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.
The 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.