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.

Street Trees

Everywhere we go, I'm impressed by the street trees and shrubs in Sydney and the Blue Mountains. Some I recognize, like the maples here in the upper Blue Mountains, many now turning colour as the fall progresses. Or the sasanqua camellias, which I've already mentioned, flourishing everywhere either as large trees or smaller shrubs often grown in columnar rows as hedging.
A new plant to me, now in flower all over Sydney's North Shore suburbs is Gordonia axillaris, a native of Taiwan and Vietnam. A close relative of Franklinia alatamaha, it makes a very attractive shrub and, unlike Franklinia, is evergreen.
An interesting characteristic of the flowers is that they always fall "butter side up", making a decorative carpet around the trunk.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Buying Plants

On Saturday, April 21, I went to a nearby (well, forty minutes away which is no great distance in Australia) plant fair. There were about 25 different nurseries all selling their wares to a horde of enthusiastic gardeners. My first purchase was a large book on Australian native plants which I will consult at leisure before buying any. I'd very much like to get some kangaroo paws in mustard yellow and earthy red, but I'm not sure they'll survive the mountain frosts. Quite apart from liking their curious flowers, I can't wait to rattle off their wonderful botanical name: Anigozanthos.
In the meantime, my plant lust, tamped down for so many months now, was tempting me to buy, buy, buy. I successfully resisted. Almost. Three little pots of perennials hardly counts: Dianthus 'Mrs. Sinkins', Geranium 'Rosanne', Salvia 'Black and Blue'. All are drought-tolerant as is necessary in this parched country. All will go into my tiny front garden, and I'll put the native plants when I get around to them into the much larger area at the back.
I added three small sempervivums, as a gift for Michael, to start the rock garden he plans to make running down the lane on the west side of our property. The materials are already there including some beautiful red-brown ironstone rock , but the area will first have to be cleared of rampant ivy, crocosmia, osteospermum and bergenia. If it turns out at all like the rock garden he created at Killara Farm, a small part of which appears in the photo, it will be spectacular. What was really nice about the plants I bought for him was that they were all named varieties. In Vancouver, most sempervivums you come across at nurseries are merely labelled "Succulent" or at most "Sempervivum species". The ones I purchased are S. 'Greyola', S. 'More Honey' and S. 'Centennial'. Whose centennial, I wonder?

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Service. What Service?

Anyone coming to Australia from North America can't fail to notice how little the concept of service has entered the retail and restaurant trade here. Finding a cheerful and helpful employee in a shop is a rare delight, while in restaurants service ranges from indifferent to downright rude. In the latter case, perhaps it's because the custom of tipping is only just entering the Australian consciousness. In most restaurants, the average Australian, if he tips at all, rounds up the bill to the next dollar. In high-end establishments, this might be extended to the next number ending in zero. In casual eateries, the most a server could expect is a dollar coin left on the table. Thus, there's no reason to make an effort unless you take pride in your job, and few employees seem to do that. The prevailing attitude suggests that if you don't get a financial reward for taking care of your customers, why bother?
We recently spent an evening at one of Katoomba's expensive brasseries. The food was good. The service was friendly, and our particular requests were promptly attended to. It was the unrequested detail that was lacking. No-one checked back with us to find out how we liked our meals; no-one noticed when the wine or water glasses needed refilling. Perhaps I'm being fussy because we don't like fawning service either, but we missed the discreet cruising by of a waiter, just checking things over from time to time, that would be a given in a well-run Vancouver restaurant, say. When the bill is well over a hundred dollars, there's a quality of attention that should go with the quality of the food.
Perhaps we should be more appreciative of what we got. In this weekend's newspaper, a review of Sydney's revolving restaurant atop a space-needle type of downtown tower described the waitress as monosyllabic and dismissive to the point of surliness. Neither the revolving mechanism nor the air-conditioning was functioning on the evening the reviewer was there, so you'd expect that the staff would be trying to make up for these deficiencies, especially in a restaurant where starters are priced in the high twenties and main dishes in the mid-forties. Apparently not. Notes at the end of the article included the total of the bill: over $200 for two. Ah well, at least they didn't have to tip!

Monday, 9 April 2007


In Vancouver, you could always be sure that it would rain for the start of the PNE. And it's happening here too, just in time for the start of the Royal Easter Show, a larger version of the same thing, though with still a significant amount of space devoted to agricultural pursuits. The Sydney show includes sheepdog trials, woodchopping competitions (including nowadays a women's race which a U.S. team is favoured to win), and elaborate relief images ,one for each state, composed entirely of fruit and vegetables. The Country Women's Association, a formidable lobby group, holds cake-making competitions, and it's a great honour to win the coveted trophy for best sponge cake.
Meanwhile, here in the mountains, the rain is keeping us indoors much of the time. On Sunday, though, around sunset, it cleared temporarily, allowing us this view of a rainbow over the trees to the east of our house.
Since it's autumn, madonna lilies are blooming, and because they arrive at this time of the year, Australians call them Easter lilies.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Hello Possums

Today being Michael's birthday, and with the weather turning colder now that autumn is coming in, I bought Michael a scarf for the winter walks we plan to take. It's 50% superfine merino wool and 10% nylon for strength. The remaining 40% is possum fur. Brushtail possums are native to Australia and, unlike the North American opossum, exceptionally furry and cute. However, the scarf comes from New Zealand where imported possums have become pests, devastating the NZ wildlife, particularly rare species like the kiwi. As the possums are being culled anyway, someone had the bright idea of using their fur in winter woollies. The texture is as soft as cashmere and the manufacturers claim that it's the first new natural fibre to be introduced in 100 years.