The Zilker Holiday Tree

In winter it can be hard to find colorful blooms out in nature, but in Austin there’s a great alternative — the Zilker Holiday Tree. When I think of Austin traditions, this one tops the list. Towering at 155-feet tall, people have been spinning under its spiraling rainbows since 1967.


Just staying still underneath, one can stay mesmerized by the lights above. 

zhtb12-19-09.jpgAnd while that’s quite pleasant, you’ve just got to do more. It’s all about the spin, baby, the spin. And it’s a chance for even the grown-ups to be kids again.


And then the colors come alive…


And if you get dizzy and fall down, that’s bonus. The goal, actually.


This year, people handed out free rainbow glasses, and the fun turned psychedelic!

With single glasses…

And double glasses….

zhti12-19-09.jpgIt’s possible the same effect could be achieved with enough of the proper egg nog. 


The Zilker Holiday Tree has long been combined with another Austin tradition, the mile-long Trail of Lights. However, in search of less costly and greener options, the city’s new more eco-conscious 1/2-mile Festival of Lights to me is a happy improvement.

It combines the best of the best of the Trail of Lights displays with a shorter walk and a mildly hilly, woody, and quite attractive setting for the lights.

zhtm12-19-09.jpgI admit to missing some of the light-effects and one of my favorite displays, the ice statues (which have been used instead for stage decorations this year), but all in all, I much prefer the new trail, and that it’s more energy-wise makes for a feel-good feeling. The dinosaur family is still there, yay — my other favorite.

The classics were all there, including the armadillos, Space Santa, Winnie the Pooh, Hey Diddle Diddle, and more. And by the 12 Days of Christmas display, walkers-by could be heard singing the song as they went along. Ooh, I made a rhyme.

And on a chilly night, the yule log makes one toasty warm. Kettle corn, hot cocoa, funnel cakes, and more. Fun and yum.

Happy holidays, everyone. Safe travels to those on the move and groove!


School Habitat Project officially underway!

With students, teachers, and parents on board, my son’s elementary school is officially getting focused on wildlife habitats. We’ve got a community project planned for the third- and fourth-graders for the Legacy of Giving program, and if all goes well we’ll have a new butterfly and hummingbird garden planted in the spring, culminating in dedicating the school as a certified Schoolyard Habitat with the National Wildlife Federation on Earth Day.


schoolhabitatboardb.jpgI’ve really been thrilled with the enthusiasm everyone has had about the habitat project. What makes me happiest is seeing how excited the kids are. Just wait until the wildlife finds about it!

Gawking at the Hawk

rthawk12-17-09.jpgAs my kids and I drove into our subdivision, a red-tailed hawk swooped in from above, landing on a telephone pole. We realized it wasn’t alone — it had captured a tiny rodent and was settling in for its mini-feast. It took about 1.5 seconds for us to decide to rush home for the camera and rush right back.


I have to say that it was a challenge to take photographs without going “Ewwwwww” everytime the hawk pulled out some sort of entrail. 

San Miguel de Allende, The Heart of Mexico

When my sister became engaged this past year, she and her fiancé decided to get married in historic San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. And so we traveled there in October to enjoy several wonderful days with family and friends, culminating in my sister’s beautiful wedding to her groom.

sma2009.jpgSan Miguel is often referred to as the Heart of Mexico, partly because of its central location. But its role in Mexican independence, its religious icons and festivals, its historic value, its impressive art, and its sheer beauty and tranquility have all made San Miguel a truly beloved city. The lure of San Miguel is powerful — from the moment we arrived, we understood why it draws in people from all over Mexico and visitors from all over the world.


Declared a Historic Monument in 1926, San Miguel is still webbed by old narrow cobblestone streets that require good walking shoes to traverse. Its colonial buildings and roads are untainted by neon signs or traffic lights.

The colorful buildings are sometimes in disrepair in appearance, but a finished look is not often a priority.

Behind unremarkable exterior doors are often spectacular garden-filled courtyards, complete with gorgeous fountains.

El Jardin is the central plaza of San Miguel and the gathering place for residents and visitors alike.

Towering over El Jardin is the most famous landmark of the city, the Parroquia. This historic church has a pink, Gothic-like façade that seems in contrast to the traditional colonial aspects of town, but the design of the façade is remarkable. It was designed by an untrained, illiterate but very skilled master stone mason who based his plans on postcards of gothic cathedrals from Europe.  


For major festivities like those honoring San Miguel Arcángel, the town’s namesake, tall platforms called xuchiles are carefully constructed and carried to the church.

They are made of intricately woven bits of cucharilla (“little spoon cactus”), juniper, and marigold set on a structure of bamboo-like strips.

smk2009.jpgInside, the Parroquia holds historic statues and murals, often simple in nature, with remarkable arched ceilings of brick and stone.

There are many other churches throughout San Miguel, including the Templo de Las Monjas. The dome of this church was designed by the same stone mason who designed the Parroquia façade. This dome is based on the Les Invalides in Paris.

Within the Oratorio de San Felipe de Neri tower, you can see some of the many church bells that ring throughout San Miguel at any given time of day or night, be it for mass, fiestas, saints’ days, or other events. During our visit, we were woken up by constant bell-ringing, fireworks, mariachi bands, and cheers at 6 a.m. Sunday morning. Yes, you read that right.

Walking through town, evidence of outstanding craftsmanship can be seen all around — exquite wood carvings, metalwork, stonework, and more leave passersby in awe.

Take, for example, the door and stonework of one of the most famous buildings in San Miguel, the Canal house, the former colonial home of a very wealthy family.

But beautiful works can be seen all through town.

While countless shops line the cobblestone streets of central San Miguel, many visitors prefer to shop at the vendors found in the Mercado.

And as one would expect, the food is fantastic in San Miguel. I can say that I couldn’t get enough of the finest guacamole and freshest tortilla chips I’ve ever had. Below is a tamale wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn husks. I’ll be honest about this particular dish —  I think they overcooked mine — but I loved that it was so different from the ones we get in the U.S.

smzf2009.jpgAnd you know there were margaritas to be had.

The surrounding countryside is rugged terrain. Evidence of erosion through drought and grazing is visible. In fact, the area is in a severe drought, but those fountains still run throughout town.

Brightly colored flowers cover walls, fill pots, sweep across rooftops, and decorate open spaces.

But I couldn’t get enough of the cactus.
Driving through the countryside, one does a bit of a double-take when realizing that the trees in the fields are actual cactus. They grow taller than the mesquite trees. I believe the species is Opuntia ficus-india. Some of these cactus trees could also be found in gardens.

This cactus had the largest pads I’ve ever seen.

smz2009.jpgAlso awe-worthy were the agave, growing 8+ feet tall.

Orange blooms sometimes grew from the tops of mesquite trees, but sadly they are from a kind of mistletoe, Psittacanthus schiedeanus, a parasite that will likely eventually kill the tree.

Cattle sometimes strolled by, as did dogs. Dogs in Mexico often run loose, in town, on ranches, and along the road. They were so much nicer than our barking American dogs stuck on leashes.

We did get to see a bunny, too, and burroes, and this black widow (found as my sister got ready for her wedding — oh, life’s amusing tricks!). At least I think it’s a black widow — I didn’t try to get it to roll over so I could clearly check for an hourglass.


Our wedding group was fortunate to be able to tour a couple of private homes filled with art. This home was as creative in architecture as the art inside and around the gardens.

This puppy could melt the heart of anyone.

At a second home, beautiful mosaics and other art covered walls, counters, roofs, and floors — even the fireplace.

Its whimsical style and gardens reminded me so much of Austin, I felt right at home.


This flowering plant was my favorite of the trip — it is called Spanish Flag Vine, or Exotic Love Vine (Ipomoea lobata). From what I read, it would have to be grown as an annual in Austin.

smzv2009.jpgsmzs2009.jpgsmzt2009.jpgWhole walls and fences were sometimes created out of organo cactus (organ pipe).

smzz2009.jpgsmzx2009.jpgOur family and friends had a delightful trip, and the wedding was intimate and beautiful. San Miguel has another reason to be called the Heart of Mexico — it steals the heart of anyone who visits it.


And for a few glorious minutes today, it snowed. Flurries drifting through the air in the middle of the day — that’s a sight rarely seen here in Austin. Most of the time that it snows here, it sneaks in during the middle of the night or early morning.

I was at the gym, mourning my missing yoga pants — I’d left them at home in a rush to get to my spin class. So in cycling shorts I got to spin, take a yoga class, run an errand, and get lunch, all the while with people looking at me strangely that I’d be in shorts in such cold, cold weather. But as I headed back to my car, beautify wispy bits of white snow began to drift down. Watching them float through the air was mesmerizing. Soon there was enough that I had to turn on my windshield wipers to see the lane in front of me. And as I approached my subdivision and nice warm house, the snow faded away. Coincidence? I think not.

By the way, I also accidentally left my yoga mat at home. Guess what happened to it in a house with three dogs?

Repeat After Me

The hours I spent in the cold today making sure soil was wet and tender plants were covered in sheets and blankets — and all the hauling of container plants my family did — were worth it because:

  • We love our plants. We do.
  • The plants that survive will feed creatures to come and will make our yard a happy place come spring.
  • The plants cost a lot at the nursery, and it would also cost a lot to replace them.
  • It’s a good way to use all those old sheets we had.
  • That was a lot of rocky soil we had to dig through to get those plants in the ground.
  • The majority of the young plants are native, and if they can make it through this winter, they are more likely to make it later, too.
  • If they make it and grow to be big and strong, someday I won’t have to take such precautions to protect them.
  • Those that are having to brave the cold without a sheet to cover them — well, that which hurts us makes us stronger, right?
  • If it doesn’t snow with this cold front, I can always hope for snow in a few days when we get to do this all over again.
  • And someday when it’s warmer again and I don’t have to cover plants with sheets —  I’ll like gardening again and be oh so grateful I spent all this time nurturing them.

You people with several months of snow should be grateful that you don’t have to go through plant protection again.. and again… and again… with ups and downs in temperature!