It’s not hard to enjoy the Big Easy

If you want to feel that you’ve traveled to a foreign city without leaving the country, visit New Orleans and stay in the historic French Quarter. We made the 8-hour drive from Austin a couple of weeks ago — our first stop on a family road trip across the South — and stayed two nights in this genteel, relaxed, living-easy city.

What do you do in New Orleans? Well, you eat good food, admire the lacy ironwork and sunset-hued architecture of the Quarter, and listen to jazz players on every street corner. Doesn’t that sound nice?

The first morning we rose early to beat the heat (mission not accomplished) and strolled to the famous Cafe Du Monde, within spitting distance of the mighty Mississippi River, for an order of sugar-powdered beignets. After this decadence, we walked past Jackson Square and the magnificent St. Louis Cathedral, pictured at the top of this post.

The back of the church overlooks a plaza where fortune tellers, portrait sketch artists, and jazz bands gather, attracting throngs of tourists.

It’s a good place to people watch.

I spotted a statue near Cafe Du Monde that I recognized from 30 years ago, and asked my daughter to pose…

…echoing this 1985 photo of her much-younger mama.

I did a lot of gawking at the fern- and ivy-bedecked balconies throughout the French Quarter.

Balcony gardening is a way of life here.

I caught a glimpse of an architectural sketch in the window of one local business.

Horse-head hitching posts line streets throughout the Quarter.

When the sun grew too hot, we ducked into Napolean House for muffalettas and a Pimm’s Cup. The building is a 200-year-old landmark, its aged walls hung with dozens of portraits of its namesake.

Hotel Provincial offered a shady respite during the heat of the afternoon, with a pretty courtyard fountain…

…and two swimming pools.

The French Quarter isn’t the only neighborhood worth exploring. The Garden District also beckoned. We took a streetcar (it was, disappointingly, a less picturesque substitute bus on that day) along a pleasant, 45-minute route to reach this new-money, American-settled neighborhood (as opposed to the older, French-Creole Quarter) of glamorous, 19th-century mansions. I didn’t take a single photo, despite the beauty of the neighborhood — not even when we passed vampire novelist Anne Rice’s childhood home.

I did take photos in the spooky Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, which borders the Garden District. Established in 1833, it’s one of several “cities of the dead” found throughout the older neighborhoods. Because New Orleans sits below sea level and the water table is high, the dead weren’t buried (legend says coffins would pop out of the ground when it rained) but laid to rest in above-ground tombs that contain entire families or fraternal groups.

I’ve always loved touring old cemeteries. Ironically, they seem to bring a city’s history to life.

Plants are colonizing the tombs, gaining toeholds in crevices and crumbling mortar.

These ferns seem to grow out of bare stone.

New Orleans has plenty of spookiness to go around, and our first evening we explored the House of Voodoo, where picture-taking was forbidden — so no shrunken head pics for you (just kidding, but we did see lots of voodoo dolls).

The House of Voodoo sits across the street from what we really came for: a jazz show at Preservation Hall. I’d last been here during my college years and was ready to make another pilgrimage.

Preservation Hall hosts nightly, 45-minute concerts of traditional, swinging jazz, performed acoustically by jazz veterans. It’s open to all ages, and I’d purchased VIP tickets ahead of time so that we could get a seat right up front.

The place is charmingly rustic: a few rows of bench seating and pillows on the floor for the audience. No air conditioning — that’s right, in New Orleans in the summer. You’ll sweat through the show, but it’s worth it. Photos and video are forbidden during the performance, but here’s where the band played: trombone on the left, cornet and vocals in the middle, clarinet on the right, and piano, bass, and drums in the back.

I’ll end my New Orleans travel post with a pretty, garden-pattern dress I spotted in a shop window. Look carefully, my fellow hot-climate gardeners: those are prickly pear pads along with tropical foliage — fun!

Next up: Exhibits at Atlanta Botanical Garden and Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Plant This: Turk’s cap

Death Star-adapted plants tend to be small-leaved and airy, the better to retain precious water. But our native Turk’s cap (Malvaviscus arboreus var. drummondii) defies that expectation with vaguely heart-shaped leaves the size of a napkin scrounged out of your car’s glove box, and just as crinkled.

For the foliage alone, which the deer ignore in my garden, Turk’s cap would be worth planting. But the twisted, tomato-red flowers that blaze among the leaves from late spring through fall make Turk’s cap one of my favorite perennials for shade or part sun. Hummingbirds adore these blossoms, and you’ll see them zipping around for a drink all summer long.

Turk’s cap will grow in either sun or shade, although it can look wilted by the end of the day in full sun. For that reason I prefer to give it afternoon shade. If you garden under live oaks, as I do, you’ll find Turk’s cap thrives in those conditions. This photo was taken in Tucson, Arizona, showing that Turk’s cap can be grown west of its native range.

Flowers give way to small, red fruits around Thanksgiving, which birds enjoy. It dies to the ground after a hard freeze, and I usually leave the stems standing until my mid-February cut-back, when I prune them to about 6 inches. This year I’m finding a lot of Turk’s cap seedlings in my island bed out front, but they pull easily.

In my garden, Turk’s cap grows to about 4 or 5 feet high and 3 to 4 feet wide, and it pairs nicely with bamboo muhly (Muhlenbergia dumosa) in sunnier spots and inland sea oats (Chasmanthium latifolium) in shadier ones. It’s said to be root-hardy to zone 7b.

If the standard red Turk’s cap is old hat for you, you might enjoy trying other cultivars, like the pink ‘Pam Puryear’, also called ‘Pam’s Pink’, or the hard-to-find and harder-to-grow (at least for me) white Turk’s cap. There’s also a variety from Mexico called ‘Big Momma’, whose red flowers are larger and showier.

Note: My Plant This posts are written primarily for gardeners in central Texas. The plants I recommend are ones I’ve grown myself and have direct experience with. I wish I could provide more information about how these plants might perform in other parts of the country, but gardening knowledge is local. Consider checking your local online gardening forums to see if a particular plant might work in your region.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

I heart foliage! July Foliage Follow-Up

This month for Foliage Follow-Up I’m wearing my heart on my sleeve — well, on my garden anyway. This is one of my favorite combos in the front garden right now: feathery, chartreuse bamboo muhly grass (Muhlenbergia dumosa); spiky, star-shaped ‘Burgundy Ice’ dyckia; and lace-textured white skullcap (Scutellaria suffrutescens ‘White’). My deer show no interest in any of these, but I sure love them.

So what leafy love is going on in your July garden? Please join me for Foliage Follow-Up, giving foliage its due on the day after Bloom Day. Leave a link to your post in a comment below. I really appreciate it if you’ll also link to my post in your own — sharing link love! If you can’t post so soon after Bloom Day, no worries. Just leave your link when you get to it. I look forward to seeing your foliage faves.

All material © 2006-2015 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.