Sunday, February 19, 2017

Signs of Spring!

Suddenly it's feeling like spring here, far too early!  In spite of my complaints that warm temperatures will leave us with ice from the overnight cold, we really have had two beautiful warm sunny spring days, with temperatures reaching about 10°C (50°F).  They reminded me of the beautiful blue sky days we usually get in March after the grey skies of winter.

The beautiful blue skies of early March normally represent spring to me, but they've come a little early this year.  Heard a Chickadee calling its spring mating song this morning too - 'ham-bur-burg'.

The moving sun and the longer days are the biggest signs of spring, though we tend to take them for granted.  The sun here is coming up much further north in the morning.  Back on the solstice in December it would be rising in the centre of this picture.

The willows are turning yellow and the Red Osier Dogwood are turning pink.  They'll eventually be red.  But right now the yellow willow twigs are really standing out.

Right here at home both the buds on the Silver Maple and the catkins on the White Birch are swollen and ready for spring.  Though I hope they wait awhile yet!

Tiny spring fed streams are opening up, and this permanent spring that stays open all year is at its highest level.  Soon the landscape will be saturated with spring run-off.

Even the snowy woods in the distance looks like spring to me.  Though you can't see them, all kinds of spring wildflower bulbs are biding their time under that blanket of snow, ready to bloom later in May.

So even though I had a frozen icy driveway this morning, I had sensibly driven up and down yesterday when it was warm and chewed it up a bit.  Now it's half bare gravel.

In the third week of February?
Unheard of!

Thanks for following along while I couldn't get out to take pictures, 
and joining me on a brief European detour from last summer.
Time to get back to 'Seasons in the Valley' now.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Hortus Botanicus Part II

The Amsterdam Botanical Garden, Hortus Botanicus, has two large greenhouses, one the 100 year old Palm House, and one a much more recent glasshouse with tropical, sub-tropical and desert climates.  Many of the more unusual plants at the gardens are located in these greenhouses.

In the early days of plant collecting in other parts of the world, it was the plants of those other climates that had never been seen before that were most interesting.  And of course to keep them growing in the European climate, some of them needed to be grown under glass.  This big Palm House is high enough to have trees growing inside.

And there were a number of palms and other tropics species.   I just like the shape of the big leaves.

The architecture of these older glasshouses is remarkable, all dependent on production of reasonably priced glass, and the ironwork frame.

I've seen pictures of a 'Wardian Case', but I had never seen an actual example until now.  when plants were being collected all over the world, they were brought home in the form of seeds or rhizones, but some plants did not survive the trip.  Dr. Nathaniel Ward of London invented this small portable glass house so that living plants (at least smaller ones) could be brought back to Europe over long voyages.  It worked well and many additional plants survived that could not be transported successfully as seeds.

This is the small desert greenhouse, with a number of interesting cactus species.

The rugged bark of a Cork Tree, and a tree with sharp thorns growing directly out of the trunk.  I stopped for a picture before I grabbed the tree trunk.

The new sub-tropical greenhouse had a canopy-level walkway which gave you a very different perspective.

Perhaps the most interesting story in the botanical garden is the story of this Coffee plant.  Coffee originally came from Ethiopia, and spread through the Arabian Peninsula to Turkey.  During the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent in the late 1500's it became a popular drink.  It gradually spread into Europe over the next two centuries, as coffee houses became popular.  But the price was high and the Dutch East Indies Company decided to try and establish their own source for trade.  They were successful in Java, and plants were brought home and planted in this garden.  Later one of these was given to the King of France, Louis XIV, in 1714.  Ten years later a sailor successfully smuggled a seedling of this plant to Martinique, a French colony in the eastern Caribbean.  From this single plant are descended all the millions and millions of Coffee Trees in all of the Caribbean, Central and South America!


We had that beautiful spring day here, with the temperature approaching 10°C and snow melting off the roof fast.  A glorious but very unseasonable early spring day.  But I fear we'll pay the price with ice and water in basements.  Hard to miss enjoying the warm temperatures though!

Friday, February 17, 2017

Hortus Botanicus, Part I

The Amsterdam Botanical Garden, Hortus Botanicus, is one of the oldest in the world, established originally as a garden of medicinal plants for doctors and apothecaries in 1638.  It was started in the terrible years of the plague, when doctors were searching desperately for anything that could provide a cure.  I write this blog as a record of our travels in part, and I find I have enough pictures I want to include that this is going to take two days to cover.  We really enjoyed our visit.

It's no secret that we love gardens, and we've visited many on our travels.  This is the Gunnera, looking like giant 8 foot tall Rhubarb leaves.  I could stand underneath them and look up!

The giant Victoria lily pads were also a familiar friend, found in a number of botanical gardens, but the other lily pads here were what caught my eye, as it had been raining.

The surface of all these lily pads were decorated with drops, or even small lakes of water.  These leaves tend to have a depression in the centre, so that`s where the bigger `lakes`collect.

The core of this botanical garden is a systematic collection of plants by genus and family.  Many of the original plants were collected by the traders of the Dutch East Indies Company, sailing the world in search of commerce, so they accumulated a lot of unknown plants in the early years.

Those unusual plants included trees, and the garden now has quite a collection of large mature trees, even though it`s on a small crowded location in downtown Amsterdam.  This is the largest Gingko tree we`ve ever seen.

I`m always intrigued by finding plants that are common here in North America growing in European gardens.  This is the common Royal Fern which I see here at home.

And this is Flowering Dogwood, one of the most beautiful small trees over eastern North America.  It doesn`t grow as far north as we live, but it sparkles in the understory of the Great Smoky Mountains in April.

For the first time we visited a small butterfly house.  though the butterflies were unfamiliar, it was a remarkable experience having them flying around your head.


Meanwhile, we`re facing one of those nasty warm spells over the coming week.  I can`t imagine why people think a warm week at this time of year here in the snowbelt is a good thing!  It just means that the temperature starts melting the snow during the day, but every night it turns back to ice.  Our driveway becomes a skating rink, and the roads become unsafe for walking.  I finally bought myself a new pair of yaktrax so I can keep walking regardless.  But I`d far rather have snow.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Flower Market

The Amsterdam Flower Market, floating on a line of barges along one of the large canals, was one of many highlights of our trip, and probably the most colourful!  And there were hundreds of tulips for sale, surprise surprise!  We were in Holland after all.  It was raining, and the umbrellas were almost as colourful as the flowers, but we enjoyed it regardless.

Cut tulips are obviously a favourite of Dutch households, bought fresh if you live close to the market.

Lots of Tulip bulbs too, as well as bulbs of many other flowers.

Wooden Tulips seemed to be almost as popular as real ones, in a wide variety of styles, perhaps so the tourists can take some home.  We did not succumb, but enjoyed looking.

Judging by the walls of colourful wooden shoes, they must be good for gardeners - unless of course you're opening a refreshing cold drink after working in the garden!

We learned quickly how you have to duck and dive while walking a narrow pathway full of umbrellas!  We successfully avoided spearing anyone else with ours, or getting speared in return. There's a lot of up and down motion to carrying an umbrella here, to miss other heads!

This is the Flower Market, or 'Bloemenmarkt' from the back, a long series of barges floating in the Singel Canal, facing the sidewalk.  Tomorrow the Botanical Garden.


I can drive again!  Today I got to use my temporary glasses for driving for the first time, and though they drove me dizzy when I first put them on, they worked fine.  Now I can start getting out and maybe even getting some pictures.  I'll be able to bring you back to the valley and share the wonderful snowy winter we're enjoying!

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Amsterdam (and a Cruise Review)

We docked in the Amsterdam harbour, and took a taxi to our hotel.  We'd arranged to stay an extra day before flying off to Italy for part two of our holiday.  We were a little hesitant about the city, but it turned out to be a wonderful two days, a very pedestrian-friendly city centre.

We arrived in the morning after an overnight sailing through the canal, so had time to spare.  We first headed for the Van Gogh Museum, just a few blocks from our hotel.  No cameras inside of course, but a stunning arrangement of his art, telling the story of his life.

The next morning we started by hopping on a tour boat to sail the canals.  If you've ever seen a map of downtown Amsterdam, it consists of a large horseshoe of about 8 canals that all meet at the harbour.  It's a great way to get a good sense of the city.

There are of course numerous bridges, but also locks and water control structures than refresh the water in the canals, and will prevent flooding when they need to.

The city was build as a city of warehouses, all of which face the canals, and provide space to hoist trade goods up into the warehouse lofts.  Now mostly a residential area, it was once entirely an industrial area.  During much of the 1600's and 1700's, Amsterdam was the main commercial market in the western world.

Some of those merchants did very well, and built beautiful homes along the canals, many with a lookout tower of some sort, probably mostly a status symbol.

Today there are also a lot of permanently moored houseboats along the canals.

Outside the canals, getting around is by bike or streetcar.  If you look at this photo carefully you'll see a sidewalk on the left (where I'm standing), a red brick bicycle lane, the road with embedded streetcar tracks, another bike lane, sidewalk and a canal.  They say the red colour of the bike lanes is the blood of the tourists who don't watch out carefully enough!

We've never seen as many bicycles as here in Amsterdam.

OF course we noticed a few cheese shops!

An interesting chess game,

And the national war memorial for WWII, a very important monument for the Dutch, and a popular gathering place.

There are several markets, and we wandered through the famous old Waterlooplein flea market, where Mrs. F.G. picked up this interesting fabric from one of the street vendors.  We also enjoyed the famous Amsterdam Flower Market, the only floating flower market in the world.  We'll go there tomorrow.


Cruise Review - I think I owe you a cruise review, because I've glossed over our disappointment even though my posts over the past week have shared some of the great places we saw.  To first put it in context, most of our travels have been on our own, by rental car, staying in B&Bs, especially in England and Scotland.  We have only gone on three big trips where we paid for a cruise or tour.  The first was an adventure cruise around the outer islands of Scotland - fabulous, the best holiday of our lives!  The second was a Smithsonian Institute tour of Italy, letting Mrs. F.G. go 'home' to see the country she came from as a child - fascinating.  And this river cruise was the third.

There were two problems.  First, although the price of all three holiday was about the same, the price per day was far higher for the river cruise, and it just wasn't worth it in comparison.  Second, though the other two holidays were very educational, with knowledgeable leaders and a lot of information about what we were seeing, the river cruise was simply appalling for its total lack of much info at all! I really learned nothing about the Rhine River except what I looked up myself, so I would never recommend a river cruise, nor will we ever take one again, simply not adventurous and interesting enough for us.  If you do, make sure you choose one that provides a good educational experience!  Unless you just go on cruises to eat and relax!