December 23, 2012

Maine Gardener: From botanical gardens, ideas sprout


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Bird of paradise blooms all year long on Madeira, located off the African coast. The stunning blossoms are exported to florists all over Europe.

One of the most important trees in the garden is the dragon tree, which is a native, slow-growing tree that it is illegal to cut down. It can be tapped like the maple trees of Maine, but when you tap it, you get a red dye used for dying textiles. The trees live for centuries.

The gardens are an interesting combination of native plantings mingled with British Victorian gardens. As you come in the main gate, there are azaleas planted as understory plants to the big white birds of paradise.

As you go along paths, you find beds containing giant angel wing begonias, wax begonias and other houseplants that Mainers would recognize. One striking area of the garden, very Victorian, is bedded out with green, red and yellow annuals sheared into an intricate design. In one part, the plants spell out "Jardin Botanico da Madeira."

Many plants that we use as houseplants are perennials there. There were hundreds of different bromeliads in extensive beds. There were cacti, even though Madeira has a humid climate, and succulents. There were some orchids.

But there were also many plants that could be grown in Maine, including magnolias, azaleas and rhododendrons.

Although Madeira was the most intensely landscaped of the areas we visited, there were signs that people loved their plants everywhere. There were window boxes and rooftop gardens throughout Rome and Florence, but they were not as extensive as the ones we saw on a trip to Paris last year. In both Rome and Florence, they use orange and tangerine trees to line busy main streets.

In Aix en Provence in France, they prune the sycamore trees along the streets so vehicles can drive under them, but the canopy still provides shade when it gets above 100 degrees in the summer.

The public and historic areas of Barcelona and Cartagena, Spain, had extensive palms trees and tall, skinny cypress trees.

The gardens were a lot different from each other, but we were still able to get some ideas from them.

One thing we have learned is that, after 10 years of waiting for the white bird of paradise to bloom, we are done. It's going into the compost.

Tom Atwell has been writing the Maine Gardener column since 2004. He is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth and can be contacted at 767-2297 or at:


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