Tropical Garden Explorations Part 3:
A Passion for Palms

Lying on a beach under the shade of the waving fronds of a coconut tree….nothing says relaxation better than this image.   Pinch me; am I really in the Caribbean?   I look up and admire the way the leaves hang so languidly.  During this vacation, I have taken every opportunity to go exploring beyond the hotel compound and ask questions about tropical trees and exotic flowers.  In the process, I have stumbled upon the strange and wonderful world of palm trees and fallen madly in love.

I see them so differently than I first did, when I thought of them as all the same.  Every child can draw a generic palm tree but why is that so?  Simple!  A palm tree (any plant of the family Palmae or Arecaceae) has a cylindrical stem and no branches, simply large leaves coming from the crown.  The stem can be smoothor it can be patterned with scars of the leaves which have fallen off.  The leaf shape can be pinnate (feather-like or having smaller leaves on either side of a stem) or palmate (like the palm of the hand, having five or more lobes whose midribs all radiate from a single point).  All palm trees are monocotyledonous.  There is a single leaf inside the embryonic seed as it forms.  However, this simple description doesn’t tell the whole story.  Palm trees come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colours and growing habits.
After deliberation, I have narrowed my list to three favourite palms. The first pinnate is the sturdy Foxtail Palm(Wodyetia bifurcate).  Feathery green leaves, looking just like the tail of its namesake, the fox, arch gracefully from a smooth, slender stem.  Reputedly the world’s most widely-used landscape palm, foxtails are planted in sunny boulevards and along roads as they are resistant to pollution and easy to grow in most soils and situations.  This native of Australia, which can achieve a mature height of 25 to 30 feet, looks wonderful in groups.

The Areca palm (Chrysalidocarpus lutescens), also a pinnate, is familiar to North Americans.  It’s widely used in malls and offices to disguise an unsightly area or fill unneeded space.  Tropical gardeners will plant an Areca to give a feeling of privacy without blocking the view.   Many slim yellow stems grow in a tight cluster, similar to the way bamboo grows.   The Areca palm grows best in partly shaded environments, and can reach a height of 30 feet.

The massive Silver Bismarck Palm (Bismarckia nobilis), a native of Madagascar, is the most majestic of the three.  This striking gray-blue tree has large stiff palmate leaves shaped like stars at the end of stalks as long as 6 feet.  Eventually, the Bismarck resembles a gigantic flock of birds or a collection of fans, especially when viewed on a breezy day.    As the leaves split off or are pruned off, the stout base of the tree develops a criss-cross design from the scars because they are attached to the stem in a spiral pattern.  Landscape designers place one or two Bismarcks at the entrance of a grand hotel or villa for great impact.  This palm definitely creates a sense of arrival.  It starts off slowly but picks up speed once established in a mostly sunny spot.   At maturity, it is known to grow to 40 feet or more tall and 30 feet wide.

I feel as if I’m about to fall asleep under the tree.  Some say that to dream of palm trees is a sign of hope and peace.   I can understand why.

Tropical Garden Explorations Part 2:
Exotic Flowers of the Caribbean

The sun’s rays peeping through the louvered windows confuse me for just a second.  Overhead, a fan rotates lazily; I hear birds chirping and waves lapping.   Then I realize….I’m in the tropics, on a beautiful island, maybe Jamaica or Barbados.  The sky is bright, not overcast, and greenery, not snow, is everywhere.  This is the morning of our first long-awaited tropical garden tour.

“Welcome,” says Tyrone, our guide, in his melodious lilt.  “Today, we’ll have plenty of time to learn about the flowers on this estate…. Golden Chalice Vine, Shrimp Plant, Ixora, Desert Rose, Ginger Lily,  Parrot’s Beak, Coffee Rose, and more.”   The exotic names capture my curiosity immediately.  He promises to explain the flowers’ ideal growing conditions for anyone interested.   To a fanatic gardener, this is heaven.

He begins with the tropical climate.  “The island never experiences freezing temperatures.  Many of the plants we‘ll see today could not survive in your country, unless brought indoors or otherwise protected, because they’re not adapted to go into winter dormancy.”  I’m interested to learn there are distinct growing seasons here.   The best planting times are April and May, October and November, the periods of heavy rain.  Tourists commonly visit in the cooler months from December to March when there is absolutely no risk of hurricanes.   However, the hot, dry summer months have their own appeal; many plants, notably Bougainvillea (Bougainvillea spp.) and Oleander (Nerium oleander), produce more blooms in drought-like conditions.  I have already noticed walls and fences covered with colourful bougainvillea bracts; I can imagine their greater glory in July and August.  Graceful oleanders along the roadways will wave with even more pink, yellow and white flowers.

The area around the great house, which was built of imported cut limestone in the 18th century, is manicured and carefully tended.  Our guide patiently leads us on a path through the gardens.   Desert Rose (Adenium obesum), Golden Chalice Vine (Solandra maxima), Golden Shrimp Plant (Pachystachys lutea), Purple Allamanda (Allamanda blanchetii) and Hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) have been planted in open sunny areas.  I’m fascinated by the colours and varieties of hibiscus because I grow hardy ones at home.  Most hibiscus hybrids, especially doubles and triples, need more watering and attention than the hardier disease-resistant indigenous hibiscus with its pretty variegated leaf and simple red flower.

Tyrone gives botanical names, describes medicinal and herbal uses and tells traditional stories about the plants.    As we climb a hilly trail beside a stream to the less cultivated part of the property, we’re madly taking pictures and writing notes.   It may be relatively cool for the Caribbean, but I’m feeling warm.   Tyrone points out flowers thriving in the dappled shade of overhanging branches.  A large Ixora (Ixora coccinea) shrub is covered in clusters of bright red flowers.   The dark shiny leaves of the Coffee Rose shrub (Tabernaemontana divaricata) make its white flowers pop like rich camellias in a bride’s bouquet.  Clumps of breathtaking pink ginger lilies (Alpinia Purpurata), Bird of Paradise (Strelitzia spp.) and Parrot’s Beak Heliconia (Heliconia pendula) cause us to stop and click furiously.    These arresting flowers do well in shady, moist areas of the forest and well-composted home gardens.

The air becomes more humid.  Around the final bend, we hear the welcome sound of falling water.   We grab hold of vines to swing out into the cool pond for an unforgettable swim in the flower forest.   All refreshed for the return trip downhill, I ask permission to gather a few favourites.  Back at the villa, I arrange them on a large leaf and take pictures to share with my fellow garden enthusiasts.   Perhaps these images will entice them to join me in future tropical garden explorations… but first I’ll mail one off to Tyrone as a gesture of thanks.


Left to Right:  Coral Bougainvillea  (B. spectabilis ‘Kenyan Sunset’), yellow Oleander, red Frilly Hibiscus, purple Allamanda, orange Cape Honeysuckle(Tecomaria capensis)red Hibiscus, red and yellow Parrot’s Beak Heliconia, white Coffee Rose (partially hidden), yellow Shrimp plant, yellow Golden Chalice, pink Ginger Lily, mauve Bougainvillea, red Ixora, white Bougainvillea, pink Hibiscus, red Fringed Hibiscus (H. schizopetalus)


Tropical Garden Explorations Part 1:
History of the Hotel

Many Canadians are lured to the Caribbean by images of sunny white sand beaches.   Swaying coconut trees shade comfortable lounge chairs.  Ice tinkles in pink drinks.  The moon and stars rise over gently lapping water as you enjoy your evening meal on the cut stone seaside terrace.   Truly, this is the complete vacation scenario at a resort or villa….unless, like me, you’re an avid gardener who wants to explore the country to see what’s growing.  You craved more than the all-inclusive experience as you gawked at the green vegetation the moment the island came into view.

Using beautiful Jamaica as an example, whether you stay at a five-star hotel in Port Antonio or a hideaway in Negril, you’ll be surrounded by friendly people happy to advise about garden destinations.  Ask for what you’ve dreamed of: botanical garden, palm reserve, organic pineapple farm, sugar plantation, flower nursery, rainforest, bird sanctuary.   Arrange for a knowledgeable guide who will educate and entertain.  You might hear about Anansi the spider or about the wind in the bamboo.  The best time for photographs is early morning when the sun’s light is kinder to plant colours.   Dress in cotton clothing, travel light and stay hydrated. You’ll be astonished at the beauty and the biodiversity.

Visitors often start botanical explorations by asking which plants are indigenous.   Written records began with the arrival of Columbus in 1494, creating a baseline for knowledge of plants at that time.  However, Jamaica’s first gardens were planted by the Taino.  The Caribbean’s earliest people had likely carried seedlings and roots from the mainland when they migrated, over a thousand years ago. They cultivated starches: bitter cassava, sweet potato, maize, yam and arrowroot.   They also grew peppers and legumes such as peanuts, Lima and jack beans, all crops still grown to this day.

Calabash_Tree_edited-1The Spanish were astounded by the abundance of flora and asked the Taino about everything in sight.   Many Taino words are still commonly used today: guava, annatto, guinep, tobacco, potato, papaya, and cacao.   The coastline and ferny vine-covered forests were rich with exotic fruit: sweetsop, soursop, custard apple, sea grape, star apple, and naseberry.   Every tree and plant had a use, whether for medicine, seasoning, preserving, and body paint or hallucinogens.  Wild plantain (Heliconia caribatea) leaves were used for thatch roofing.  One unusual tree is the calabash (Crescentia cujete); its strong branches reach out in all directions, holding the big round fruit close.  Since Taino times, the ripe fruit has been dried to make bottles, scoops and musical instruments.  Columbus was amazed by the Tainos’ elaborate 50 foot canoes made from enormous silk cottonwood trees (Ceiba pentandra).   Each canoe held up to one hundred men; it’s clear that they traveled easily between islands.

Over the past five hundred years, many species have been introduced by traders, slaves and plant hunters.  In 1793, Captain Bligh transported 347 breadfruit trees (Artocarpus)to the Caribbean from the South Seas on the HMS Providence.  The British intended the fruit as cheap and easily grown food for slaves.  Tradition has it that the slaves rebelled against the taste and fed it to the wild pigs they had domesticated.   Today it is wildly popular for Sunday breakfast with the national dish, ackee and saltfish.

Ancient trees still stand in the Jamaican forest: imagine yourself beneath the hanging roots of a spreading banyan or beside a fully grown mahogany.  Want to give a treasured gift to a beloved gardener or to yourself?  Take a trip to the tropics and go memory-hunting with your camera.