Germany’s number one contribution to number two

My guest blogger tonight is Laird… who had to take over when he came home to find me rolling on the floor laughing. He writes:

There are those who pooh-pooh the German turlet but to those faint patients I can only quote the court physician from that most excellent film, The Madness of King George:

"There is nothing so eloquent as the stool".

And by cracky, the Germans have found their Cicero, nay, their Demosthenes in that porcelain display case they call the toilet, at least according to the bloggers at This Magazine. 

The end.

Literary points to anyone who can sniff out the assonance in this posting… Laird’s quite proud of it.

Orchid Orgy

Img_2276I had high expectations of Madeira in the orchid department, garden paradise that it is… land of tropical houseplants growing outdoors, on steroids… Bird of Paradise, frangipani, bougainvillea, poinsettia, aloe, hydrangeas, lilies, roses… the list goes on and on, and that’s just a few of the things that were in bloom while we were there. The place is a veritable floating flower garden.

So, I set out with orchid garden brochures and maps in hand, ready to bring home some plants. After a few of hours of battling steep hills, poorly signed and winding streets, and bad directions, I was deeply disillusioned. After whetting my appetite at the Botanical Garden (none of the orchids were in bloom), I eagerly rappelled down the the vertical drop of a street to the Jardim Orquidea, "Pregetter’s Orchid Garden". There was an admission charge just to look at their orchids, but I didn’t get past the miserly sales table out front. Boring phals, dendrobiums, and oncidiums, none of them properly named and all of them overpriced.  The woman behind the table was unwelcoming, and knew nothing about orchids. When I asked her to identify something, she’d point at the label and say "oncidium", or "dendrobium", most unhelpfully. Unimpressed, I turned around and rappelled back up the hill to the car, where it was parked at an alarming pitch.

Img_2252Next stop, "Paradise Orchids", the Madeira Orchid Farm at Quinta dos Saltos. Even harder to find, and an absolute mess. Untidy sheds full of hundreds of plants in poor condition, most of them badly in need of repotting and some of them obviously virused. Nothing appeared properly labelled, even in the area we actually paid admission to see. The sales area had an even more pathetic offering than the first place we went to, and the sales person knew even less about orchids — if that was possible.

At this point, I decided to visit the farmer’s market. There were lots of ordinary unmarked orchids, but at least they were honest about not knowing what they were selling, and the prices were cheap. I bought a couple of mutts — a specimen sized paph with five spikes, a phrag with one spike, and a piece of zygo, as well as a few dried up cymbidium back-bulbs. I figured that was the end of my fantasy of going home with armload of nice orchids.

Img_2291A few days later, while Laird sunned by the pool, I got restless, and decided to give the last brochure place a try. Boa Vista Orchids, at Quinta Boa Vista. I had low expectations, but it seemed fairly straightforward to find, and I figured I could get there and back without involving too much trauma and time. I already felt guilty about dragging Laird around for a day on an unsuccessful orchid collection mission, so I left him and took the car out for a quick reconnaissance trip. I didn’t bother taking my camera.

Whoa! Bingo! It was fairly easy to get to, close to the market, but up an alarmingly steep hill and through a tiny gate, and then up an even more alarming narrow cobble-pebble winding street. I thought I’d fall over backward just walking up, let alone driving up, and I broke into a sweat at the thought of possibly having to stop and turn around in a standard transmission car. But the moment I walked through the door, it was clear that this was a professional operation. The sales table!! Awarded clones, blooming size plants, interesting species… cheaper than some of the mutts I bought at the market. Everything labelled, lots of variety, an intoxicating scent in the air from hundreds of cattleyas in bloom. My idea of heaven, if I were a dog I would have wagged my tail inside out. I bought four big plants, one a gorgeous Lc. Cynthia ‘Model’ AM-FCC/AOS, with five blooms that were packed so well they actually made it through the plane ride intact. A nice-sized Lc. Elizabeth Fulton ‘La Tuilerie’ AM/RHS, previously bloomed; a large phragmipedium Schroederae with two new spikes, a mini cymbidium ‘Showgirl’, two big cymbidum back-bulbs with new growths, and some geranium maderense and Strelitzia reginae (bird of paradise) seeds, just for fun. A haul!

Img_2262I arrived back at the hotel, happy but really pissed at myself for not taking my camera.

The next morning we were due to leave, and Laird… the man who knows me SO well…. suggested that we stop by the place on our way to the airport to take some pictures. I was all over that idea. I raced around, snapping pictures like a drowning person, and here are the results. After all my complaining about unnamed orchids, none of the pictures have names to go with them — there was just no time to write them down.

I also nipped some tropical plants on my wanderings around the island, and brought them home to try to root. Some spider plant, an epiphyllum (from an ancient plant that had a trunk the size of a tree), a pretty white geranium, and the best — a piece of Rick-rack cactus, a rare find and just like the one I have back in T.O. A sign?

There was no problem bringing all this stuff home, except for the awkward bulk of the packages and bags. Gotta love the EU — no border controls, no hassles.

Now my windowsills are full of plants. My next trick: keeping the cattleyas happy. It ain’t quite so warm and humid and sunny here in Munich…

Photos from our Madeira Trip

Img_2034Phew!! I just spent the whole day wading through hundreds of photos from our trip to Madeira last week, to finally come up with a photo album of my favourite shots. I hope you enjoy them too….

Lovely place, great food, wine, scenery, and weather. We had a bit of rain, but enough pool time to come home with a nice burnish. And a lot of Madeira. And orchids. God bless the EU, and no border controls! C’mon Canada, sign up!

Wanna see my boobees?

WannaseemyboobeesOk, it’s a little late for Hallowe’en, but I just got back tonight from Madeira and found this in my inbox…. too cute. In addition to its seasonal relevance, and considering the German penchant for getting naked in nature at every opportunity, it seemed an appropriate welcome home.
Home. It’s the first time we’ve gone away for an extended period since we arrived in Germany. As I got out of the cab from the airport, the sensation of "arriving home" struck me rather forcefully — it’s been a while, and it felt nice. I’ve been a traveller for an awfully long time now… However, with a handsome man by my side, and armload of orchids from the island, and a happy dog waiting to greet us just inside the door, I realized that going away, and coming back, is one way to establish a sense of "home", however tenuous that particular claim might be.
I suppose the other surefire way to settle in to a place called "home" is to put pictures up on the wall. I haven’t gotten quite that far — we’re still living with the landlady’s extremely ugly choices in that department.
More on the trip, tomorrow.

Missing that Blaze of Glory

fallFriends here just returned from Canada, a marathon road trip from Ontario to the east coast in just five days — through the land of fall colours. It’s mid-October, and the trees are at the height of their glory in eastern Canada, and I have to admit — I miss being there to see it. My friends very thoughtfully brought me home a handful of crimson maple leaves, which I promptly arranged in a quirky display around a tin of maple syrup at the centre of the dining room table.

The landscape here, both natural and human, is gloriously beautiful in many respects, but there really doesn’t seem to be much in the way of fall colour. Yesterday, I noticed to my surprise that the trees along the boulevard on my street are maple trees. Leaves are starting to fall, but they’re not red, or yellow, or orange… the leaves sort of turn brown and fall off, as though they just got tired and gave up. Why is that, I wondered? What’s the difference?

This article in today’s Toronto Star (“The Hues, The Hows, and The Whys”) helps explain the phenomenon, though scientists admit that there hasn’t been much research into the subject. Bavaria’s fall weather — grey skies and relatively mild temperatures — seems to be the culprit.

“ALGONQUIN PARK—First clue. On one side of the road through Algonquin Park the maples glow red. On the other, they’re on fire. The blazing side is the north, which gets more rays from a southward-creeping sun.

Second clue. Algonquin, one of the first spots in the province for the yearly transformation of fall foliage, is an elevated region often hit by the earliest cold snaps.

Third clue. Peel apart any two fallen red maple leaves that are stuck together. If one leaf shows green where it was attached, then the other shielded it from the sun.

The picture is Lake Massawipi in the Eastern Townships (“l’Estrie”) in Quebec, near the place I spent my summers as a child.

Continue reading “Missing that Blaze of Glory”


I had an interesting conversation with my neighbour, Ursula, the other day. She’s an older woman who has lived in this building for many years, and who tends to the gorgeous perennial gardens outside our doors. I frequently encounter her as I head out to take Jake for a walk, with her pruners and basket in hand and her head tucked into the flowers.

Her English is somewhat broken, but she’s friendly and eager to practice, and we’ve been drawn together by our mutual love of gardening and dogs. Her elderly dog passed away last fall, and she always greets Jake with such… longing.

I don’t know how we got on to the topic, but apparently Ursula nurses a strong desire to visit Canada. It’s a primal urge shared by many of the German people I’ve met, almost as though Canada, and its wilderness, is a modern-day Avalon across the sea.

As she waved her hand around in the air, encompassing the gardens, the grounds, the trees surrounding us, she said,

“You must really miss all the open spaces. Europe is so crowded with people.”

I thought back to my days in Toronto. To the inner city apartment, to High Park — crowded and definitely not big enough for the throngs of people seeking nature and green space on a warm summer day — to the Beach, wall-to-wall people on the seawall and sidewalks. I thought about how a one hour drive here lands you smack in the alps; a similar journey out of Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal would land you in suburbia. I looked around me, at the trees, the quiet, and thought about how I could actually bicycle to the country in an hour without ever touching a road.

“Well”, I replied, “most people live in cities in Canada. This is a lot nicer than Toronto.”

“Yes”, she said, “but you live in a very nice area of Munich.”

I conceded, but privately thought that perhaps Ursula was romanticising things a bit. As far as the human environment and lifestyle is concerned, I don’t think there’s much to compare. City life is a quieter, slower pace here, almost old-fashioned in a way. Peple buy their food at vegetable stalls and farmer’s markets, and tiny grocery stores that I haven’t seen in Canada since the 60’s. If you live in town, there’s no need for a car; bicycles and subways and trolleys and wonderful regional train systems take care of transportation. Department stores still dominate; there is a mall, somewhere “out” there in the boonies, but there is really no need to visit; everything you need to buy is close at hand, including stylish clothing that would make any fashionista drool. On Sundays, everything closes but the museums and art galleries. The population heads to the mountains, to nearby lakes, to parks and beer gardens. No one is left out.

My perspective shifted slightly the following weekend, when we visited the alps with a group of friends. We had just finished a cable car ride to the top of Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitz, and were enjoying a late afternoon beer beside a quiet lake. I looked around and was reminded of the landscape outside of Vancouver, and somehow we got on to the topic of wildlife. Laird told the story of how we once encountered a bear in our campsite, and I talked about the cougars that would come down from the mountains in Deep Cove and chase and eat the neighbourhood cats. Raccoons, coyotes… humdrum and ordinary co-habitants. Our friends listened intently, their eyes bugging out. Cougars? Bears? They could not imagine. Western Europe has long been a human and domesticated landscape. There are no wild tracts of forest left. Big predators were hunted out long ago.

And I suddenly saw, with their eyes, Canada. A lingering frontier of wildness, one of the few places left in the world where, even though humans crowd defensively in their towns and suburbia and cities, there are still wild animals and wild spaces left relatively untouched. I believe they think of Canada the way we think of Africa… or perhaps the Galapagos. I don’t think we Canadians really appreciate the depth of our treasure and our responsibility — we are stewards of an untouched wild landscape that is increasingly rare and threatened on a small planet. For those in Canada who believe that our old-growth forests are a renewable commodity, I suggest they get out and see the world. What we have in our care is among the last of its kind.

And we sure could use some lessons from the Munchners when it comes to urban lifestyle.

The Great Canadian Couch Tour

I’ve finally finished my Grand Couch Tour photo album and it’s now online.

Ya, I know that what you really want to see is pictures of Munich! I’m getting there. I couldn’t cope until I got this load off my back.

And to add a touch of relevance to this post, the photo album does contain a picture of a native orchid that I spotted during a hike to Cheakamus Lake near Whistler, B.C. It was a hunch, really — the plant was clearly saprophytic — one that has no leaves and no clorophyll, so it can’t make it’s own food. It gets its nutrients through a symbiotic relationship with a subterranean mycorrhizal fungus. Anyway, it looked a lot like the coral root orchids I saw on the Bruce Peninsula.

close-up photo credit

I sent a photo to North American orchid expert David McAdoo, who very helpfully wrote back immediately with this reply:

You are right about the plant – it is an orchid. It is a coral root by the name of Corallorhiza mertensiana. If you got to the Bruce this year, you might have seen C. striata and/or C. maculata which are about the same size. There are 3 more – C. trifida (spring), C. wisterina (spring), and C. odontorhiza (fall) – but they are much smaller. We have one more in the south – C. bentleyi – that you don’t have. It was only discovered and named about 5 years ago. That is all that there are in North America.

Another nice find during my tour was a breathtaking clump of bunchberry in bloom in the forest — a entire meadow full of them. The forest floor was white with their starry blooms. I won’t forget that sight.