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)