Archive for April, 2013




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ON A day when all manner of people  turned out to publicly and conspicuously commemorate ANZAC Day, marching, singing, praying, dressing up in uniform, waving flags, wearing medals, beating drums, playing trumpets, bagpipes and horns,then gathering noisily with family and regiment mates in waterholes from Gallipoli to Goondiwindi to Greymouth, I dug deep to gather my thoughts of war and the fallen in my garden.

I thought of the solace and comfort that trees and plants give to the families and loved ones of those buried in war graves all over the world and the peace and beauty they lend to the final resting place  of the thousands of young servicemen and servicewomen lying there.  The calm and serenity of the gorgeous parks and vistas that organisations like the Commonwealth War Graves Commission work so splendidly to maintain,  are an abject contrast to their former life as a battlefield where those who lie there now met a noisy and messy death.

There are tens of thousands of Australians buried in marked and unmarked graves in 82 countries. Many thousands more of all nationalities lie in foreign lands bearing a headstone that may or may not identify them.

The war cemeteries’ groomed and majestic walkways, the silence except for the twitter of birds, rustle of branches and whispers of visitors evoke a solemnity that is both soothing and  stark. You can be mesmerised, even charmed,  by the neat and precise rows, crisp white headstones, carpets of lush lawn until jolted by the realisation that you are walking on a huge waste of young lives. So many  mere boys who for all their dignified and honoured resting place, were robbed of  years of feeling the sun on their face, the wind at their back and their family’s loving arms to grow old in.

The sharply manicured grassways at Varennes cemetery, France are softened by the delicate pink roses, tendered lovingly to almost year-round bloom.

I hope the  bright scattering cherry blooms at Bordon Military Cemetery, Hampshire are a balm for the families of the young Australians, Canadians and South Africans buried there.

Fallen World War II German soldiers and internees are honoured on British soil at the lovely Cannock Chase cemetery, Staffordshire. The shadows that fall across the paths to their graves carry the patterns of lovely beech and oak branches, their reflective shade contrasting to the bright lights of so many lives forever dimmed.

The serene and beautiful wooded park of Bedford House Cemetery, near Ypres, in Belgium has a grace and distinctive feel, enhanced by the bright red geraniums among the tombstones.

Bedford House Cemetery Belgium

Bedford House Cemetery Belgium

Perhaps the most poignant and sombre is the mass grave at Langemark, in the Flanders region of Belgium where 24,900 German soldiers lie in  mass grave,  known as the comrades grave. More than  7000 of these are unknown. Most of them were inexperienced German infantry who perished in the first futile battle at Ypres against the British and French in World War I.  Majestic oak trees line the site, standing guard over the fallen and a rose garden thrives there. The atmosphere is dark and foreboding, enhanced by the German choice of black granite for headstones, in contrast to the Allies’ choice of white marble.

Langemark Cemetery Belgium mass grave rose garden

Langemark Cemetery Belgium mass grave rose garden. The bronze figures at the rear.

Touching addition are four slightly larger than life size shadowy bronze figures, sculpted by Emil Krieger, who says he was inspired by a picture of grieving soldiers at the graveside of a comrade. The four stand eerily at attention,  and silhouetted against the countryside,  make a memorable impact on visitors.

The soothing air at Cannock Chase, Staffordshire where German war dead lie.

The soothing air at Cannock Chase, Staffordshire where German war dead lie.

Pink peace surrounds graves at Bordon Military cemetery, Hampshire

Soft pink peace surrounds graves at Bordon Military cemetery, Hampshire

Grassways and roses at Varennes military cemetery, France

Grassways and roses at Varennes military cemetery, France

And to demonstrate just how big a part the trees and their spread and shade play in the ambience of all these solemn sites,  the 60 distinctive spreading hornbeam (carpinus betulus)  trees were removed four years ago at Villers-Bretonneux cemetery, France to devastating effect. The row of 81-year old trees were dying, so were taken out in 2009.

However,  their replacements are developing well for the town’s battle centenary commemorations in 2018.

Walking under the shadows and past the lovely plantings, to read the epitaphs is almost too sad and painful, but one on the grave of Private John Thomas Holdroyd is worded to speak succinctly for all the ache left in hearts back home: “Too far away thy grave to see

  But not too far to think of thee.”

Before and after the horbbeam hedges were removed at Villers-Bretonneux cemetery

Before and after the hornbeam hedges were removed at Villers-Bretonneux cemetery

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YOU can always pick gardeners on holidays. They have these funny habits they indulge when they are away from their familiar terrain. I speak both of my own behaviour and from watching fellow flora enthusiasts.

On our recent interstate holiday, for example in Perth, Western Australia,  I felt I was in a very different topography.

I only had to look down to know this. Well, look down and scratch around. The soil, you see, is so different from our own heavy clay. It is sandy. Like the whole city is built on a big beach.

And once I’d discovered this,  I couldn’t avoid crouching down at every opportunity to check how far within the state this sandy loam extended. And I would lock eyes with people watching and nodding who shared and endorsed my curiosity – and soiled hands. Like me, they were the ones turning away from capturing panoramic views to focus their cameras on bark patterns, leaf formations and flower petals.

While most city visitors were looking at towering skyscrapers, the wide beauty of the Swan River and the impressive watercraft, I was looking down, marvelling at the plant life the sand supported, and how quickly rainwater seeped away, with hardly a trace of it lying about minutes after a heavy downpour, unlike our boggy mud that persists for days in wet weather. I was fingering new foliage, sniffing new flowers, running my hands along unfamiliar tree limbs and gazing up through strange and lovely canopies.

If I stumbled over a botanical name or gushed over an impressive foliage, and an onlooker corrected me kindly or joined my enthusiasm, I knew why.

That’s what gardeners do.

Perth’s magnificent King’s Park is a joy for any gardener to savour, incidentally, not just for its magnificent position overlooking the city, its wonderful and sombre memorials, gracious entrance avenue of lemon-scented gums, poignant war remembrance trees honouring fallen servicemen and women and gorgeous wildflower displays, but also for the riding and walking pathways, the viewing and doing experiences and sweeping outlook it offers for those who don’t give a toss about gardens and plants.

Magnificent WA red flowering gum

Magnificent WA red flowering gum

Blossom on WA scarlet flowering gum ( corymbia ficifolia)

Blossom on WA scarlet flowering gum ( corymbia ficifolia)

Vive le difference when it comes to appreciating new landscapes. The WA eucalypts tend to the dramatic, from the towering ghost gums, stately salmon gums ( eucalyptus salmonophloia) with smooth trunks that shine like

Copper trunks of salmon gum trees

Copper trunks of salmon gum trees

polished copper and the dazzling scarlet flowering gum (corymbia ficifolia) in full bloom that stops you in your tracks.

Sand bottlebrush in Kings Park, Perth

Sand bottlebrush in Kings Park, Perth

I lost count of the different, wonderful and brilliant grevilleas, and drawn to one especially dazzling prostrate variety, called sand bottlebrush (beaufortia squarrosa) . It’s a glorious flame red and with the backdrop of  the singularly wide blue WA sky, the palette is one that has you grasping for superlatives.

But,  as I was saying, gardeners have a different way of looking at the world.

In Christchurch, the earthquake destruction, slow recovery, road closure disruption and ongoing fear of more shakes makes life for the city’s population hazardous and grim.

But a gardener’s sense of humour shines through.

A friend send me a heroic little image of a bunch of flowers recently poked into a road bollard. Whatever ugliness the road reconstruction works prolong for the residents of the city, known traditionally as the garden capital of NZ, someone is determined to see the ubiquitous and ungainly roadblock items as vases and beautify the scene accordingly.

Christchurch road bollard beauty

Christchurch road bollard beauty

What grace and wit it shows. It says to me: Hey, nothing is so barren and broken, it cannot be brightened by the sharing of the loveliness of a flower. Nature is both brutal and beautiful.

Blooming roadworks in battered Christchurch

Blooming roadworks in battered Christchurch

That’s what gardeners do.

But closer to home, a visit to a local country cottage cafe, set in a pretty sprawling garden, planted out with annuals, natives, palms and significant herbs, found cracks in the theory.

On a quiet mid-week visit, when we were the only guests, after spending a considerable amount of money and time with the owner/gardener over lunch and then an admiring  walk around all her hard work, asking about the what and where of some of the plant varieties, I thought we were doing the bonding thing you do when you share garden talk. So I asked if I could have a small cutting of a specimen I didn’t know, but particularly admired.

A firm “no” was her response. Seems I would set a dreadful precedent if she allowed me  ( ” everyone would want to take some”), despite there being not a soul within cooee of the place.

Unidentified ground cover plant,  but not for sharing

Unidentified ground cover plant, but not for sharing

Alas,  she was not a sharer. All she let me take was a photo ( perhaps someone can identify it?).

That’s NOT what gardeners do.

Is it?

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