Malaysian Borneo

After one of the coolest summers on record accompanied by too many complaints about plants not blooming and tomatoes not ripening due to a lack of sunshine, I thought, forget it, I’m taking off for somewhere a little warmer — Borneo. 

To be truthful, the trip was planned long before I felt any need for a change in weather, but I certainly found the sun and warm temperatures — and acres of blooming bougainvillea, frangipani, and orchids, orchids, and even more orchids. 

It was a lovely trip, plus any expectations I might have had before embarking were exceeded when I had the amazing good fortune, purely by chance, to see the largest flower in the world in bloom.

Mount Kinabalu
I was on an air conditioned bus travelling a mountain highway near Mount Kinabalu in the east Malaysian state of Sabah, when the driver jammed on the brakes and swerved onto the shoulder of the road. He’d spotted the hand painted sign at the side of the road — a picture of a flower with the words “Rafflesia in bloom”. 

We piled out of the bus into a steam bath wondering what the fuss was about. I can honestly say that I didn’t know much about Rafflesia, but the locals sure knew. As soon as they’d found it, up when the sign and out went the cash box. And who can blame them. In fact it’s encouraged as a means to protect this endangered species. I paid my thirty ringgits (about ten dollars), and stepped onto the trail through the forest. Fortunately, it was only a short walk along a freshly trampled track and there it was, the extremely rare Rafflesia arnoldii, protected by a hastily erected bamboo fence.

And what a curious plant it is, only occurring in the rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo. As a visitor to the country, the chances of actually seeing one in bloom are rare — I only saw one roadside sign the whole trip. In addition to being rare, it takes months for the bud to form, poking its way up through the forest floor to bloom for only a few days, producing a flower as much as a meter in diameter and weighing as much as 11 Kg. (my plant wasn’t a huge specimen, maybe half a meter across, but enough to impress me).

It’s a brown speckled plant and looks a little like a fungus, but it is a parasitic, vascular plant with a distinct fragrance. Believe me; it isn’t called the corpse flower for nothing — not to be confused with that other corpse flower, the Titum arum, which is a larger plant, but it doesn’t rank with Guinness as the largest flower because the arum is composed of multiple florets, rather than a single bloom. The carrion odour emitted by the Rafflesia attracts the flies that provide pollination duties, resulting in a single seed.

Rothschild orchid
After taking pictures I boarded the bus and continued our journey to the botanical garden in Kinabalu National Park, where another fortuitous surprise awaited. The garden is an orchid lover’s delight, with too many in bloom to mention, but one in particular I must: The Rothschild orchid (Paphiopedilum rothschildianum). It’s an orchid rarely seen outside its native habitat, also the most expensive — if you were to dare purchase a plant (smugglers are jailed).

This solitary specimen lay behind a chain link fence, out of reach of drooling fans. It’s found only on the slopes of Mount Kinabalu, one of the world’s most important biological sites, home to 5,000 to 6,000 plant species. Unfortunately, I had to leave without seeing them all, but on the return to the city of Kota Kinabalu, the actual mountain peak appeared briefly from behind the ever present clouds, yet another gift from an amazing country. It’s been quite a summer.

Chelsea Flower and Garden Show

This year was my third visit to the amazing Chelsea Flower Show in London, England. Always an exciting adventure, it was just as (fill in your favourite superlative here) as ever. The interior of the Grand Pavilion appeared crammed with plants from every nursery business in Britain, including a yellow Streptocarpus, produced by Lynne Dibley, owner of Dibleys Nurseries. 

Streptocarpus colours follow a range through pink, blue or purple, but this one is truly unique. It took eleven years and endless hybridizations to produce a yellow variety. Naturally, I had to have one, then and there. I asked Lynne (I think it was Lynne) if they were for sale — NO. Can I buy one anywhere — NO. Will they be available soon in Canada— NO. Will you ship to Canada — NO. I left my disappointment in the Grand Pavilion and went on to view the large show gardens.

As ever, the competition is intense to win a gold medal at Chelsea. The large gardens are sponsored, and it’s no wonder considering they cost hundreds of thousands to create, and stay in perfect condition, for only five days. And I thought I went over board at the garden centre today with three trays of plants. A number of gold medals were awarded, but only one garden in each class receives Best in Show. This year it went to The Laurent-Perrier Garden Designed by Tom Stuart-Smith, a winner of six gold medals at Chelsea.

Try to hire him for a front-yard makeover now — good luck. His winning design was a dreamy understatement of simple elements — large, zinc water tanks, full to the brim and surrounded by only green and white plants. Around me, I could feel a softening in the energy in the crowd around me as we gazed at an example of perfection in design. Not withstanding my level of awe, I confess, I wanted to run and soak my weary feet in one of the tanks.

The judging of gardens at Chelsea is done by professionals, but there is one award much sought after — The BBC RHS Peoples' Award, chosen by TV viewers and show visitors.  It was awarded this year to Cleve West for The Bupa garden. How do I describe a garden of pathways and colourful plants dominated by a big stone globe? Same as those who voted for it — Wow! Designed partially as a sensory garden, it was one of the few show gardens that would be moved to a permanent location, a nursing centre in Battersea, south-west London.

I did have another favourite, and if you remember the sixties fondly, this one may have been yours. Many will be surprised to learn, that the late Beatle, George Harrison, was a passionate gardener. In fact, he dedicated his 1980 memoir, I Me Mine, to gardeners everywhere. This year at Chelsea, he was commemorated in return with a garden designed by his widow, Olivia Harrison, and landscape designer, Yvonne Innes.

The garden was planned to show the stages of George’s life, beginning with a rough patch of grass reminiscent of his father’s garden plot in Arnold Grove, George’s birthplace. A mosaic path of explosively psychedelic colours wound through the garden, past a glass wall bearing an image of a contemplative George. 

His lyrics, “Floating down the stream of time, from life to life with me” were displayed beside a tranquil pool below. The garden ends at a peacefully serene, white pavilion. Imagine.

By late afternoon, I decided to explore the streets of Chelsea. I was surprised to discover Tite Street, once the home of playwright, Oscar Wilde. I don’t believe Oscar was much of a gardener, but I’m fond of a quote of his that reflects in a way what Chelsea is all about: “It seems to me that we all look at Nature too much, and live with her too little.”


As I stared at the old Mountbatten Juniper at the foot of my garden, a few words of poet and novelist, Vita Sackville-West, came to mind. An aristocratic celebrity of the nineteen-thirties with an exuberant lifestyle, Vita, besides being the garden columnist for The Observer newspaper, was the creator of one of Britain’s most famous gardens located at Sissinghurst castle in Kent. Thanks to a spur of the minute decision to fill some spare time while in London, I was fortunate enough to visit the garden this past spring.

Travelling to Sissinghurst is something of a pilgrimage for gardeners, and although it took a hastily coordinated subway, train, and country cab ride to reach the property, which is located in the heart of Kent, I’m so happy that I made the trip.

The castle at Sissinghurst is, in reality, a large Elizabethan mansion, almost derelict when Vita and her husband, Harold Nicholson, bought the place in 1930. Eight years later, the mansion was restored and the impressive gardens they designed and created were opened to the public for the first time. In 1967, it was taken over by The National Trust and is visited each year by both gardeners and lovers of history.

There are actually ten gardens, separated by hedges, arches, and moss covered walls draped with climbing roses. Each one is unique and secluded, but all share the peace and tranquility of the gentle countryside that surrounds the property. They are a joy to explore. Turn a corner and there’s gorgeous white wisteria in full bloom dominating a red brick wall. It only blooms for a couple of weeks in late May and for once I was so lucky to be in the right place at the perfect time to see it.

Pass through an archway and you’re in a walled garden with every imaginable perennial bordering a soft green lawn. In the rose garden, I discovered shrub roses with their canes cleverly turned down into the soil. The tips had been encouraged to take root, resulting in profusely blooming hoops. There’s a nuttery, a lime walk, a moat and a herb garden. So much to see and absorb, but there was more. I was able to climb the 78 spiral stone steps of the restored tower that dominates the garden and view the beauty from an entirely different perspective.

Being there on a sunny afternoon in springtime, the garden in full bloom, water flowing softly, and songbirds warbling away, it wasn’t an easy place to leave, but I hope to return some day, perhaps next spring.

Meanwhile, the spirit of Vita lives on in her words that describe the bond between those who visit her masterpiece: "These mild gentlemen and women who invade one's garden after putting their silver token into the bowl . . . are some of the people I most gladly welcome and salute. Between them and myself a particular form of courtesy survives, a gardener's courtesy, in a world where courtesy is giving place to rougher things."

I will never have a garden anywhere near as grand as the one at Sissinghurst, but already, what I learned from Vita Sackville-West is beginning to influence the way I think about at my own modest garden. I like to think I share something with that remarkable, visionary woman. As I stood there at the foot of my garden, saw in hand. I could hear her words. She said: "The true gardener must be brutal . . . and imaginative for the future." The scraggly old juniper simply had to go.

Garanish (Ilnacullin), Ireland

Like cat's whiskers, the side mirrors on the coach I'm in brush the hedgerows as it cruises the narrow roads of Southwest Ireland. Round a bend and the mirror on the right sweeps impossibly close to the opposing one on a dump truck that materializes out of the mist.

Passengers on that side of the coach instinctively squeeze inwards. Our driver doesn't flinch. He's obviously an ex formula one driver and this is just an amusement ride for him. I have faith that he'll get us to our destination: we've already survived the rural driveway that masquerades as a two-lane road around the Dingle peninsula, where cliffs above and below substitute for relatively benign hedgerows.

Our destination is the peace and serenity that lies just ahead on the small island of Garanish. However, Ilnacullin is the name is preferred by the Office of Public Works which has administered the island since it was bequeathed to the Irish people in 1953. It lies in Bantry Bay, just a short, fifteen-minute ferry ride offshore.

On the trip over, the ferry detours to allow its passengers a of view of seals posed on tiny, rocky islands. The rapid clicking of cameras has the sound of an ancient Remington churning out an annual report; we're ignored — seen one tourist; you've seen them all. I could say the same about seals, but it isn't the seals we're here for — it's Ilnacullin.

The ferry docks and our group escapes to explore the island, an Irish Eden of rare beauty that attracts gardeners and horticulturists from around the world. It covers an area of only 15 hectares so there's little chance we'll lose anyone.

The gardens have a reputation to live up to, and I'm not disappointed. Ilnacullin used to be little more than a barren rock covered in heather and gorse surmounted by an old Martello tower. It was built in 1805 to keep an eye on possible incursions by Napoleon looking for a back door into the empire. Still in place, it makes a perfect vantage point to view Bantry Bay and the low rocky hills that surround it.

Back in 1910, a fellow by the name of John Annan Bryce, a Belfast businessman with ferry loads of cash and an impossible dream bought the island. He then commissioned the architect and horticulturalist Harold Peto to help him spend his money by designing and building a garden there.

Over three years, a hundred men blasted rocks, laid pathways, built a walled garden, and numerous structures, including a partial Casita. It's a style of Spanish mansion in the fashion of a folly, now draped with wisteria and acting as a shelter overlooking the gorgeous Italian garden.

After the hardscape was in place, countless barrows of soil were wheeled across the island to create flowerbeds. And then they planted — and how.

In the early years, the initial plantings suffered from the gales that sweep in from the Atlantic, but when Scottish gardener Murdo Mackenzie took over in 1928, he planted shelterbelts of Scots and Monterey Pines. These eventually transformed the gardens into a micro-climate within a micro climate that exploded with lush growth.

Atlantic gales not withstanding, conditions are ideal compared to what we have to put up with in our own gardens. Temperatures are moderate, warmed by the Gulf Stream. There is little frost and summer sun never scorches the ground. Plants that we would place in shade or semi shade grow in full sun as most days are often a little "shady". Humidity levels are high and there's plenty of rain — watering restrictions, hah! The annual mean rainfall is 1850 mm, occasionally as much as 2540 mm (100 inches).

And how do the plants like these conditions? With long summer days and no dieback in winter, plants reach their true potential. The crocosmia in my garden are barely knee-high; at Ilnacullin they look down on me. I get into a staring contest with a dahlia with a flower head almost as big as my own — it won. All about are numerous varieties of abutilon (flowering maple) the size of large shrubs. I saw my first Abutilon megapotamicum — the blooms have a red calyx surrounding yellow petals that in turn have a red throat. What a delight.

The range of plants is overwhelming. Australian wattle (Acacia pravissima), Kauri pine from New Zealand, and Cassia corymbosa from South America; magnolias, camellias and huge fuchsias (these grow wild in masses along the hedgerows). Think of an exotic tree or shrub and chances are it grows on Ilnacullin.

Beside the pool in the Italian garden sit planters of bonsai, one containing a larch claimed to be three hundred years old. Had our visit been during spring, we'd have been happily overwhelmed by the azaleas and rhododendrons that abound.

There is simply too much to take in during the few hours we have at Ilnacullin; I feel I could spend days there, wondering what the chances of a job are if I resurrect my British passport and apply under European Community rules. I'd settle for being a seal minder if I could hang about in the garden.

Sadly, though, all accounted for, we have to leave this seductive place as our coach is waiting. We have a rendezvous to keep with other gardens, old ruins, and more hedgerows to brush. I'll be back someday.