The Viceregal Lodge and Botanic Gardens of Shimla

January 19 – Shimla
(written by Ashby Leavell, photos by Aubree Pack)

(One of the breathtaking views of Shimla, a town in the foothills of the Himalayas)

Today we quickly prepared for our last garden visit of the trip, to see the Viceregal Lodge and Botanic Gardens located in Shimla, a charming mountain village in the Himalayas.  It seemed fitting to finish our trip in the snow after beginning our India tour in the humid tropics.  We arrived late the night before from Chandigargh, after a flat tire on the road and a long drive from the Nek Chand rock gardens.

(The Viceregal Lodge, located within the Botanic Garden, is now the home of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study)

The Director and lead horticulturalist at the Viceregal Lodge was excited to show us around the stately former summer residence for the British viceroys.  The estate today houses the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, which awards fifty post-doctoral fellowships in the humanities each year to scholars from around the world.  The Institute is currently seeking advice on how to develop the historic English gardens surrounding the lodge to grow visitation.

(The Himalayas in the distance)

We had the opportunity to consult with the staff at the Institute on how to establish a self-sustaining public garden.  The research fellows and staff were keen to collaborate with our travel group to come up with original ideas for the space.  They have already begun work on an “Eco Walk” around the grounds and are instituting new training regimens for the gardeners.  We were also treated to a tour around historic Shimla and an elaborate luncheon before we had to leave early to catch our train through the Himalayan Mountains back to Chandigargh.

(The train ride out of Shimla has been high on all of our lists. Raakel demonstrates some of our excitement!)

(Our train careening down the side of the mountains, taking us back to Chandigarh)

We were excited to have our own carriage on the train, and enjoyed spectacular views of the mountains the entire way back.   It was truly a lovely end to a once in a lifetime trip.  We have taken in quite a bit of ground in both the U.A.E, Oman, and India, and experienced a dramatic range of gardens and research stations along the way.  Thank you Longwood…

Nek Chand’s Rock Garden

January 18 – Chandigarh
(written by Aubree Pack, photos by Ashby Leavell)

My apologies for blog posts coming through in ‘clunks’. We’ve had extremely limited internet access here in India. And where there is access, it’s been surprisingly expensive. But we’re certainly doing our best to keep you all in the loop!

(The Rock Garden has more than a kilometer of long meandering pathways, full of natural and hand-made wonders)

Arriving in Chandigarh was a crowning achievement! Seriously, we survived TWO back to back overnight trains! We’re rather proud of ourselves. Although the cabin we were in last night was much more comfortable than the night before (watch our video about the night before here), we still had a few problems. Such as squatters in our bunks. But not to worry, our favorite male chaperone, Matt, took care of it! We also arrived at the train station in Chandigarh a bit late. But we were picked up by our good friend Jarnail Singh, whom we all got to know when he was spending time at Longwood Gardens as an international intern.

Jarnail and his friend first took us to a lovely local Indian restaurant. It was excellent! Although some of the group is ready for some good ol’ American cuisine, there are a few of us left that are already sad to not have such amazing Indian dishes at our finger tips when we arrive back in the states.

(A small example of the many sculptures in the Nek Chand Garden)

Then we went to the Rock Garden of Nek Chand. What an amazing place! Nek Chand has an amazing story (see this website to read more about the man himself), but we spent the majority of our time lost in the magic of the Rock Garden he so skillfully created.

In the garden, you’ll find many (MANY) sculptures, all of which are original works of Nek Chand. The majority of the garden is created by waste materials. When we looked closely at the broken pieces used in walls and sculpture, we discovered old plates, toilets, and other recycled ceramic wares. There were also many natural looking forms that he created using concrete and different textures (such as burlap bags). Broken bangles and old broken metal were also elements of his work.

(You see before you one happy gal! I mean, it’s a CAMEL!)

In the garden, there is also an area that is most popular with children (and… Longwood Graduate Fellows). Many of us were able to swing on a huge swing set made completely of recycled materials and concrete. One of us was even lucky enough to score a camel ride 😉

(We were sad to leave Jarnail, but so happy we were able to spend time with him in his home country!!!)

We had only a short time to spend at the gardens of Nek Chand and with Jarnail, but we so enjoyed it! The next time we visit India we will certainly spend more time in this region, as it’s beautifully unique. Then it was off to visit the city of Shimla, in the Himalayan foothills.

(And so begins our ascent into the Himalaya’s!)

The National Botanic Research Institute

January 17 – Lucknow
(written by James Hearsum, photos by Aubree Pack)

(The group in front of the institute with the Director and two department heads)

Video Link: All Aboard!!!! … the Crazy Train. (Before we talk about how awesome the day at The National Botanic Research Institute was, we have to SHOW YOU how awesome it was getting there…)

The National Botanical Research Institute today provided a full schedule of meetings, tours and presentations explaining their research, outreach and facilities.  The day began with a meeting with the Director and Heads of each research department including Biotechnology, Ethnopharmacology, Floriculture, Conservation, Microbiology and much more.  These senior scientists direct a research staff of 100 scientists plus a support staff bringing the total to 500.

(The Cacti House)

The Director expressed a great desire to collaborate internationally by sharing both germplasm and expertise.  The garden has both a history and a current pipeline of new plants, scientific techniques and pure research that it is keen to see enter new markets.  It has had success especially in developing GM cotton, which is now grown on 8.2m of India’s 9.2m Hectares of cotton fields.

(Greeting cards made by staff at NBRI – completely out of natural materials!)

The institute is particularly keen to develop ornamental floriculture products that are appropriate to small-scale farmers with varying levels of education and capital.  It is developing research in tandem with an outreach program to provide a network of agriculturists with basic training, able to train others in turn.

(Irrigation techniques involved planting beds to be lower than the actual surface. The beds are flooded once a day in the summer months and every other day in the winter months.)

(Another view of irrigation, although this shows their Canna germplasm collection.)

The day continued with tours of the garden, including rose gardens, cycad house,  and germplasm collections of Bougainvillea, Cannas and Chrysanthemums.  A new cacti house has been recently landscaped and holds collections for both research and display.  Of great interest to many of us was a fantastic moss collection.  This was housed in its own, ultra-high humidity zone.  None of us envied the horticulturist’s need to weed with tweezers between species of moss, lichen and liverwort!

A presentation of India’s floral diversity highlighted the range and vulnerability of much of India’s flora.  Whilst there are great science institutes working to research both the conservation and application of many of these rare plant species, the task must at times seem overwhelming.

(Some of the Lichen specimens housed in the herbarium)

Following a great lunch provided by the garden (Thanks!) we visited the herbarium and IT departments.  The NBRI houses a national collection developed since the 1950’s extending to 97 000 accessions, including 290 Type collections.  Of particular interest was the Institutes unique database system.  This has been developed in-house over a number of years to provide for the level of comprehensiveness and accessibility not found in other systems used elsewhere.  In use for just over 6 months, this has revolutionised access to important plant data and is available for all via the Institutes website.

The day was exquisitely organised and presented and provided an unparalleled opportunity to see science and conservation in action through a Botanic Garden.

(The Director presents each of us with an array of exciting take away gifts!)

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!