Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Walking in the Wet

On December 21, our daughter Sarah Jane came up from Sydney and persuaded us to go on a trek to the Glowworm Tunnel, deep in the bushland northwest of our home. We drove for miles on dirt roads of questionable condition although our little Toyota Echo bounced cheerfully over the potholes and corrugations without any dire consequences. Arriving at a tunnel which turned out to be the wrong one, we set off on foot from there, and walked about 4 or 5 km to the actual Glowworm tunnel under threatening skies.

The track is the bed of an old railway: hence the tunnels, not to mention the easy grade. As it had been a rainy week, we passed several small waterfalls running off the rocks beside the track.

It had begun to drizzle by the time we reached this little bridge across a gully,
just before the dark, cold tunnel in which the glowworms reside. Having only a small flashlight between the three of us, we ventured in just far enough to see the first ones, sparkling on the walls. Of course, photos were impossible. Sarah Jane told us that the glowwworms spin tiny webs across crevices in the rock, and lurk behind them with their lights on to attract unwary insects on which they feed. Brighter than fireflies, they look like LED points of light against the surrounding velvet blackness of the tunnel.

On our return trek, the skies opened and we were drenched in the downpour. As we headed home to hot showers and dry clothes, we passed a tea tree (Leptospermum macrocarpum?) in full bloom, and later a couple of large grey kangaroos feeding on cleared land.

Despite the challenges of weather and terrain, it was a great way to spend an afternoon with much to see and appreciate.

Sunday, 16 December 2007

Flowers in the Bushland

Mount Wilson is noted for its large homesteads with expansive English-style gardens. People visit for the flowering shrubs in spring and the autumn colours in - well - autumn. However, in the natural bushland there are shrubs and flowers that I find more interesting because they are new to me. On a hike last week, we came across drifts of flannel flowers (Arctotis helianthi), a lovely sight. I remember these flowers from my youth in this country and how soft and fleecy the bracts surrounding the pinhead flowers are to the touch. They are in the carrot family (Apiaceae), and are one of many plant groups that flourish after the bushfires that are prevalent in this region.

Although my photo of the habitat isn't very good, I'm including it to give an idea of the rough and seemingly inhospitable terrain that the flannel flowers seem to like.

We also noted a graceful shrub with black branches, bright green leaves and tufts of small, tubular, yellow flowers at the tips of the branches. Someone identified it to me as a Geebung so I was able to look it up and find that its botanical name is Persoonia, it's a member of the Protea family and it produces tasty fruit. Sadly, it is difficult to propagate either by seed or cuttings so it is not easy to obtain a plant for the garden.

The other significant thing about Mount Wilson is that it supports the kind of subtropical rainforest found only in particular pockets of the Blue Mountains. We walked through some of this lush jungle on our way back to a barbeque dinner at Merrygarth, one of the best of the English-style gardens of the area.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Still More Birds

When I'm working in the garden, this black and white currawong frequently approaches, on the lookout for any juicy morsel I might turn up. Currawongs are members of the crow family and just as intelligent. They do, however, have a much more melodious call than crows, a ripple of notes sounding like their name.
And a crimson rosella has begun visiting the vacant lot next door to snack on grass seedheads. It's not as tolerant of my presence so my photo is not nearly as good, being taken rather hastily before it flew off.

Saturday, 24 November 2007

More marauders

After my last post, cousin Sal sent me this snap of a well-camouflaged lorikeet snacking on her peach tree. Memo to self: don't even attempt to grow peaches!

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Birthday Card

I had a birthday this month and as usual my darling husband gave me a one-of-a-kind birthday card. This year it depicts the unique travails of gardening in Australia. The experience depicted hasn't actually happened to me yet, but I fear it will, especially as I've just received an email from my cousin Sal who reports that a flock of lorikeets descended upon her apricot tree this week, leaving no harvest for her.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Gardens at Bilpin

A week ago I went to two open gardens in Bilpin, an area of the Blue Mountains noted for its apple orchards. Both gardens were large, one around the homestead on a Black Angus cattle stud. Unfortunately, I forgot to dig out the camera for that one, but had a good time chatting with the owner who very kindly gave me a scrap of a stunning Dianthus that I was admiring. This is where the annual Plant Collectors' Fair is held in April, so I'll be back then, if not before, to spend some money.
The other garden on about 5 acres is a labour of love by one man, who began with a modest border alongside the road, and gradually extended to sunny rockeries around the house, then pathways winding through woodland and down quite a steep slope to a clearing where he has constructed an elaborate knot garden enclosing hundreds of Colchicum (not in bloom at this time of year.) The steepness of the terrain and how he had dealt with it reminded me of Margaret and Charlie's garden in Indian Arm, particularly as there were many Rhododendrons and Kalmia, interspersed in this case with native tree ferns and eucalyptus. I remembered to take some photos this time. The first two give an idea of the hillside and the wonderful effects of sunlight filtering down through tall Brown Barrel eucalypts. In the second picture, a young Cornus controversa hogs the spotlight.

A view of the knot garden seen through tree trunks on the hillside.

The grass on one side of the clearing where the knot garden lies is overhung by the wide-spreading branches of Brown Barrel eucalypts. The other side is contained by a long low hedge of Fothergilla monticola

The rock garden was impressive when viewed from below against a blue sky, although the camera does not capture the steepness of the slope.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

The Melbourne Cup

Australia's famous horse race took place on Tuesday. This is a great national event when everybody, and I mean everybody, stops work to watch or listen to the race. In the state of Victoria, it's a holiday. Elsewhere, every workplace has a sweep, a sort of raffle where you draw a horse, or horses, at random and chip in a bit of money. The resulting pot is divided among first, second, third, and last placegetters. Those who don't have a workplace, like us, have a choice of places to go and party, from clubs to hotels to community halls. We went to one of the last, the Mt Wilson village hall, to a lunch organised by my sister-in-law Judy and other locals. In the sweep, Michael drew the eventual winner, an outside chance by the appropriate name of "Efficient", so having invested the grand sum $6 on three tickets, we came home with $12. How good is that? as the Aussies like to say. The 2-mile long race was an exciting one this year as "Efficient", a striking dark-grey horse in a field of predominantly chestnuts, came streaking down the outside on the home straight to just beat out a chestnut called "Purple Moon".
In the course of watching the event on a large screen, I came across some unfamiliar words that I had to look up. Trifecta, Quinella and Exacta all describe certain betting tactics. If you bet the Trifecta, you select the first three horses in the exact order you expect them to finish; in the Exacta you nominate the first and second placegetters in the right order, while in the Quinella you pick the first two but don't have to specify any order. I somehow thought Quinella would have something to do with the number 5, but it derives from a Spanish word "quiniela" which is a game of chance. A different type of gambling, Keno, gets its name from the same source.
Peripheral to the horse-racing is the parade of fashion, especially among the women attendees, although men are also getting into it now with neon-coloured suits...and hair. It's one of few modern occasions keeping milliners in business, as it's de rigueur for women to wear a hat, the more eye-catching the better. (This holds true for many of the local events too, though thankfully not at our Mt Wilson get-together.) Male racegoers traditionally wear a yellow rosebud in their lapel.
The only person I was aware of who didn't stop work for the race, which occurs at 3 pm, was the young bloke installing our new rainwater tank, though he did say his mates had phoned him with the results. Since the tank went in we have had unprecedented rainfall so it is filling up nicely. More details about it to come in a future post.

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

Spring along the Highway

The route from Sydney to our home in Katoomba goes by the imposing name of The Great Western Highway. It is one of only two routes that lead from the metropolis across the Great Dividing Range to the western plains, and the state government is working (slowly) to upgrade the entire road to a four-lane highway. This is not as bad as it sounds, mainly because the landscaping of the new sections has been done quite sensitively with local native plants. Right now masses of bright scarlet bottlebrush ( Callistemon citrinus) are in bloom, both on the median strip and along the edges.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Bushland flowers

A couple of weeks ago we went on a leisurely hike with a local bushwalking group. The track we followed was through fairly dense vegetation, much of it in flower in this mid-spring season, offering an opportunity to learn more about Australian native plants. The yellow-flowering shrubs are Dillwynia floribunda, common name Egg-and-Bacon Pea. The pink flowers are Boronia, a member of the rue family.

Only in Australia

Australians universally refer to their native eucalyptus trees as gum trees, so I guess they don't see the name of this motel as a potential drawback. My dentist is going to love this one.

Friday, 26 October 2007

More on waratahs

Further to my comments on waratahs, I should mention that our town, Katoomba, has garbage bins along the main street that feature this very attractive stylized waratah design.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Spring Gardens

Leura, the town immediately east of our town, Katoomba, is a quieter, more upmarket area of fine old homes surrounded by gracious gardens, many of which are owned by wealthy retirees or long-established families. Each October, there is a one-week open gardens festival, which raises money for charity. This year a ticket costing a mere $18 gave you access to nine private gardens, so naturally I went along.

Most of the gardens featured banks of flowering azaleas and rhododendrons under stately English oaks and beeches.

The one featuring mosaic columns and many shallow bowls of succulents reminded me of Seattle gardens I have seen, particularly the Little and Lewis garden. A lemon and an orange tree growing in big blue pots were more reminiscent of Tuscany. Growing your own citrus is a possibility here; my sister has been supplying me with lovely organic lemons from her garden for the past month.

The smallest garden on the tour had some of the best features, including the water feature with the floating silver balls. It also had the best view, especially when seen through the foliage of a native tree fern.

The photo of the beautiful bank of erythroniums and hellebores gracing one of the grand estates is for my friend Lambert. They are all the common E. x versicolor 'Suphureum', but it was the mass of them, extending perhaps 30 metres along the base of a drystone wall, that was so impressive.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007


Late September through October is bloom time for the waratah (Telopea speciosissima), floral emblem of New South Wales. Many of these shrubs grow wild in the Blue Mountains, and it's a popular shrub with gardeners who favour native plants. There are a number of cultivars on the market, including pink and cream-coloured ones, but the traditional colour is red. At Mount Tomah Botanic Garden I photographed this impressive specimen of a cultivar called 'Shady Lady'. From a distance, it bears a distinct resemblance to the rhododendrons that I was admiring a month earlier. (see my blog of Sept 10)

Sunday, 23 September 2007


I guess it was inevitable that roses would find their way into my life again. None in my garden yet (I'm resisting), but I couldn't resist photographing these on a back road in the Hunter Valley, one of Australia's more famous wine-growing areas. Of course, anywhere that grapes will grow, roses will be happy too. I believe these are both forms of Rosa banksii, a rose which grows poorly in Vancouver but obviously loves the climate in this part of Australia. As far as I can see, they were not receiving any loving care in this location

Sunday, 9 September 2007


As spring advances, rhododendrons are beginning to bloom. They thrive in the Blue Mountains, to the extent that the neighbouring town of Blackheath holds a rhododendron festival every year with open gardens and other attractions. Two houses along the street from us, these magnificent specimens currently dominate the backyard. I've deliberately included the edge of the house in one photo and a corner of the garage roof in the other to give a indication of scale.

Speaking of spring, Australians go by the calendar and nominate September 1st as the first day of the season, rather than opting for the equinox as Canadians do.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Innovative garden centre

Last week my sister introduced me to her favourite Sydney garden centre. Everything was well laid out and well labelled, although the choice was not as wide as in a large Vancouver nursery. The selection of Australian native plants was particularly good, and I bought a couple of kangaroo paws (Anigozanthos sp.) as well as a silver-leafed Convulvulus cneorum.
However, what really impressed me was that beyond the checkouts there was a small station with tap, sink and airdryer for customers to wash their hands. This seems to me an idea that other garden centres would do well to copy, as we all end up with dirty hands from picking up and putting down pots. It's a particularly generous gesture in Australia where water is not free as it is in Canada.

Sunday, 26 August 2007

The Wattle Blooms

Our Cootamundra wattle (Acacia baileyana) has been blooming for over a week, but until now it hasn't been good weather for taking photographs, being either rainy or just overcast and dark.Yesterday was a true harbinger of spring with temperatures up in the high teens and bright blue skies, T-shirt weather at last. So, of course, it was time for the wattle's photo shoot. Cootamundra, for the benefit of my Canadian friends, is the name of the town in northern NSW where this small tree is naturally prolific, although it is now the most widely grown and marketed of all its family. Here in the Blue Mountains, they frown on planting it because it tends to crowd out the native wattles of the region. As our specimen was planted about seven years ago by the former owner, I can admire its dusty blue leaves and bobbles of golden flower without guilt. A fierce winter wind snapped one large branch off only a month ago, so it's looking less dense than earlier in the year.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Mountain Mistral

For three days now, the Mountains have been buffeted by relentless winds. The sky is blue, the sun is shining and, if it were calm, these would be lovely days presaging the spring to come. But the strong winds keep us indoors, and when we do go out for a walk, they whip the scarves off our necks and push us along the streets at a faster pace than we intend. From our windows we can see the eucalypts in the ravine below, thrashing in the unpredictable gusts. A litter of twigs and leaves scurries about the streets.
It reminds me vividly of the time we spent in St.-Remy-de-Provence, the French town where Vincent Van Gogh spent time in the local asylum. For four days while we were there, the Mistral blew unceasingly, setting everyone's teeth on edge. When it suddenly died, it was as if the whole town sighed with relief. I remember thinking that it was the worst place possible to put people like VanGogh who were already somewhat unbalanced.
As far as I know, our neighbours here don't have a word for the wind. Perhaps (and I hope this is the case) it is not a common occurrence. The weather bureau is predicting a change tomorrow which will see the winds ease up and clouds move in. By Monday there may be showers, and our Australian Mistral will be gone. Can't be too soon for me.

Saturday, 4 August 2007

Winter Continued

Arriving back in Katoomba after a month of summer in Canada, I'm interested in how many signs of impending spring there are already. Everywhere between Sydney and here, the wattles (Acacia spp.) are in flower. Not the Acacia baileyana in our backyard however. It was planted in an area of full shade at this time of the year, so although it is in bud, there's no fountain of tiny yellow bubbles to look at quite yet. Sunshine and warmer temperatures are forecast for this week, which may spur it into bloom.
A clump of snowflakes has, however, opened in our absence, and there are some narcissus that have sprung up in the vacant lot next door, which I might rescue when they've finished blooming. There are blades of other bulbs in the small front garden. Some I think are going to be hyacinths. We shall see.

Wednesday, 20 June 2007

Winter Solstice

And it's brutally cold here in the mountains. Daytime temperatures are no more than a degree above the night-time ones of 3° or 4°C. We haven't yet got our house in order - no curtains on the windows, for instance, so it's hard to keep the interior warm. The Australian defiance of the fact that they have a winter at all doesn't help either. Windows are single-glazed, construction design and materials don't include insulation, and heating systems are not as advanced as they are in Canada with its longer winter. My favourite accessories right now are a pair of Peruvian-patterned woolly socks, knitted by Kathy Wilson, late of Langley, in a combination of wool from our sheep and fleece from her llamas.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

Winter blooms

It's less than a week to the solstice and I'm amazed at the number of plants that are bursting into bloom already. I expected the sasanqua camellias, which I've already mentioned, but I didn't expect them to keep flowering for so long. Now they are being joined by other plants, some of which seem logical at this time of year, like heath and mimosa (or wattle as the Aussies call it), and others quite unexpected like the kniphofia (red hot poker) in the photo and bergenia (pigsqueak). Japonica camellias are also beginning to bloom, though I did hear someone say that they are early this year. Lavender, particularly Lavandula stoechas, doesn't seem to have stopped flowering at all, even though the weather has been cold and stormy for the last week with temperatures comparable to a Vancouver winter, ie. not reaching double digits in daytime and close to zero at night. I've also noticed occasional salvia, penstemon and osteospermum blooms in my neighbourhood.

Monday, 4 June 2007

Educational options

In yesterday's mail came a brochure for the local TAFE (Technical and Further Education) institute. Oh goody, she thinks, maybe I'll take a course in Australian politics or pick up another language.
They are all courses for industry, inviting me to sign up for Driving a Mobile Crane over 20 tonnes (cost: $1885) or perhaps Bushfire Protection Sprinkler Systems ($850). I'm not really tempted by Coffee Preparation ($199) or Safe Working at Heights ($215) or Brazilian Waxing ($135). And Gel Nail Enhancement ($168) is a post trade course so I'm not eligible.

But wait! There's a listing for Horticulture. Maybe this will be for me?

Two courses are offered:

One is Chainsaw Operations (Level 1).

The other is Chainsaw Operations (Level 2).


I think I'll settle for Vegetable Carving ($440).

Thursday, 24 May 2007

Cryptic Comment

For as long as I can remember I've been a crossword addict, graduating from the standard "find the synonym" type through the Saturday New York Times ones with their quirky themes to the London Sunday Times cryptics. In Canada, The Sun newspaper obligingly runs the latter two every weekend. Although I didn't buy the paper (too much newsprint to recycle) my dear friend Basil, lifelong librarian that he is, has been faithfully clipping and sending me my weekly fix for some years, and continues to do so even though I'm now on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
Meanwhile, I've discovered that The Australian newspaper runs three crosswords in their Saturday edition: an easy synonym type, and two challenging cryptics, one obviously local and the other an import from the UK. The paper even offers a free Australian dictionary as a prize for the first correct solution to the local cryptic opened each week, so of course if I can fill in all the squares I send mine off with hope that I'll be the lucky winner. After more than 25 years of living overseas, I'm quite proud of myself when I do complete one of these, as there is always at least one answer relating to an Australian placename, animal, politician or celebrity. In the example here, 17 Down is the name of a town in the state of Victoria, which I only remembered because it appears in a poem I read in high school. 6 Down, 19 Down and 10 Across spell out the full name of an Australian film director. OK, for once it's somebody with an international reputation, but who knew his middle name was Lindsay?? I think I ought to get extra credit for effort in these circumstances, but of course I never win. So far anyway. Michael thinks that by the time I do, I'll have spent enough money on stamps to have bought the darned dictionary several times over. He just doesn't understand the thrill of the pursuit!

Tuesday, 15 May 2007

Men in Ties

Earlier this week, the federal government brought down its budget for this election year. We watched the treasurer's speech on TV and, although I did listen, my lasting impression was a visual one. Every man present, whether on the government or opposition benches, seemed to be wearing a navy blue suit. Most were plain cloth, though a few members were daring enough to choose a pinstriped version. With the suit, all had chosen a diagonally striped tie. The biggest diversion from this uniform lay in the colour of the stripes.
Now, I've always maintained that a man's tie fulfils the same function for him as a woman's jewellery does for her: it reveals something of the personality of the wearer. Think chunky brass and and copper versus a sedate string of pearls. I personally have a penchant for earrings in leaf shapes. But, clearly, these Australian politicians are playing their cards close to their conservative chests. Where are the cartoon character ties, the little aeroplanes, golf clubs or palm trees? I know they are available in the shops as our daughter has bought Michael a selection of interesting designs over the years. One of her inspired choices even looks at first glance like the standard diagonal, but on closer inspection the stripes turn out to be parallel rows of tiny snails.
Having noted this peculiar symptom among politicians, I'm now seeing it in other professions. Television newsreaders also wear the predictable diagonal, although one at least has a model in irridescent purple stripes on a dark blue background. (By contrast, the women newsreaders wear the most bizarre fashions, often with assertive lapels or an assortment of net and frills around the neckline.) A panel of five sportscasters included three diagonal tie wearers. The remaining two, bucking the trend, had opted for circles instead, one of which might just possibly have been little soccer balls, but the camera never provided a close-up, so I can only hope.

More on camellias

Camellia sasanqua began flowering in numerous local gardens over a month ago. It is now in full bloom and very eye-catching. At Blackheath in the grounds of the community centre is this vigorous if slightly straggly example, thriving with seemingly little care. (Thank you brother-in-law Paul for having your camera handy). Pink forms like this are the most ubiquitous, but a neighbour of ours has a particularly attractive bi-color one with white petals dipped in raspberry pink. In Vancouver's persistent winter rains, the flowers so often turn sodden and brown within hours of opening, but here in Australia's dry climate, they have a much longer shelf life.

Tuesday, 8 May 2007

(Non)Laughing Kookaburra

Yesterday, this fine kookaburra was sitting on the street sign beside our place, scanning the vacant lot next door for signs of life, probably hunting the small lizards called skinks that seem to emerge in numbers every time the sunshine is strong enough to warm the ground. I was able to stand quite close without disturbing it, although I had to shoot against the bright sky so the photos are not as distinct as I'd hoped. This particular bird was too intent on food to be laughing, but we often hear them chuckling in chorus among the surrounding eucalypts in the early morning and evening. Is it my imagination that they are more vocal whenever the weather is threatening rain?
The laughing kookaburra (Dacelo gigas) is Australia's largest kingfisher and one of the largest of its species in the world. My bird book gives a plethora of common names for it, including Breakfastbird, Bushman's Clock, Jack, Jackass, Jacko, Jacky, John, Johnny, Kooka, and Ha Ha Pigeon.
For my North American botanist friends, yes, those are Monterey pines in the background. They are quite a feature of the Blue Mountains, attracting sulphur-crested cockatoos who love tearing the cones apart. Some humans, however, dislike them for their habit of shedding needles into eavestroughs, clogging the downpipes and creating a fire hazard in this area of frequent bushfires.

Saturday, 28 April 2007

More Street Trees and Shrubs

If there are benefits to a prolonged drought, one of them in Australia has to be the increased planting of native trees and shrubs that will survive without attention, particularly regular watering. Or perhaps I just didn't notice them in my non-gardening youth.

This banksia is growing on a neglected strip of grass behind a large hardware store in the oxymoronically named Blue Mountains suburb of Valley Heights. I think is a specimen of Banksia oblongifolia because its flowers are pale yellow and it is flowering now in autumn. All banksias are endemic to Australia. Members of the protea family, they are named for Sir Joseph Banks, the eminent botanist who travelled with Captain Cook. One of the interesting characteristics of banksias is that they hold their seeds for many years, either until the plant dies or is singed by fire.

Not far away is a she-oak, possibly Allocasuarina torulosa, judging by its warty cones. I remember that we had several growing near our home when I was a child, and we would cut a single branch to serve as a Christmas tree in this country that lacked the northern hemisphere's traditional firs. Nowadays, tree farms supply the real thing to those who can afford the very high prices they command.