Lotus Eating

I've so far said very little about the physical shock of removing myself from the clutches of a hard, grinding USDA Zone 5 winter in Clinton Corners, NY to a moist and mossy, mid-forties USDA Zone 8 'winter' in Cambridge, England. For someone as interested in horticulture as I this has meant one moment of astonishment and exclamation after another.  I arrived in mid-January (mid-January!) to find winter aconites, crocuses, snowdrops and hellebores blooming everywhere. A number of shrubs like Daphne and Mahonia Japonica, with ravishing fragrance, are now at the height of their powers.

It so happens that this town boasts a fine botanic garden. The brainchild of John Henslow — a professor of botany at Cambridge University and a teacher of Charles Darwin — the garden comprises 40 acres and began development in 1846. I'm quite sure that my stalwart and husband Robert Webber and I courted in this garden thirty years ago (I have a dim-ish memory of being there together and feeling absolutely thrilled by the novel intimacy of my hand in his); but I knew nothing about plants then. In fact, for all these years I've remembered the place as an arboretum rather than the beautifully designed and intriguingly filled garden that it is.

So my forays this time have been to feast my eyes on the orchid festival now in progress in the garden's extensive Glasshouse. Midwinter is the time orchids bloom in this half of the world. I made my way over on my bike in the rain. Here are some of the pleasures for you snow-blind, winter-weary Zone 5s:

A Paphiopedilum hybrid

A different Paphiopedilum hybrid

The second type of orchid I encountered in the Glasshouse was the Cymbidiums, all of which varieties, incredibly, seem to have their origins in the land of haggis and bagpipes. Who knew Scotland was an orchid-breeding hotbed? Please share if there are any orchid historians out there.

Cymbidium Loch Lomond x Angelica's Loch

Cymbidium 'Loch Helen'

Cymbidium 'Sandridge Torch'. This orchid's
coloring is a combination of rust and port.

Miniature Cymbidium Strathclyde 'Lewes Fire'. This picture
does no justice; this orchid is literally merlot-colored.

Next I found the miraculous Vanda orchids.
The Vanda orchids are like exotic birds. Suspended from
 the rafters, living off the air and nestled in small
 contraptions called Vanda boxes (I swear; do a web
 search). They must hang above pools of water which
 provide the requisite humidity.

This is a Vanda hybrid white. Another case of my skills at
photography failing to do the luminosity of these flowers
 justice. They are by far the most beautiful of all the Vandas:
 white petals like crisp bed-sheets with perfect lavender centers. 

The Vanda hybrid blue.

This photo below is loosely one of a Vanda hybrid pink. But really it's a stealth photograph of a couple who — while I was lurking in the Vandas — appeared with a photographer and proceeded to have their wedding photos taken. They were both middle-aged. They had just come from the registry office. She was French, like a worn and emaciated Piaf bird in black and brown knit with a black net eye veil. He was English and unremarkable in a standard bad suit. Their appearance during my orchid investigations was a gift. "Okay.............stand there," said the photographer. "Darleeng," she said, "Don't hold me so tight." "Is that alright?" She, fretful: "Mmm." Despite my excitement I had the presence of mind to offer them felicitations. They seemed pleased.
The wedding couple obscured by Vanda
hybrid pink.

Following this excitement I took myself off to the Canary Island House (arid) to wait for the rain outside to stop. There are definitely drawbacks to Zone 8. But when it finally did stop and I began to walk towards the garden's entrance, imagine my astonishment when this ran across my path:

A Reeves's Muntjac deer. Also called a barking deer.

It looked like it could be a small dog; or a large rodent; or a deer whose legs had been sawn off midway. Fortunately I bumped into a garden employee who was able to explain what I'd just seen. There are about 5 to seven of these little deer living in the botanic garden. They're rarely seen. She told me they all seem to eat the most expensive plant material. (Incredible, isn't it? Their bastard relatives in Clinton Corners do the same goddamned thing!)I've now read that Muntjac come originally from southeast China and the ones in England are the result of escapees from captivity.  They're about a foot and a half tall and have little tusks growing out of the sides of their mouths. There's a governmental open season on Muntjac; but looking like that you'd have to be pretty hard to take their extermination up as your idée fixe.


  1. Well, this is delightful, as I knew it would be, and I'm about to share it on the dreaded Facebook, as I know one person in particular who will fall in love with those orchids, not to mention your prose! And you did get a sickly little laugh out of me with the "Zone 5" snow-blindness, though I don't envy anyone the rain, either. This winter, I can see nothing at all to commend the snow, well, one thing: when we finally were able to duck out to a movie yesterday between storms, I said to J: well, at least snow is white, rather than black. Cheering thought . . .

  2. The person mentioned above is very glad to have been recommended your beautiful blog! Thank you, Sue!

  3. Delightful piece, as ever, Kate. I will forward it to Karen's mother (the one who tangos) who is orchid-crazy. I never knew that to your already very long list of
    areas of expertise, I could now add horticulture. Was also fascinated by the Muntjac. I saw an equally mysterious animal in a park in Brazil (more like a combination of rabbit and dog) but no one seemed to know its name. I can't what to read more about your adventures in your always inimitable prose.
    Love, JO