Wednesday, July 29, 2009

One More for the Road

I never realised that we grew tea in the United States. For me tea was something exotic from far away places normally associated with Asia. As a kid growing up in LA, I came to know a wonderful family, the Rodes, from Ceylon (Srilanka today). Their kids and I grew up together and we became the best of friends. Tea was a ritual at their house in the way it was prepared and enjoyed. The family and I would sit around the porch and Esme (the mother) would arrive with an ordinary aluminum tea pot with the most wonderful concoction you ever tasted. This very strong tea would be consumed sweetened with condensed milk that really hit the spot after one of those fabulous Sunday brunches with multiple hot, hot curries and other equally delectable spicy dishes, that so marked my teenage years.

The film Elephant Walk with Elizabeth Taylor and Peter Finch was shot in Ceylon's in 1953. It shows the color and pageant of tea culture with the tea pickers going into the beautiful mountain slopes to harvest the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) which is a form of flowering Camellias. I suspect that tea culture and harvest is probably still, in parts of the world, as how it was portrayed in that movie. I also realise that it is hard work in the hot tropical sun and must not have been as romantic as it was portrayed.
So you can imagine what a surprise it was to discover that in South Carolina we have a modern tea plantation. The only one in the United States. Here plants of green tea are grown and harvested to create American Classic Island Green Tea. The plantation is large enough and fields go as far as the eye can see.

It appears to be all harvested by machine as is the entire process of prepping the leaves for market. That is also all done on site to joys of the tourists who visit individually or in tours. I stumbled on it by chance as I was looking for the Angel Oak. Signs to the plantation lead me across John's Island which is one of the larger islands on the Charleston Bay watershed.

manicured rows of plants appear to be all machine pruned which is practical given all the cottonmouth snakes in the area

This was my second stop of the day. It was a wonderful place to relax, snoop and discover along the way. I tried the green tea which was really great and refreshing. The property had a certain look of the Old South even though the tea plantation is rather recent. I sat by the fields sipping my iced green tea underneath this great old oak. Unfortunately, my stay was short as I was on my way to the Middleton Plantation where I knew I wanted to spend a lot of time. Still it was a great stop along the road. It is just unfortunate that there was not a great Ceylonese lunch to go with my tea.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

You can't go home again

Thomas Wolfe, I am sure, did not have my friends or me in mind when he wrote his novel, but it sure comes to mind when thinking of how much life changes and attempts to regain the past fall, at times, into futile vanity.

I am not going to write about gardens today. I have neglected whatever reading public is out there for this blog while I have been dealing with unemployment, reconnecting with family and hosting a French family in my house. For many weeks I have dealt with the Blog by giving my take on historical information already out there in other places. As a friend, pointed out, (I paraphrase) you need to put yourself back into the blog and deal with your thoughts and emotions. I suspect a Blog is read voyeurism!

Here goes all.

Unemployment will come to an end one way or another soon enough. Talent and willingness to work are two things that I have and they will manifest itself in real and concrete ways once again.

Reconnecting with family in Florida was a lot of fun after ten years of separation. I got to visit my cousins and see all the things that we shared as kids in Cuba and how far that has carried us. We managed to play together as adults and have a little fun visiting new places or taking on an unexpected adventure. We have made the best of a difficult situation by being pulled out of our country of birth and dropped in another to figure it all out. To all our credit we have managed and even succeeded in adapting and laying claim to successful happy lives. It would be crazy if it were otherwise given that we have now lived here in the United States longer than anywhere else.

My trip also had another quest: Whether or not to move to Florida? As I drove through the neighborhoods around Tampa Bay I could see myself in a beautiful tropical setting where I could develop a new garden. For now, the life that I have developed in New Jersey is the one I plan to live. I have worked so hard to fit out my home to my every need. I have developed a garden that I take a great pleasure in seeing it grow. Most of all I am afraid of that the amount of energy it took to get it all done and the ability to keep starting anew.

Sometime last fall I rediscovered (through the magic of Google) a girlfriend from my youth while at the University in Montpellier, France. I was delighted when she informed me that she and her family were coming to the States to visit and see me. Maybe in translation I failed to understand that they were just coming to visit me and extended and open invitation to stay at my house for as long as they wanted. I was later informed that they were coming to stay for 24 days. We corresponded and exchanged information on places to visit and where they might go. I also offered to serve as travel guide and take them around to a few places as it would be difficult, with job hunting, to do more. I had thought the first week would be spent around Philadelphia, week 2 around Washington and New York City and week three we would visit upstate NY and Niagara Falls. I also figured they would travel some places on their own; I figured wrong!

The wonder of their visit quickly vanished when they set up housekeeping as though they would never go anywhere but just sit and chat and take in the odd site here or there for the duration. Our first fiasco occurred when I took them on day 4 to the Statue of Liberty and it was crowded by the usual mobs that cling to tourist site here and abroad. My old friend found herself a little uncomfortable with a very demanding husband who expected three French squares a day and had little interest for culture. Her 16 year old daughter had left a budding romance back home and she was only concerned with emailing him as often as possible. I understood this side of the French because they love good food and come from a country filled to capacity with culture so seeing Museums and built landmarks tend to have a lesser impact on them than with other cultures. For this reason I had thought that Niagara Falls was the site around here where they would enjoy themselves the most.

In reality, week one had gotten off badly after the Statue of Liberty. Other outings to natural sites fared better but it was becoming obvious that New Jersey is not France (just in case you wondered!) We had bad bread, expensive wine and expensive food. Everything as a matter of fact was expensive unlike France where they give it away! Nothing was like in France. To top it off a visit to a favorite outdoor dining restaurant was well received but put to a test when the husband wanted to stiff on the tip because in France it is included. I explained the differences and how the servers are paid little and live off the tips to little reception from the husband.

My friend had done the minimum of research but the others had not. There was no collective idea of what to do or visit or a budget for travel. It became clear that we were going to have a bad time if we did not alter the program. Week two became a test to find an escape for them where they could be together as a family without me. This, after much contemplation and budget analysis became even more difficult. I still did manage to find a respite by getting them off to Atlantic City where they spent three days and two nights.

My friend Julia, a trooper if ever there was one, who had hosted them over the 4th of July and on another occasion had already made arrangements to take them to the Barnes Foundation where we had not been and thought they would enjoy visiting with all the French art. My friend was thrilled at the opportunity. An artist, herself, she was looking forward to the visit. At last moment it was announced that the husband and daughter were not going to join us which I thought was great so the adults could have a day away from the children. Little attention was paid to the difficulty and the cost of getting tickets by our visitors. Many of you in Philadelphia would have probably wished you could have joined us in such a pilgrimage that is going to the Barnes.

The worst, however, was not over. Week three lay ahead and by this point I no longer found it charming or colorful what lay in store for me. Against, better judgment and advice I drove eight hours to Rochester where I proceeded to have a horrendous fight with the husband over tipping and other lack of courtesies and culture. I apologized profusely to my dear friend RJ who would host us for three days and who had gone to great lengths to plan a Bastille Day Party for the visiting French and his other friends and, alas, was surprised by the boorish behavior. Still we managed to continue the trip and visit to Niagara Falls that appeared to soothe our visitors.

Returning home from the trip I wavered in what I would actually do. I had told my friend that upon returning I expected them to move into a hotel for the remaining three days of their trip, but I feared all the extra work it would entail for me arranging it. Somehow, more of the same cacophony already demonstrated continued and I found myself going home to explain to a very dour friend that she and the others would need to move into a hotel. Needless, to say, I felt like shit in this request but it was more than any one person could tolerate. The next morning I apologized to the daughter who explained to me that I had only stood it for 21 days. She explained that she was "saturated" from similar behavior since her mother had married the man five years ago. I deposited them at the hotel they had chosen. No one said thank you, they just turned their backs on me and walked away.

My friend Vori had sent me an article that was timely enough. Apparently, Reuters Paris had run an article on July 9 that was carried by a variety of newspapers across the country and the world claiming the French to be the worst tourists. They cited lack of language skills, little interest in other cultures, poor tipping and spending habits and a list of other significant complaints by over 4500 hotel owners. I want to state categorically that it was 4501 who felt that way. I am sorry for my poor and charming friend, but we live the life we choose. Please don't tell me about Mark Twain and how fish and house guests stink after three days...I know, already!


I want to clarify one point that I failed to make about my house guest fiasco. My comments about the French was more a comment on ill behaved and socially uncouth people everywhere. I know lots of fabulous French who know what bad manners are and who are gracious and elegant! I question my own manners writing about this but will simply say this is a blog entitled: Once Upon a Garden Blog, garden experiences learned and the surprises along the way. I believe this qualifies as a surprise along the way!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Middleton Place

Plan on property showing formality of gardens and layout

Carolina was a colony founded in 1663. The two Carolinas we have now occurred in a split in 1712. Middleton Place came into being during the colonial period and was given to Henry Middleton, President of the Continental Congress, as part of a marriage dowry. A considerable plantation of its day with about 50,000 acres in rice Middleton Place today is a resort and a significant historic property and garden of about 65 acres. The historic approach to the property was by the Ashley River to which the formal layout is oriented so visitors and Master alike would get the best view of the property as they approached from Charleston.

Aerial photograph on display at garden featuring Butterfly Lakes and Central approach

The house was of Jacobean style and the formal gardens were and are rather sumptuous in their design and layout. Among the most famous features are the Butterfly Lakes which were part of the water system for flooding the rice paddies. It must be considered influenced by Versailles which was under construction and development at the same time. The continuous influence of the French during the Independence War can be seen in the gardens as well as the relationship of Middleton and Andre Michaux (who was eventually Royal Botanist to Louis XVI) who, as a consequence of their friendship, sent the first Camellias in the United States to the plantation.

Middleton family influence with the South and cessation from the Union caused the property to be targeted and the Mansion and the property to be burned in 1865. What remained was further damaged by the Great Earthquake in 1886. Since then, the family fortune has allowed, with help of all manner of enterprise, the restoration of the property. Today, Middleton Place operates as an elegant southern resort with a beautiful inn where guests have access to the garden. Most of what was plantation has been developed by neighboring communities and Charleston. Along Ashley River Road are two other well known historic properties also open to visitors: Drayton Hall and Magnolia Plantation. These offer modern varied views of how historic plantations are managed: one more historic and the other more commercial.

Modern Archway leads into a definitely historic landscape

Formal pathways framed by trees, azaleas or camellias with focal gateways are the norm

Moss covered views and brick perforated walls framing edges

Multi-purpose water features were used to manage rice paddies. Today they serve the local alligators and tourist for photo vistas

Wood Nymph was hidden and survived the assault of the Union Troops

Modern installation near restaurant serves as an overlook on old Rice Mill and Pond

Remaining entry stoop to the Mansion which as you can see was never rebuilt

View of formal parterre from Middleton Oak

I did not photograph the Middleton Oak as I found it sadly deformed by its loss of limbs. The tour guides at Middleton Place speak of it with great reverence and claim it to be larger than the Angel Oak featured in my last blog. I borrowed these images from the Comtesse de Sparr (above) and Joel8X (below) to give you and idea of what it is and what it was. You decide if it is grander than the Angel Oak. Personally, I think the Angel is grander and certainly older whether it is one trunk or ten!

Middleton Place is certainly a marvelous garden to visit and I hope one day to stay at the resort. My visit in June was rather late in the season and hot. Few plants were in bloom and I was rushed to see the gardens and skip the museum and slave quarters. I highly recommend that when you visit you prepare yourself for a stiff garden admission price of $25.00 (more if you visit the other historic structures) and that you do it in the vicinity of Mother's day. Then, you will enjoy the thousands upon thousands of Camellias, azaleas, and roses that abound in the garden it will also be cooler with any luck. It is a magnificent place. Regardless you will enjoy its beautiful location and hopefully you will explore a back path to the Cypress Lake where the terrain appears as though barely been touched by man or time.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Wonders Along the Road

It is not everyday that you get the opportunity to travel along these kind of roads in places that exist in the mist and the history of the past. Yes, we live in modern times, but when you really take account, some of the best things about us are in our history. As I was driving to Charleston I could not cease to stop here, there and everywhere to look at what was before me that even at a slow drive was passing by way too quickly. The results of these stops provided me with some of the greatest discoveries. I tend to read anything and everything historical and sometime ago I had read of the Angel Oak.

This Southern Live Oak (Quercus virginiana) tree is approximately 1400 years old. It managed to survive Hugo that severely damaged a section of the tree, but it has managed to recover and continues to grow rather well. Even though the canopy in partially damaged, you still manage to see a magnificent specimen tree which has limbs that flow in the air like feathers to lenghts of 90 feet. Newton was right about gravity but seeing 90 foot horizontal limbs floating in air makes you question what is subject to gravity? In all the tree takes up about half an acre of land. It is monumental without question even though the Middleton Oak (stay tuned until next week) is purported to be the largest single trunk whereas the Angel Oak is supposed to be multiple trees that grew together to become siamese triplets or whatever. I can't tell how anyone can tell, but I will go along with the story.

The truth is that regardless of what you call it the tree is a marvel of nature that has managed to survive in a culture that is often more interested in lumber than in trees. Take into account the number of hurricanes that have tested its buttressing limbs or the fact that its swampy location on John Island would be the death knell of many another plant, it has survived to become the oldest living organism east of the Mississippi River.
Visitors of every language were there to view and photograph the Angel Oak whose trunk is covered in Resurrection Fern (Polypodium polypodioides). Aptly named for it will wither and disappear when weather fails to provide it with the required moisture. When rain falls the seemingly dead branches unfurl and create lush green carpeting that so typifies it.
The secondary epiphyte that lives on the oak is Spanish Moss (Tillandsia usneoides). The moss and the fern both use the tree only for support and as a place to collect water, nutrient and air which they both require. Unfortunately as they grow they place additional weight on delicately balanced limbs. Sometimes the two epiphytes are removed to lighten branches in peril. As you can see some branches are now aided by the support of metal columns. This practice is often questioned as whether it is beneficial or not. For now, they have been used to stabilize the tree.
Parting to another destination I stopped by the mailbox to look upon it one last time. The tree which was taken over for protection by (not-so-near) Charleston now has a sort of visitor center where locals weave the famous Charleston Baskets. Efforts are to raise funds to maintain and protect the tree without charging admission. I hope these continue to safeguard its beauty which when seen from afar is not very different from the rest of the neighboring forest. No doubt this has also helped to hide and to save it.