From Oaxaca to Amsterdam: Victoria Alexander’s Garden Travels

Drop by author and photographer Victoria Alexander’s Instagram feed and you’ll be transported from Sydney to Namibia via Bangladesh, Stockholm and Ireland. Layers, colours, stories and curiosity defines her prolific creative output and her travels. This month, for our Adventure issue, we asked Victoria to share some of her favourite plant places from across the world. Sit back, grab a cup of tea, and let her words and images transport you…

The streets of Amsterdam, Holland

If I was to live in Europe it would be in Amsterdam in a canal house. It’s a crowded and leafy city, where people’s lives spill into the street and large front windows openly tell the story of who lives where.

Everywhere there are plants springing up out of the ground in seemingly no space at all, bringing joy to all who walk by.

Give Amsterdamers an inch and they’ll create a garden. These small street gardens of clematis, wisteria, roses, foxglove, jasmine or whatever plant takes someone desire are called pavement, street and facade gardens. However you like to think of them as, they have a give-back-to-the-street, caring attitude mixed with a less-is-more street cred.

For one weekend only in June there’s Open Garden Days, when some of the city’s best kept secret gardens and lush courtyards planted in the canal belt are open to the public. It’s a time I’d adore to be there.

Rosendals Trädgård, Stockholm, Sweden

Other places I’d be happy to find myself living are Copenhagen or Stockholm. Were it Stockholm, I’d find myself at the Rosendals’ Garden Foundation every weekend.

For thirty-five years the foundation has cultivated an oasis of sustainability and growth and spread the word about biodynamic gardening and landscaping practices at their atmospheric public garden, Rosendals Trädgård, on the island of Djurgården. You can get to this nurtured and nurturing place either by bike or by walking through the park following the canal.

Away from the city bustle you’ll find yourself amongst a vineyard, greenhouses, vegetable fields and locals lucky enough to be able to buy plants and tools from the plant shop in the greenhouse or picking flowers to their hearts content from the flower gardens.

Flowers are paid for by weight. There’s an educational children’s garden and farm-to-fork café and artisanal wood-fired bakery, from where you take your delicious lunch to eat in the garden amongst the vegetables, herbs, flowers and apple orchard.

Medicinal garden, somewhere between Kandalama and Habarana, Sri Lanka

One of the ingredients that makes up any great Sri Lankan exploration is a great guide/driver. It makes all the difference. During the three weeks we drove around together we became friends. We understood each other and thankfully he did not consider my desire to buy a hand winding coconut shaver extraordinary, nor the monks robes that I have since matched the colour of my front door to.

It was this same excellent driver who introduced me to this medicinal garden somewhere along a road to somewhere else. Immaculately maintained, it came with its own guide, a doctor, who explained the plant’s uses convincingly. The garden borders made of painted coconut shells are examples of recycling at its best. After having had all the plant’s properties explained eloquently and painstakingly, of course there was the obligatory bag of herbal remedies and age enhancers that occupied space within my luggage afterwards. I’ve never used them.

The Alhambra and Generalife, Granada, Andalusia, Spain

To say I adore this place is an understatement. It holds a very special place in my heart and has informed me since my first visit twenty-five years ago. It pulls me back – I’ve returned several times with decades in-between.

The Alhambra and Generalife adjoin and flow into each other in a way where one completes the other, yet they are separate. Described by Moorish poets as “a pearl set in emeralds” the Alhambra was a palace and fortress complex while the Generalife, surrounded by orchards and gardens, was a leisurely place for the Kings of Granada to escape from official Palace business and go to the gardens to rest.

With a wonderful view over the city and rivers, Genil and Darro, it’s hard to imagine this inspiring place was ignored and left in ruins for centuries – fortunate squatters lived in the buildings. British intellectuals rediscovered it following the defeat of Napoleon. The park, Alameda de la Alhambra, is overgrown with wildflowers and grass in the spring and was planted with roses, oranges, myrtles by the Moors, and English elms were bought there by the Duke of Wellington in 1812.

It’s similar in feel to the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul but at the same time different, of course. A royal residence and court of Granada from the mid-13thC the Alhambra is an atypical example of Muslim art in its final European stages. Royal gardens stocked with rare and exotic plants gave rulers passionate about flowers and plants full reign of their collecting instincts – here they gave rare plants from other parts of the world a home.

Don’t you too love the eclectic idea of business mixed with pleasure, and science with art, taking place in these Medieval Islamic royal gardens? By being part of a network which linked together agricultural and botanical activities of distant regions they also played a role in the diffusion of useful plants.

The way the rooms intimately open onto central courtyards makes you long to live that way.

Despite all the other tourists it’s a peaceful place to be and dream. Extended by different Muslim rulers, each new section followed the consistent theme of “paradise on earth”. Water falls from fountains and sits still in long reflecting pools. The exterior was left plain and austere, sun and wind were freely admitted, and the garden was, and is, a reprieve.

There are various interpretations of the meaning of Generalife: The Governor’s Garden, the Architect’s (alarife) Garden, the Vegetable Garden of the Gypsy Festivity Organiser – it’s hard to know who to believe. Over time the colours of the buildings have faded sympathetically and it’s significant Islamic and 16th-century architecture and later Christian building and garden interventions are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Ethnobotanical Gardens and Graphic Arts Institute (IAGO), Oaxaca, Mexico

I’d skip off to Oaxaca again in a heartbeat. The old part is quintessentially Mexican, the colours harmonious due to a limited UNESCO approved palette – how they use them individual, the scale inviting. You walk everywhere and it’s hard, very hard, to take the camera away from your eye.

At the heart of the old city is the 16th century Santo Domingo monastery complex, next to a cathedral (naturally) that was used as a military base for more than 120 years, but is now a botanical garden. Oaxaca’s indigenous peoples are known for their textiles, ceramics, food, and complex use of plants – wild plants in particular – for food, crafts and medicine.

The area has a unique botanic diversity and this garden tells its history by arranging plants in ecological and cultural themes.

Local gardeners and healers were enlisted to help maintain and provide specimens for the garden. A snaking pathway of naturally green-hued soil was inspired by a pre-Columbian step-fret zigzag design, a motif echoed throughout the garden. During the excavation and building period archaeologists uncovered 400-year-old structures which are incorporated into the garden next to plants echoing their past. A bathing-washing pit used by Dominican novices is shaded by soapberry, agave, and other plants used to make soap.

Twin rows of columnar organ pipe cactus make a tight fence protecting specific opuntia prickly pear cactus used in the production of cochineal – a highly prized dye exported by the Spanish and used in Chinese silks, Persian carpets, and paintings by El Greco, van Gogh, and Rembrandt.

The eastern half of the garden has plants from the wet regions—cacao, vanilla, achiote. The west holds many arid plant varieties—human-size cacti, fat-leaved agaves. It’s a landscape of unexpected shapes and textures, thorny branches and velvety petals. Bulbous ponytail palms lead to a cycad section where golden football-size cones bulge from the centres of plants. Flowers can be found all year-round: the creamy blossoms of flor de mayo; tiny vermilion wild hibiscus; native bell-flowered dahlia, thick with palm-size white blossoms tinged with a purple core.

There are more than 1,000 plant varieties within these high walls. Sadly, bio-pirates raided the garden, stealing rare cacti and cutting samples for cell tissue propagation, and so now visitors are only allowed in on guided tours. The rarest plants, some started from seed, are kept locked in a greenhouse. This is anything but just another garden. It’s as if it is someone’s dream.

Conversely there’s a freedom about visiting the Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca, a library-museum full of art books – more than 12,000 volumes covering painting, sculpture, architecture, graphics, design, photography, textiles, ceramics, folk art and poetry. It’s free. You just wander in and around this beautiful 18th century house centred around two separate courtyards, one with a café, of course. On my most recent visit it drew me in twice, the second time there was a gardener watering the terracotta pots with a watering can as the sun slowly moved around the courtyard. I’d happily move in.

Victoria Alexander is an author and photographer who has been pre-occupied with homes and gardens all her life. She admires people who know how to grow both. With a love of the imperfect, she sees in three dimensions and is endlessly curious about the world. She can never have too many flowers. Check out Victoria’s WEBSITE / INSTAGRAM