captivity, but was positively surprised by Salzburg’s efforts. The cattas were left to roam freely, and seemed to enjoy climbing up and down oak trees. An amusing sight considering this is a primate species from the dry forests of Madagascar, sadly endangered in the wild:

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The Explorer’s Garden, a celebration of the people behind the plants

Every tourist coming to Scotland seems to escape the rain for a couple of hours by visiting a distillery. We made no exception, and landed in the small town of Pitlochry to discover the fine art of whisky making.

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But Pitlochry is not only worth a stop for its two distilleries. On the edge of the town, accessed from the car park of a rather unattractive theatre lies a little gem, the Explorer’s Garden.
The plant collection is divided into geographical zones, which is a fairly common setting. But the originality of the Explorer’s Garden lies in what it trying to celebrate: not the plants as such, but the efforts of the Scottish plant hunters who took great risks to bring back the plants that make our gardens nowadays, and that we often take for granted.

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The path through the various continents follows the life of 12 famous (and less famous) botanists, with very nicely done information boards. The first one we encounter is Archibald Menzies, mainly known for having introduced the monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria araucana) to the UK.

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His other discoveries included Arbutus menziesii, Sequoia sempervirens and Cupressus macrocarpa, all from North America:

Among the Northern American flora is the seldom seen shrub Fothergilla gardenii, discovered by the aptly named Scottish botanist, Dr… Garden, in South Carolina:

Fothergilla gardenii

The symbol of the garden is the blue poppy, Meconopsis. The genus comprises around 40 species, all native to the Himalayas, which grow particularly well in the Scottish climate. Meconopsis grandis shown here was introduced by George Sherriff, a Scottish botanist who has also brought numerous Primula to British gardens.

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Of the many primulas he brought back from his trips to Asia, Primula chungensis was looking great, planted in huge carpets at the Explorer’s Garden:

Primula chungensis - Kingdon-Ward

George Sherrriff went on a number of collecting trips to Himalayan region with an other famous botanist, Frank Ludlow. His introductions include the pink-flowered Meconopsis sherriffii from Bhutan, the yellow tree peony Paeonia ludlowii, and the beautiful Tibetan bellflower Cyananthus sherriffii.

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A view of the Douglas Pavilion, a large chalet used for events and (when we visited) great photographic exhibitions. Interestingly, its is made of Pseudotsuga menziesii (Douglas fir) wood. This North American conifer species was first described by Archibald Menzies in 1790, and subsequently introduced to the UK by another Scottish botanist, David Douglas.
Note the tall flower spikes of Cardiocrinum giganteum, the Himalayan lily in the foreground.

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Looking down the Himalayan glade, with the George Forrest Pavillion in the distance:

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A great range of Trillium grows in the Explorer’s garden. Native to North America and Asia, they are spectacular woodland plants. Several species were brought to cultivation in Europe by Scottish plant hunters, such as Francis Masson with its Trillium grandiflorum.

Numerous species of Rhododendron have also been named by or after Scottish botanists. The flamboyant, early-flowering Rhododendron thomsonii was named after Dr Thomas Thomson by Kew Gardens’ director, Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker:

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We visited the garden in May, which was a bit early for most of the rhododendrons, sadly. The garden in itself is fairly young, but has been built on a really great idea, and I’m sure it will develop into something even more beautiful over the next decades.

Despite being very accessible, it doesn’t seem to get the publicity it deserves though, even locally. When we asked for directions in town, several people looked at us in a puzzled way. Such a shame!😦

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A Scottish gothic folly, Mount Stuart

Advertised as “Britain’s most astounding Victorian Gothic mansion”, Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute is a rather impressive place. Home to the Marquesses of Bute, it was rebuilt in 1877 after a fire, and turned into a majestic Neogothic castle.

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The most interesting feature of Mount Stuart is however the 300 acres (120 hectares) gardens surrounding the house. The magnificent lime tree avenue leads directly to the sea:

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We start with the coastal path, which offers great views. The red sandstone is also ideal for rockpooling!

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A couple of gentle coastal flowers with very revealing names, Armeria maritima (sea thrift) and Plantago maritima (sea plantain):

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When we visited, the spring flowers were in full swing, from primroses (Primula vulgaris) to the Yellow Pimpernel (Lysimachia nemorum):

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Mount Stuart holds a fine collection of plants from the Southern Hemisphere, growing in the so called “Wee Garden“. Two flowering examples with Drimys winteri and Azara serrata, both from Chile:

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The gallery below shows other unusual plants from the Wee Garden: New Zealand daisy bushes (Olearia spp.) and Hebe, Argentinian Tabaquillo (Polylepis), Chilean protea tree (Lomatia ferruginea) and its Australian relative Lomatia myricoides, and the Chilean hazel (Gevuina avellana).

I was also very excited to see Trochodendron aralioides in flower. This small and fairly primitive tree native to Japan and Korea has flowers which look like little wheels (hence its latin name). It is still quite rare in cultivation. See this link for a full account of the species by taxonomist Susyn Andrews.

Trochodendron aralioides

Mount Stuart’s Rock Garden was designed by the English landscape architect Thomas H Mawson in the late 1890s, and contains interesting water features.

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At that time of the year, of course, Meconopsis and primulas are stealing the show:

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A range of nice plants in the Rock Garden, from trilliums to rodgersias (hover your mouse over the pictures if you want the names!)

The lower part of the rock garden is drier, and home to spectacular azaleas, dwarf conifers and heathers:

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But I will leave you with a picture of Mount Stuart’s bluebell woodland, to make you yearn for spring !

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Southern Hemisphere in Scotland: Benmore Botanic Garden

Scotland’s flagship botanic garden, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh is, contrary to its name not entirely based in the city of Edinburgh. The collection is split across four sites: Edinburgh, Dawyck, Logan and Benmore, each having their own specialties.

Benmore, set within the Loch Lomond &  Trossachs National Park, is distinguished by its mountain character, and high rainfall (>2000mm) which makes it such a good place for the cultivation of trees and woodland plants. At the time we visited (end May), the rhododendrons and primulas were displaying their lovely spring colours:

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The main feature of Benmore Botanic Garden is a stunning range of conifers, some being over 150 years old. The garden holds three National Plant Collections: Abies (firs), Picea (spruce) and South American Temperate Conifers. The first two collections are held in the lower part of the garden, and with such a high rainfall, the moss carpet under the trees makes a stunning landscape:

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Most people will see conifers as boring evergreen trees, but there’s so much diversity in the group. Here’s an example with just one genus, Abies:

Benmore is home to over 300 species of colourful Rhododendron, with many coming from Bhutan and China.

As we walk up, the dense conifer forest opens up to a rocky landscape, which is home to many Southern Hemisphere plants. It feels completely out of place, and at the same time strangely at home in Scotland:

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Chilean conifer species grown at Benmore include showy Araucaria araucana (monkey puzzle), but also Fitzroya cupressoides (Patagonian cypress) and Podocarpus salignus (the willow-leaf podocarp), both threatened by habitat loss in the wild:

Fitzroya cupressoides (2)Podocarpus salignus

Two colourful species of Berberis, B. darwinii and B. griffithiana, one from Chile, the other from Bhutan:

Berberis darwinii (2)Berberis griffithiana

I was very pleased to see many Nothofagus (the southern equivalent of beeches). Here are the tiny flowers of Nothofagus dombeyi, native to the Andes:

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Another striking feature of Benmore Botanic Garden is the fernery, originally built in 1870. As for Ascog Hall presented in my previous post, the fernery soon declined after the Victorian “pteridomania” died down, and was in ruins by the 1990s. It underwent extensive restoration and reopened in 2009. This fernery is not sunken, but stood on a rocky hill.

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The elegant arched shaped of the fernery:

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And some interesting species grown under the tree ferns:

At the entrance of the fernery, I notice an unusual looking plant with showy pink flowers. This is Valdivia gayana, a cave-dwelling plant from Chile which flowered for the first time in the garden in 2013 (see here for the story):

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Benmore Botanic Garden is not really on the tourist path, but should be on every woody plant enthusiast’s bucket list. The temperate rainforest feel is amazing:

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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:

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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…

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And this is the glasshouse now:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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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:

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

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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:

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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…

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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):

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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:

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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.

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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:

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

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