Author Archives: Longwood Graduate Program

The Taj Mahal and Ram Bagh

January 16 – Agra
(written by Felicia Yu, photos by James Hearsum)

(We make the Taj Mahal look good…)

No trip to India would be complete with a visit to the Taj Mahal. And what would a visit to the Taj Mahal be without the experience of waking up before the crack of dawn for a chance of seeing the sun rise over those famous white minarets?

Video LinkThe Taj!!!

Luckily we were all able to get ourselves up at 5am in order to get there in time. Unluckily, none of us thought to check what time the sun actually rose, so we ended up being more than an hour earlier than necessary. And then there was the small matter of the fog and clouds not lifting until the afternoon…

(The Gardens)

Regardless, we can all now assure anyone that the Taj Mahal is not overrated, sunny weather or no. It deserves its reputation as one of the most beautiful buildings in the world, if not the most beautiful.

As you approach, the surrounding red sandstone buildings keep the Taj out of sight until the last possible moment, and then bam! There it is. The Taj Mahal. Majestic even on a misty morning, even with a healthy population of tourists wandering around, backed by nothing except the sky because of its high placement above the banks of the Yamuna River.

(James found an Indian ‘friend’ who took a few photos of him. Here’s one of the ‘gems’!)

Before approaching the mausoleum itself, all visitors must remove their shoes or else wear the bright red shoe covers provided by the tourism office, to protect the white marble plaza and floors of the mausoleum where Mumtaz Mahal and Shah Jahan are entombed.  Up close, the white marble is actually swirling with naturally occurring blues, oranges, pinks, and grays. The borders of every doorway and wall panel are either carved ornately or inlaid with semiprecious stones in varying floral patterns. Symmetry rules in every direction, down to the surrounding buildings.

(Ram Bagh Garden: a view from the top terrace)

Our second visit of the day was to the Ram Bagh, India’s oldest Mughal garden, built by the Emperor Babur in 1528. The garden is among the oldest formally designed landscapes in the world. We spent some time wandering up and down the straight pathways, regretting that the channels which would normally carry a cascade of water down from the top terrace to the lower level of the garden were dry, while the water pump system was being repaired. A couple of the garden’s caretakers were able to show us around and explain some of the history and background of the place. The garden is currently being restored, with new plantings already in place throughout the symmetrically placed lawns.

Lodi Garden and the gardens of the President of India

January 15 – Delhi
(written by Raakel Toppila, photos by Felicia Yu)

(A view of one of the tombs)

This morning we escaped the crowded streets of Delhi to enjoy the peaceful Lodi Gardens nestled in the heart of the city. Meandering paths lead us through the garden as Delhiites whisked by during their morning exercise routine.

(Another Tomb)

Two impressive tombs and other architectural marvels dating to the Sayyid and Lodi Dynasties of the 15th and 16th Century are found throughout the garden. The earliest tomb dating to 1444 is that of Mohammed Shah, the last Sayyid Dynasty ruler. A second tomb houses Sikander Lodi, the Sultan of Delhi from 1489 to 1517.

(We gained an extra group member the entire time we were at Lodi Gardens. We couldn’t shake him! Meet ‘Big Red’)

(Some plantings at Lodi.)

We shared a chance encounter with horticulture staff who were preparing for the day. The gardeners informed us that ninety staff maintain the 90 acre garden. Carefully planted display beds featuring primarily foliage plants are located throughout the garden. Towering trees undoubtedly make this garden a popular destination during hotter weather.

(Interacting with the gardeners of Lodi. We gave them a deck of Longwood playing cards; even though we didn’t speak the same language, we understood their Ooo-s and Ahh-s!!!)

We departed from Lodi Garden’s bound for the President’s residence, unsure if we would be able to pass through the high security gates. A few detours, a couple phone calls, and some smooth talking, we were in! Shri. Nigam Semwal, Special Officer on Duty (Horticulture) greeted us beyond the gates and toured us through the President of India’s Mughal Garden.

(Photos of the President’s Palace and Gardens were strictly prohibited. Don’t ask us how we got this one… ;))

The garden was designed by Edwin Lutyen, prominent 20th Century British Architect credited with designing much of New Delhi.  It is modelled after gardens created during the Mughal reign, which occupied a large part of the subcontinent from 1526 to 1858. The symmetrical walled garden is pierced by channels of flowing water. Three large terraced garden rooms descend from the President’s House: the main garden, the terrace garden and the circular sunken garden. Beyond the Mughal Garden, we visited the Spiritual Garden, which highlights plants of religious importance.  Next, we toured the Musical Garden, featuring a large fountain with water that dances to traditional Indian music.  Finally we viewed the Herbal Garden, which includes plants of medicinal importance.

Our group felt honored to have such an exclusive tour of the Presidential garden which is normally open to the public for only the month of February.

New Delhi ‘Rest’ Day

January 14 – New Delhi
(written by Ashby Leavell, video by Raakel Toppila, photos by Aubree Pack)

(A common view from our travel van…)

(We’re still on the fence as to whether they are crazy-efficient here, or just plain crazy…)

Our crew was ready for the break day in New Delhi to relax, explore, and… go shopping.  A group left midmorning to look through the government emporium shops nearby, featuring shops from each region of India.  Vendors hawked colorful silk scarves and metal trinkets galore.  We tried our hand at bargaining, wandered in and out of most of the shops, and left happy.

(Matt discovers that he is ‘wanted’ in India…)

Our food expert, Longwood gardener Pandora Young, guided us to Old Delhi for lunch.  Bustling does not begin to describe the street we navigated on the way there.  Keep in mind that roughly 20 million people are estimated to live in Delhi.  The blare of car horns and shopkeepers shouting filled the air and mingled with the aromas of street food along the way.

Video Link: A street walking experience in Delhi

(Part of the group waits for a gap in the traffic so they can cross the road)

(He is making jalebis, a treat that some of the group have been able to try while eating at local restaurants)

After lunch we visited the massive Red Fort, a Mughal construction from the 17th century.  Its red sandstone walls are surrounded by a deep moat and extend for 2km in the old section of the city.  We stopped at the iconic India Gate for photographs before heading back for the evening.

(The Red Fort – a stunningly large complex!)

(India Gate – it’s a lot bigger than it looks! A picture simply can’t capture its grandeur…)

(at least SOMEONE was resting today… :D)

Lalbagh Botanical Garden

January 13 – Bangalore
(written by Felicia Yu, photos by Aubree Pack, video by Raakel Toppila)

(As the Conservatory is to Longwood, so the Glass House is to Lalbagh. Over 120 years old, modeled after the Crystal Palace in London, the Glass House hosts twice-yearly flower shows that can pull over 50,000 visitors in a day.)

Founded in 1760 by the ruler of Mysore, Hyder Ali, Lalbagh was modeled after a Mughal garden at Sira, and each of its successive owners and overseers have added to it. Now at 240 acres in the heart of Bangalore, surrounded by congested city streets and city noise, Lalbagh is a welcome place to rest the eyes and ears (and nose).

(Posing with Dr. Krishnappa and one of the garden’s plant specialists who showed us around.)

The garden is managed by the horticulture department of the state of Karnataka. We met with the Deputy Director of Horticulture, Dr. Krishnappa, and then had a walking tour of key sights within Lalbagh accompanied by staff horticulturists.

(Giant and ancient: Ceiba pentandra, or White silk cotton tree, at over 200 years old.)

We had a thorough tour of the garden’s Horticulture Training Centre, where students and staff showed off the many vegetable, medicinal, and ornamental crops the students were growing themselves as part of their training. The ten-month training program prepares youths for professional gardening jobs, and the government provides their room and board along with a stipend while they complete the program.

(Snake gourds being trained to grow straight by the students of the Horticulture Training Centre.)

We were happy to learn that environmentally friendly practices were in place as much as possible throughout the garden, from the use of organic pest controls such as neem oil to the composting of fallen leaves. All their flower crops are grown on site or locally in Bangalore. They also make use of abundant local labor to maintain the garden—we watched workers pulling water hyacinths from the garden’s signature lake by hand, and planting whole lawns with plugs by hand.

Video Link: Lahbagh Lake – water hyacinth removal in action

(Lalbagh Lake, nearly clear of weedy water hyacinths after ten days of hand-pulling.)

The mild climate of Bangalore has made Lalbagh an ideal place to trial and introduce new species from around the world, especially for its former British superintendents wanting to try familiar European crops and exotic species which would fail in more arid or more tropical regions of India. The garden’s current collection of over 1,800 species from around the world includes giant, and in some cases ancient, specimens of Ceiba pentandra, Ficus benjamina (of all things), Araucaria cookii, and Mangifera indica (mangoes! Out of season, unfortunately).

(King of the Rock. Matt is standing on the “Lalbagh Rock,” a large outcrop of peninsular gneiss at the edge of the garden, topped by a 450-year-old structure called the Kempegowda tower, not pictured.)

Brindavan Garden in Mysore

January 13 – Mysore
(written by Ashby Leavell, photos by Raakel, Felicia, and Ashby, video by Raakel Toppila)

(The garden is very popular with the locals – they come in by the bus load!)

Saying goodbye to the humid tropics, we boarded a plane to head North to Bangalore.  Our ultimate destination would be Mysore to see Brindavan Gardens, a 4-hour drive from the Bangalore airport.  We arrived late in the evening to our charming old hotel, the Brindavan Orchid.  Built in the 1940s, the hotel was remotely located inside garden walls 19km North of Mysore.  We had the luxury of exploring the gardens throughout the day and the Mysore Palace as well while waiting for nightfall for the fountain show in the evening.

Video Link: A sweeping view of Brindavan Garden

We had a quick tour of the Mysore Palace, a fantastic, over-the top former seat of the Wodeyar maharajas.  We checked our shoes at the palace entrance and shuffled around barefoot with an outrageous guide who offered life advice along with the palace history.  The gilded interior was matched by the thousands of bulbs covering the exterior of the palace, which was “like Heaven” at night according to our guide.

(The entrance to the Mysore Palace – photos weren’t allowed inside…)

We headed back to the gardens afterwards to catch the light show.  Modeled after the Shalimar Gardens of Kashmir in the Mughal style, Brindavan Gardens have been the backdrop to many Bollywood films.  Much like Longwood, the fountains were in need of repair and underwent a costly restoration process in 2005. The regal gardens are best known for its fountain shows at night.

(A close up of the lit musical fountain show)

The gardens transformed after dark as buses filled with families, students, and all types crowded into the space with food vendors springing to action at the gates. Crowds filled the terraces for music, traditional dance, and picnicking. For the first time, we experienced being asked by curious strangers to take photos with them. Our hotel provided a nice escape from the crowds as enjoyed the fountains from our terrace before loading into the van and heading back to Bangalore.

(We stayed IN the Brindavan Gardens themselves, in the Royal Orchid Hotel.)

The Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute

January 11 – Kerala
(written by James Hearsum, photos by Aubree Pack)

(The garden entrance – where we went through intense security!)

The Tropical Botanical Garden and Research Institute outside Trivandrum, Kerala, India, was our first garden destination on the sub-continent.  In many ways, it highlighted the needs, the challenges and the successes of botanical garden conservation programs around the world.

(“Mother Earth”)

Focusing primarily on medicinal plants, the garden has well-explained and labelled displays of plants grouped by their function, both in traditional and modern medicine.  50 gardeners effectively maintain public display areas and plant production occurs on site.

(There were many exciting and unique plants in the garden!! And most definitely photo worthy, as demonstrated by Pandora :))

The group was shown several special collections by deeply knowledgeable plant experts, the most impressive of which was the fern collection.  This has a long history in parallel with the garden and it was here that scientists discovered the plant with the most known chromosomes of any living thing in the 1990s.  (The plant is Ophioglossum reticulatum and 2n=1260, though I am sure you knew that already!).

(Harvested coconut shells are used for their orchidarium)

Of 250 identified ferns in South India, NTBGRI holds 220, in addition to a collection of wider geographic origin.  A collection of Cycads is being created for research and display, the only one in Southern India.  The success of this is the greater as there has never been the opportunity for staff to visit any other collection elsewhere in the world.

The primary focus of the garden is the conservation of medicinal plant species and research using these plants.  These are under considerable threat due to over collection by the rural population from forest areas.  The garden has a team of 100 scientists based in the garden, in addition to field teams in the forests.  Research covers many fields including ethnopharmacology, phytochemistry, bioinformatics, systematics and conservation biology.

(Everything about the garden was breathtaking, including the views out into the surrounding natural landscape!)

There are few areas of unspoilt forest to collect from, but the botanic garden has been working with local people to collect from sacred groves, which have not been subject to the same level of change through plant harvesting.  New species continue to be described and the traditional medicinal properties of plants examined in the light of modern science.

(The Cacti House)

As with any garden, signs of changing weather patterns is evident to those with consistent local experience.  A major cause of concern here? – That falling temperatures are causing the showpiece Victoria amazonicas to grow smaller each year!

Other causes for concern were raised, particularly the damage to the gardens mission being caused by the CITES regulations.  A significant reduction in the gardens ability to cooperate with other major botanic gardens around the world has occurred in line with the inability to move plant materials.   It was clear that there is a desire and ability to partner with gardens elsewhere but this hinders cooperation and communications remain difficult.

(The group with some of our expert plant guides)

Finally, a note about the drive!  This was our first major experience of India and we were thrown in the deep-end.  Navigation was by asking at each junction and village, as we careered through the suburbs of Trivandrum then the rural forest edge.  On arrival we were all shaken, physically by the ride, and emotionally by what we had seen – what an amazing country!  After this, we are ready to take anything in our stride.

Thiruvananthapuram

January 10 – Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala
(Written by Aubree Pack, photos by James Hearsum, video by Aubree Pack)

Say THAT five times really fast!

(Seeds at the local market we visited)

After arriving in India from Dubai (and surviving the airport – more on that in a second), we headed right to our hotel. It was about 6am before we got there. We had left Dubai around 10pm and had a 4 hour flight, plus we had the time change between the UAE and India. When we arrived at the airport, our plane hadn’t even stopped moving before people had their bags and were cramming towards the doors. The poor flight attendants kept trying to get them to sit down, but to no avail. We found out later that typically flights from Dubai to India have a lot of Indians that have been working in Dubai for a few years  and they haven’t seen their families since leaving to work. So it’s certainly more understandable that they were in a rush. I can’t imagine being away from my family for 6 or so years at a time… We also spent well over an hour waiting for our luggage. The airport was small, packed, and really humid. So we were all a bit exhausted when we finally emerged.

(Some locals enjoying the flower show)

Once at the hotel, we decided that those of us who were interested would sleep until 10am (4 hours from when we arrived), have breakfast, and head out to see a local market and the town of Thiruvananthapuram. We walked quiet a ways to try and find a bank that would exchange money for us, but then we were all sorted. We took some tuk tuk’s (rickshaws) to a local market, where we say lots of locally grown food, fish, and meat. They also had clothes and other household items.

Video Link – A Tuk Tuk Ride

(Submissions at the flower show for the Hanging Basket category)

After having lunch at an amazing seafood restaurant, we headed out into the town with our driver. We wanted to see the local temple, but it didn’t open until 5pm, we asked our driver to take us to a park or garden. He didn’t understand us, so Ashby and I said ‘flowers’. Much to our excitement, we ended up at an annual city flower show! What luck, huh? We spent about two hours walking around and enjoying the different plants on display. It was very much like a flower show you would see in the states, but on a much larger scale and with more of the local southern India flora.

Video Link – Crazy Ferris Wheel at the Flower Show

We also had fun with the ‘festival’ side of the show, where there were rides (see video above!) and games. Some of us had henna done (one cost 30 rupees, or 75 cents!), while others tasted some of the local sweets from venders.

(Ashby and Pandora have their hands done with henna)

(some of us didn’t get the traditional henna… because, well, the snake was super cool!)

For dinner, we had our bus driver take us down to the beach, which was a wild ride. We’ve had some of those already, but it was in the dark, so it was all the more exciting. Lanes and speed requirements – optional! There we enjoyed more local southern India seafood. Some of us spent time walking on the beach, which was lovely. My favorite part was seeing all the little crabs skirting about along the sand. Then it was back to the hotel to try and get some good sleep before our early start the next day to the Tropical Botanic Garden Research Institute!

Al Ain Wildlife Park and Resort

January 9 – Al Ain, Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates)
(Written by Raakel Toppila, photos and video by Aubree Pack)

(Although Al Ain Wildlife park is currently a zoo, it’s focus on conservation includes plant life)

We began our day in the 4000 year-old oasis settlement of Al Ain in the United Arab Emirates, home of the late Sheikh Zayad, founder of the UAE. Sheikh Zayad’s reverence for nature and deep concern for the wildlife of the Arabian Peninsula inspired him to develop the Al Ain Zoo in 1968, now called the Al Ain Wildlife Park.

Video LinkA clip of the African Mixed Exhibit (if you turn it up loud, you can hear about the antelope collection from Michael Maunder)

(Felicia and James look in on Lady, a resident Gorilla)

Dr.  Mike Maunder, the Chief Collection, Conservation, and Education Officer at Al Ain and Nabil Zakhour, Advisor Public Relations and Media Communication Manager were our gracious guides for the day. Dr. Maunder described the developing government project , which involves the ambitous expansion of the 90 hectares (222 acres) park into a 900 hectares (2224 acres) project. The development involves the creation of geographically themed safaris, world desert gardens, a learning center, hotel, and sustainable housing. True to the legacy of Sheikh Zayad, the project is intended to reconnect citizens of the UAE to plant life and the natural world.

(Mike Maunder shows us the master plan for the new Wildlife park and Resort)

The park is home to some of the most endangered species in the world such as the Arabian Oryx, now extinct in the wild, and the Arabian leopard with only 200 wild species remaining. These animals are being assessed for their potential for Al Ain breeding and reintroduction programs.

The horticulture department is preparing for the large expansion of the gardens by testing the most physiologically adaptive plants in the world.  Horticulturalists are trialing species that can tolerate irrigation by sewage effluent and soaring summer temperatures reaching 52 degrees Celsius (126 degrees Fahrenheit). To locate some of these plants, Jamie Hilyard, horticulturist on staff travels around the world in search of plant species to incorporate in the park. One of his latest discoveries involved over 100 Boabab trees, forgotten in their pots by a woman in Bankok who had intended to use them for bonsai. The 20-foot trees were transported from Bangkok to Al Ain, and seem to be adapting to the new conditions beautifully.

(One of the largest Acacia tortilis that was salvaged/saved for the new installations at the Wildlife Park)

We left the animals and went “behind the scenes” with Dr. Maunder.  His face lit up as he showed us the largest tree salvage project in the Middle East.  Countless native Acacia tortilis trees were successfully transferred into wooden containers to rescue them from destruction during park construction. Our tour ended with a fly-by presentation of the project by Noushadali Kayalmadathil, Program Control Systems Manager.  Our group also had the opportunity to meet with members of the education department.

(The group, in front of Pachycereus pringlei)

In a single day we travelled from Al Ain, a 4,000 year-old oasis settlement to the sparkling city of Dubai, a small fishing village just 30 years ago.  We explored the world’s tallest building outside the immaculate Dubai Mall before hopping on a red eye flight for Trivandrum in the South of India.

Oman Botanic Garden

January 8 – Oman
(Written by Felicia Yu and photos by Ashby Leavell)

One wouldn’t think that such a good time could be had in a garden that so far consists of a nursery, one planted habitat area, a variety of half-constructed buildings, and acres (excuse me—hectares) of untamed Omani desert landscape. But then, one wouldn’t be that well acquainted with the Longwood Graduate Fellows, would one?

We spent the greater part of Saturday at the still-under-construction Oman Botanic Garden, the only such in the country and the largest in the region. Sarah Kneebone, head of education and interpretation, met us and kicked off an organized tour of all the operations of the garden that are up and running, plus some that are not, from seed collection and processing to propagation and planting, finishing with a brief overview of the garden’s communication and interpretation plans.

Khalid, in charge of marketing, shows us the model of the finished garden.

We were immediately impressed by the high level of professionalism and planning that has gone into this project since its inception by the Sultan in 2006. The Oman Botanic Garden aims to be world-class, a regional leader in sustainability, a center for the research and conservation of Oman’s native flora, and a place for the Omani people to learn about their natural and cultural heritage. With the financial and political support of the Sultan and a close partnership with the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh to supply taxonomic expertise, OBG is well on its way.

Leila, the head field botanist, shows us some of the seeds filed away for future planting.

Among the many exciting features to be built in the garden by the time of its opening in 2014: a set of three enclosed biomes displaying all three seasons of Southern Oman’s tropical rainforests simultaneously; a heritage village representing traditional Omani agricultural practices and plant lore, complete with opportunities for visitors to participate in traditional crafts as well as observe them; a research center with accommodations for visiting scholars; and separate interpretation centers for each of the different habitats to be planted.

The native landscape. 80% of the OBG’s property will be kept as a nature reserve.

Built elements aside, OBG will eventually display all of the more than 1200 native species, ranging from rainforests in the south to gravel deserts around the capitol, Muscat. On our walk through the nursery facilities, it was all we could do not to stop at every different species to examine it and record its name. The horticultural staff at OBG is careful to document exactly how they grow and propagate the plants since nearly all are new to cultivation, with new species still being discovered during field seed collections.

Adenium obesum awaiting planting time, once the habitat area to which they belong is ready for landscaping.

In brief, we had a blast. After such a thorough, thoughtful tour of such an amazing project, we’ve come away with great expectations for the future of the Oman Botanic Garden, and we’ve definitely marked it on our mental lists of places to return to one day.

The ones who made it across the border, and OBG staff, including Khalid, Sarah, Leila, and horticulturist Ismail.

O-man, what a day!

January 7, 2011
(written by and photos by Aubree Pack)

The Dubai International Airport

We’ve arrived! This is just a quick note to let everyone know that both groups (one from the states and one from the UK) arrived at the Dubai International Airport without incident. Immediately upon our arrival to Dubai, we met with our driver and headed towards Oman.

A view of the local landscape

First impressions? Sand. Heat. Cranes. Palm trees. Sweet smelling air. Happiness. (!!!)

Another landscape view

We went through several minor security checkpoints painlessly while on the drive, but ran into some trouble when we reached the main border crossing. Unfortunately, due to a recent change in requirements for Canadian visitors, there were visa complications for Raakel. We’re disappointed, but it was decided that one chaperone stay behind and only 5 of us continue into Oman. The group will meet back up with Pandora and Raakel tomorrow at Al Ain, by dinnertime.

Matt  – our favorite male chaperone :)

At the Oman border, we switched drivers and vehicles because of country requirements. The trip from the airport to where we are now in Muscat (the capital of Oman) had us rubber-necking at ATV’s careening across the sand dunes, stately palm trees, huge construction sites, and beautiful views of the rugged countryside. Along the way, our driver was happy to answer all of our questions and has been extremely kind. He even stopped at a roadside market and bought us some locally grown fruit called nubboc. He also provided us with a whistle stop evening tour of Muscats immaculate parks, gardens, and palace estates.

Once we made it through multiple checkpoints, the border crossing and then the visa station, we were greeted with this sign

Ashby talks to the driver about some of the Omani cultures


James and Ashby share some of the local fruit given to us by our driver

Upon check in at our hotel, Felicia and I were slightly offended that we had a room booked under Mr. Pack and Mr. Felicia… as even though we might be slightly disheveled from the travels, we still prefer to think we look a bit too feminine to be called a ‘Mr’ :)

Although we’re momentarily split up, we’re safe and things are sorted. It’s warm, it’s sandy, and we’re all pretty excited to be here!