Travels to Cuba – More Adventures in the Countryside!

March 30th, 2012 by Sarah Reichard, UW Botanic Gardens Director
Mil Cumbres photo

Our guide leans against the very rare Microcycas calocoma

(click photos to see full size image)

We were privileged to go to an “ecologically protected area” known as Mil Cumbres (Thousand Peaks). Our bus wound its way up a very rough dirt road (though our expert driver, Miquel, did a fantastic job of missing the giant potholes) to the field station. The area of Mil Cumbres is geologically varied, including large patches of serpentine soil. Serpentine rocks have a low calcium to magnesium ration and may have higher concentrations of heavy metals than other soils. Because of this, plants that grow on the soils are often highly specialized and endemic (found only there) to the region. In Mil Cumbres, there is a very high concentration of endemics, including Microcycas calocoma, a cycad found only in this area. There are only about 600 plants of this species – the only species in its genus – and we took a short hike along a lovely stream to see one. This forest was probably the best of the ones we visited, but even it was severely fragmented, with agricultural fields and houses throughout it.



Ted and Iris celebrate their anniversary as the musicians play

We returned to the field station to find that a wonderful lunch had been placed for us. As with all our meals, local musicians played. This group was unusual because they included a flute player and most of their songs appeared to be original. We bought all the CDs they had. This was Iris and Ted Wagner’s wedding anniversary and the band played a special romantic song while they danced.


We left Mil Cumbres to head to Viñales, a lovely town that one of our group called “the La Connor of Cuba” (for readers not from Washington, La Connor is a scenic town north of Seattle that is a popular stop for tourists). The valley surrounding the town was incredibly beautiful, surrounded by mogotes, which are steep, flat-topped hills created by eroding limestone. We had several activities there, including visiting a garden created mostly by two sisters who lived there their entire lives and who had an interesting habit of placing doll heads throughout the garden. Over time, the hair on the dolls decayed, leaving a somewhat frightening discovery for the unprepared. The sisters grew many ornamentals there, but also fruit and other food plants, which they sold. As with all the gardens and hikes we took in Cuba, our guide was very knowledgeable about the medicinal qualities of the plants. In the absence of adequate medicines, Cubans have been very resourceful with traditional cures.

Vinales photo

The beautiful valley of Viñales

Note the dolls ahead in the garden in Viñales


Our guide rests in the tobacco curing house. Photo by Martha Clatterbaugh.

This is also a big tobacco growing area and we visited a tobacco farm. About 90% of the harvest goes to the government, but farmers can keep 10% for their own use. The tobacco was being harvested and we visited the curing shed. The farmer explained that the leaves cure slowly in the shed and that they are sprayed regularly with water containing honey, guava, sugar, and/or rum every few days. As they cure, workers – mostly women – sort the leaves according to their qualities. Different qualities of leaf are desirable for the wrapper of the cigars, to add different flavors and aromas, etc. We then went to another area where he demonstrated how to roll a cigar and most of us shared one (possibly the source of the cold we all left Cuba with!).  You do not inhale cigar smoke, but savor the flavors in your mouth. It was interesting, but I don’t think I need to do it again.


The Valle de Viñales may have been my favorite part of the trip, but our last stop might be the most memorable. We traveled to the Zapata Peninsula, where there is a national park to preserve birds (65% of Cuba’s 354 bird species can be found there), as well as 1000 species of plants and 37 species of reptiles, including the Cuban Crocodile. Our hotel was on the Bay of Pigs and many of us swam in the shallow waters. The Bay of Pigs was the site of an attempted invasion by CIA-trained Cuban exiles in 1961. Castro was warned and prepared to repel the invasion at Playa Larga, which is where our hotel was located. It was not a good event in Cuban and American relations and it was so interesting to stand there and try to imagine it unfolding.


Our group stands in front of the Bay of Pigs, along with our Cuban guide, Frank (wearing red) and our driver Miquel (kneeling, in a tie). Photo by Steve Westcott

That night we attended an outdoor stage rehearsal of a group called the Korimacao Community Project. Young people from the area are selected and trained by well-known musical, dancing, and acting professionals. We were very impressed by their talent and it was fun to see the directors putting the students through their paces. There were some very talented young people – if they had more opportunity to travel, I have no doubt that some of them would be successful on a world stage.


We had only one night at Playa Larga and the next day, after a short hike to see some of the local birds, we headed back to Havana for a last chance to get souvenirs and for a very good dinner at an upscale private restaurant in the upscale section of town called Miramar.


As we prepared to leave Cuba – a place most of us never thought we would have the opportunity to visit – we reflected on our impressions. We had come with expectations and some of them were met (cool old cars everywhere!), but others were more…complicated. Complicated is a word that comes to mind often when contemplating modern Cuba. It is less than a month after we left, and I am still sorting it out in my head. I will try to pin some of these thoughts down in another message.

Nature’s Calendar Tours

March 29th, 2012 by Arboretum Education Supervisor, Patrick Mulligan

Fawn Lily (Erythronium oregonum) on Foster Island

As of February, we’ve started offering our Weekend Walks every Sunday at 1pm. These guided tours are free and open to the public, are 90 minutes in length, and leave from the Graham Visitors Center. Each month we choose a different theme to talk about. The following is a description of April’s theme written by Catherine Nelson, the newest addition to the UWBG Education & Outreach team.

Have you ever dissected a flower to see what they are made of and how pollination really works? Have you ever visited our Pollination Garden to learn about and observe our most over-worked and under-appreciated staff members (from a safe distance of course)? Are you curious about what’s going on in the soil this time of year? Or do you just want to see some amazing spring bloomers on display here in the Washington Park Arboretum and perhaps learn a bit on the way?

Our theme for April’s Weekend Walks is “Nature’s Calendar”. During these tours, we will be focusing on phenology, the study of recurring plant and animal life cycle events (or phenophases). Phenophases include budburst, leafing & flowering, maturation of seeds, emergence of insects & pollinators, and migration of birds. The term phenology comes from the Greek word phaino meaning “to show” or  “appear”.

Spring is the perfect time to be in the WPA looking for various phenophases, and during our “Nature’s Calendar” tours guides will take visitors on a leisurely walk in search of the early flowering trees and shrubs in our collection and discuss what is happening during this phenologically active time of year.

We hope you join us!

For the Younger Set: Spring Break Camp at the Arboretum

March 27th, 2012 by Heidi Unruh, UWBG Communications Volunteer

photo of kids outdoorsFULL FOR 2012

Come join us for a week of spring time explorations, investigations and adventures. We will become nature detectives looking for signs of spring. What are the birds telling us? What are the plants doing? Where are the animals hanging out? We will look for clues while playing games, doing spring-themed crafts, reading and telling stories, and adventuring through the Arboretum. The camp runs April 16-20, 9am-3pm (before and after care available if 6 or more campers sign up). The cost is $225 ($200 for Arboretum Foundation members). Visit the Spring Break Camp page for more information or call (206) 221-6427.

7th Annual Garden Lovers’ Book Sale

March 27th, 2012 by Heidi Unruh, UWBG Communications Volunteer

Spring is the perfect time to update your gardening library with new inspiration. Choose from thousands of used gardening, horticulture, botany and landscape design books at the Miller Library’s 7th annual Garden Lovers’ Book Sale.

Want to get first dibs and beat the crowds, all while enjoying a glass of wine? Join us for the Wine and Cheese Preview Party on Friday, April 6, from 5:00 to 8:00 pm, and bid on specially selected books in the silent auction. Tickets to the Preview Party are $20 each, and directly fund the book budget of the Miller Library. Contact the Library at 206-543-0415 to purchase tickets.

The book sale takes place on Saturday, April 7, from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Admittance is free. While you’re there, be sure to check out the original Pacific Northwest botanical artwork on exhibit and for sale through May 5.

The sale and preview party will take place at the Center for Urban Horticulture, UWBG, 3501 NE 41st Street, Seattle. All proceeds from the book sale and preview party directly fund the book and journal budget of the Miller Library.

Travels to Cuba – Seeing the Countryside

March 22nd, 2012 by Sarah Reichard, UW Botanic Gardens Director
Mercury car photo

A typical street scene in Havana. Note the Mercury in the front of the line – it is the same color as my old car, but I think it is a couple of years older. Also note the pedicabs.

We headed out of Havana early on a Sunday morning. This was really our first look at the countryside, and at the transportation system. The stories about huge numbers of old American cars from the 1950s? All true! Under Cuban law, cars registered after the 1959 revolution could not be bought or sold, though that is changing. The result is that those who had a car hung onto it and tried to keep it running, passing it down as an inheritance. Many of the cars we saw are Frankencars, with parts from various cars slapped together. Some were well-tended, others looked like they were held together with rust, and it was not uncommon to see one of them along the roadside with the hood up.  I was on the lookout for a ’56 Mercury Monterey, like my grandmother’s old car that I drove in high school. Chevys seem to be the most common but I did see Mercurys, as well as just about any other model you can imagine.

Cuban "bus" photo

These flatbed trucks, loaded with standing passengers, are a typical “bus” that moves people in the countryside between towns.

Only about 1% of Cuban people own cars, so other forms of transportation are common too. We saw lots of bicycles, including pedicabs. There were lots of horses with buggies too, especially as we got outside the city. We saw some recognizable buses, packed with people, but in the rural provinces, it is common to see people standing, jammed into the back of an open-air truck. In the countryside we also saw an interesting sight – most vehicles are owned by the state and at key intersections in the small towns we passed we observed an official dressed all in yellow stopping cars and trucks. Our guide, Frank, explained that all state vehicles had to give rides to citizens going in the same direction, so the man in yellow was coordinating ride-sharing.

Our first stop that Sunday was at the National Botanical Garden. The director, Dr. Angela Leiva Sanchez, gave us a lecture on the plants and vegetation zones of Cuba that was very helpful in our interpreting what we saw on our later hikes. One of her staff then joined us on the bus as we toured the Garden. It is HUGE – about 600 hectares (1480 acres) so we only saw a small bit of it in our tour. Probably the most impressive part was the palm collection. They have over 200 species in their collection, making it one of the largest in the world. They also have a really lovely greenhouse area. Following our tour we went to their open air restaurant and had a wonderful buffet lunch – one of the best meals we had in Cuba! Many of our meals were short on fresh fruits and vegetables and this lunch had various salads and a large fruit plate.

greenhouse photo

We prepare to enter the beautiful greenhouse at the National Botanical Garden


photo of houses

The community at Las Terrasas includes apartment buildings and small, but neat, duplexes set on hillsides

Our day was just beginning though – from the Garden we traveled west to see the community of Las Terrazas located in the Sierra del Rosario mountain range in the Pinar del Rio province. French coffee farmers arrived early in the 19th century and there were more than 50 plantations in the area.  These plantations were later abandoned and erosion became a problem. Beginning in 1968, the hillsides were terraced (Las Terrazas means terraces) and reforested with 8 million trees. In 1985 the area was designated a Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations. Such Reserves allow some development within and Las Terrazas is designed as a sustainable community and ecotourism center. We visited a restored coffee plantation and then went to the small community, where we visited the homes of two local artists. The homes were small, but very nice and the community seemed vibrant, with children and chickens roaming around.  We visited their small coffee bar where we were treated to excellent espresso drinks. The community seemed very peaceful – they take great pride in retaining the natural, social, and cultural heritage of the area.

Leaving Las Terrazas, we traveled to our hotel near Soroa, a sprawling set of buildings on hillsides. In the center was a very large pool, which became of focus on interest on the next couple of toasty afternoons. The hotel is right next to an orchid garden that is now run as a research center by the University of Pinar del Rio. The garden was originally built by a wealthy man, starting in 1948, who then gave it to the University. It is a set on a steep hillside, like my own garden, so I was really interested in how it was terraced to provide planting areas. Most of the building material appeared to be native limestone. There were more than 700 species of orchids, begonias, and other types of flowering plants. Our guide took us up the hill to the house, where we sat on the terrace, listened to musicians, and had refreshments, including fresh coconut water.

photo of Soroa

The orchid garden at Soroa includes an amazing infrastructure made of limestone

We also enjoyed a short hike while in Soroa, but the best hike of the trip was on the next leg of our journey, which we visited the “ecologically protected” area of Mil Cumbres (Thousand Peaks). More about that coming up!

And the Winners Are…..Biodiversity Conference Art Exhibit up through March

March 19th, 2012 by Wendy Gibble

Paintbrush and Sedge illustration by Louise Smith

The winners of the botanical art exhibit  held in conjunction with the conference Conserving Plant Biodiversity in a Changing World: A View from NW North America were announced Wednesday afternoon at the close of the conference.  The winners are:

Botanical Illustration:
1st Place: Louise Smith for Paintbrush and Sedge
2nd Place: Daphne Morris for Carex macrocephala
3rd Place: Jan Hurd for Rosa nutkana

1st place: Daniel Mosquin for Castilleja applegatei var. pinetorum
2nd Place: Michael Hannam for Veratrum viride
3rd Place: Morgan Turner for Blechnum spicant

The exhibit is on display in the Elisabeth C. Miller Library at the UW Botanic Gardens through March 29th.

March Color Appears at the Washington Park Arboretum

March 19th, 2012 by Pat Chinn-Sloan

Selected cuttings from the Washington Park Arboretum for March 12-26, 2012

1)  Coriaria napalensis

  • This is one of three species of Coriaria in the Arboretum.
  • It is growing near Azalea Way, north of the Pine Collection (grid 23-1W).
  • Our other two species are C. japonica in Rhododendron Glen and C. sarmentosa (a New Zealand native) on Arboretum Drive in grid 11-7E.

2)  Lindera obtusiloba

  • Native to China, Japan, and Korea
  • L. obtusiloba is most noted for its early spring flowers, but also has rare fall color (pure yellow) on its openly-spreading form.
  • See it in the Woodland Garden or west of the Graham Visitors Center.

3)  Mahonia aquifolium   (Tall Oregon Grape)

  • Mahonia is now officially renamed “Berberis”.
  • Native to western North America; now in bloom throughout the Arboretum.

4)  Pieris japonica   ‘Valentine’s Day’

  • This pink cultivar is at the south end of our Lilac Collection in 29-1W on Azalea Way.
  • More Pieris as well as several other genera in the Erica family (Clethra, Kalmia, Vaccinium, and others) can be found on the lower trail north of Rhododendron Glen.

5)  Ruscus aculeatus   (Butcher’s Broom)

  • Ruscus is, surprisingly, a member of the Iris family.
  • The “leaves” are actually modified stems called cladodes; the tiny flowers and subsequent berries that seem to be in the center of the leaf are actually at the leaf axil.
  • These plants are in the north end of the Winter Garden.

Mobilizing Volunteers – 2012 Urban Forest Symposium

March 14th, 2012 by UWBG Communication Staff

Mobilizing Volunteers for the Urban Forest

photoThe 2012 Urban Forest Symposium will address the concerns of municipalities, NGOs and educational groups whose work involves volunteer planting and care for the urban forest. This year’s speakers understand what it takes to have a truly successful program.  Our keynoter, world renowned speaker and grassroots organizer Andy Lipkis, will take us on the inspirational journey from the founding of the Los Angeles’ Tree People who planted one million trees for the 1984 Olympics to the influential, 10,000 volunteer organization it is today. Throughout the day representatives from a variety of non-profit organizations will share what has, and what hasn’t worked to motivate volunteers and secure funding. The technical track will cover how to avoid common problems with volunteer tree planting projects and how to set your project on track for long-term success. It will also have the latest on best practices for tree planting.



Cherry Tree Removal at CUH

March 14th, 2012 by Soest Gardener, Riz Reyes

Our row of cherry trees along the driveway at CUH are scheduled to be removed this Thursday, March 15.

Though they’re starting to bloom, we have a severe infestations of blossom brown rot, a common fungal disease of cherries in the Pacific Northwest.

Fungicdal treatments are not a sustainable option. Our decision to display healthy plants available in the trade has left us with the option to choose plants that will be more adaptable to this site.

For more information, check out a post composed by Horticulture Supervisor, David Zuckerman, on the early flowering cherries along Azalea Way in Washington Park Arboretum.

The Adventure Begins – Travels to Cuba

March 13th, 2012 by Sarah Reichard, UW Botanic Gardens Director

It has been less than a week since we left Cuba and has started to seem like a dream.  This is probably in part because most of us came down with a hellish cold the day we left and have spent these few days back in a feverish and dazed condition. But it is also because the experience of immersing ourselves in a world so different from our daily lives has made the transition back more intense than after some trips.

As I expected, the internet access in Havana was spotty and in the other parts of the country we visited, non-existent. I will post a few blog entries over the next week or so that reflects our travels.


The beautiful Palacio de San Felipe, our home in Havana on the Plaza San Francisco de Asis. Some of our group is loitering outside.

We met up in the wee hours (5:30 am) on Feb. 23 to get to the Miami airport and complete all the paperwork to get our visas for Cuba. After spending time standing in this line, and then that, we were on the flight to Cuba! The plane had hardly gone up before it came down, underscoring how close Cuba is to southern Florida. We straggled out of the baggage claim to meet Frank Alpizar, who would be our able guide for the next 10 days. We checked into the beautiful Palacio de San Felipe, a former mansion that has been remodeled into an excellent hotel. The location was fabulous, right on the San Francisco de Asis Square in old Havana. After our first meal of many to consist of white rice, black beans, and our choice of chicken, fish, or pork (pretty much every lunch and dinner followed this formula), we had the afternoon free to explore the old town.


A view into a courtyard in old Havana. Photo by Steve Westcott

Old Havana is beautiful and sad all at once. It is filled with ornate colonial buildings in various conditions. Some, like our hotel, were beautifully restored. Others are in such disrepair that is hard to believe that people live in them, but in most cases they are indeed lived in. Many of the buildings use the typical Spanish concept of an interior courtyard, and peeking in the open doors of some showed a nice space in a few, and crowded and, well, squalid conditions in others. The many plazas in the area were filled with kids playing games, indicating that families lived in these homes.

The unusual living conditions in Havana were displayed in the most bizarre and almost hallucinatory terms when we visited the private restaurant, La Guarida, for dinner one night. We drove in the bus to a neighborhood of decaying, but formerly glorious, buildings. The restaurant is on the fourth floor of a beautiful old mansion that was the location of the Oscar-nominated movie “Strawberry and Chocolate.” We hiked over marble floors and up stairs lined with wrought iron railings, and had a wonderful dinner. Afterwards, we descended down a different set of stairs and found ourselves in what seemed to be a former ballroom.

Lisa and Nevada dance in the old balllroom downstairs from La Guarida, with an audience of not only our group, but small children who live off of the room.

Lisa and Nevada began waltzing and I attempted to take a few photos. As I did this, I realized that there were a couple of toddlers watching us through an open door of a small room opening onto the ballroom that was the home of their family. As we left the building, I realized that other families also were living in small areas carved out of this once grand estate now visited by tourists rich enough to afford a meal they could never aspire to. It felt surreal.

Our time in Havana was busy. We visited the National Institute for Research on Tropical Agriculture where we heard a presentation on their programs and had a brief tour. They have been around for 108 years but it seemed clear that they lack the resources to as effective as they could be in providing assistance to Cuban farmers. They seem to have a strong program in plant pathology, but their labs need much upgrading.


This is a typical scene – with one building at least partially restored, but the adjoining building uninhabitable. The old car is also typical – more about that later.

One of the standouts of our trip to Havana was the visit with Miquel Salcines, a Cuban agronomist who started Alamar Organoponic Gardens during the “Special Period.”  These thriving gardens were an inspiration in urban agriculture. Mr. Salcines provided some interesting background, including that before the Special Period 80% of the food was grown in non-urban areas, with large inputs of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and now 80% is grown organically in urban areas. They went organic, in part, because no other means were available to them and they had to go back to the “old way” of doing things. These food cooperatives provide good working conditions and workers have access to food, loans, education, and payments for shares that accumulate over the time with the cooperatives. The Seattle area is striving for greater food security and there are many lessons to be learned in Havana.


Miquel Salcines talks about the practices of the Alamar Organoponic Gardens.

Many of us chose to go see the Buena Vista Social Club on our final night on this first part of the trip. I saw the famous Oscar-winning documentary not that long ago and recognized some of the performers from the film, though many of them are now deceased. It was a fun show and a good way to end the first phase of the trip.  The next day we set off to explore some of the countryside. Stay tuned for more on that.


The farm is managed using traditional practices. The fields are plowed using oxen.