Cathedrals, crabs and Vitamin C

Gardening in the Barbados by Robyn Booth

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to volunteer at Andromeda Botanic Garden in Barbados. It’s a gem of a garden which is also playing an important role in the everyday lives of Bajans. Approximately seven acres of lush planting, winding brick paths and towering tropical trees can be found at the top of a hill in Bathsheba, a village on Barbados’ rugged East coast.

In the 1950s, founder Iris Bannochie created a private botanic garden. A self-taught scientist, Iris became the leading horticulturalist on Barbados, publishing various scientific papers on a range of topics, including research on the vitamin c content of the Barbadian cherry tree. The garden first opened to the public in the 1970s and was bequeathed to the Barbados National Trust in 1988. Its collection of over 600 plants from Asia, South America and other parts of the Caribbean forms an astonishing visual display.

My first view of Andromeda (c) Robyn Booth

Having never visited a garden in the tropics before, this place was full of wow moments for me. One plant that stopped me in my tracks to gaze in awe was a 250 year old bearded fig (Ficus citrifolia). It felt like a living cathedral as I wandered through and round it, the dangling aerial roots hanging like brown wires to the floor. Regular trims are necessary so it doesn’t
take over the whole garden.

Ficus citrifolia– Bearded Fig (c) Robyn Booth

One that I would love to be able to grow back in the UK was Allamanda blanchetii, also known as the rubber vine. Native to Brazil, I couldn’t get enough of its enormous bright rose-coloured flowers and had visions of how wonderful it would look grown over pergolas and archways.

Allamanda blanchettii (c) Robyn Booth

The Palm Garden has a magical atmosphere that makes you stop and linger to marvel at the texture of bark and frond. At times, as you wander through the garden, you feel as though
you’re just one step away from being enveloped in tropical forest. Obscured boundaries and dense planting make it hard to get a true sense of the garden’s scale, and there are many tempting areas to explore off the main route.

The Palm Garden (c) Robyn Booth

Without the passion and drive of its curator Sharon Cooke, I suspect the survival of Andromeda would be very much in doubt. Together with her small team, the management and development of the garden is foremost, especially the desire to be a resource for the local community.

The ethnobotanical garden within Andromeda is a passion project for Sharon and a crucial way to help connect Bajans with their heritage. Space for this area was found in an unused and overgrown part of the garden. This was then cleared, and planting began just over a year ago. It focuses on the traditional uses of a range of plants including Aloe vera, Kalanchoe pinnata (also known as ‘wonder of the world’ for its wide range of medicinal benefits), and Ocimum campechianum (an antimicrobial). 

Bixa orellana-Annatto or lipstick tree – dyes from the seeds were used by indigenous people of the island for courtship and other rituals. Also used for food dyes and as an insect repellent. (c) Robyn Booth

This part of the garden has now become a place for the community to learn and share stories about the plants used by their families for generations. In so doing, it ensures that these stories are preserved and valued. The hope is that locals will be able to come and pick what they need for their own use, making this garden a place of real relevance to people’s everyday lives.

In partnership with Dr Sonia Peter, (Director of Biocultural Education Research Programme, a non-profit focusing on conserving local plant biodiversity), people can attend workshops and learn not just about remedies from the past such as bush teas, but also the ways in which modern science has backed up the traditional knowledge around some of these plants.

Gardening in such a beautiful location is not without its challenges, however. One of the biggest pests are the monkeys that are generally most active early in the morning. These are an invasive species brought over in ships during the 17th and 18th centuries. Whilst they are amazing to see as a visitor, they cause the garden team no end of headaches due to their destructive and messy nature. Flowers and leaves can be ripped up and discarded all over paths, whilst fruit trees are stripped long before anyone else gets chance to harvest anything! Sharon explained to me that they are also damaging to indigenous wildlife, gobbling up everything from lizards and butterflies to eggs and fledglings.

Looking after the soil is a huge part of any garden and it’s no different here at Andromeda. Being quite clay based, during the dry season the soil has a tendency to dry out and crack, so occasional irrigation is necessary using water from ponds and streams within the garden. Sheep manure is used as a fertiliser, but this has to be incorporated into the first inch or so and not be spread over the top as a mulch. This is because the tropical heat would burn off much of the nutrients before they’d had chance to work their way into the soil.

Another way of adding goodness is using Tithonia diversifolia, or Mexican sunflower. This plant’s stems and leaves are so rich in nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous that it can be chopped up and incorporated into the soil, then left to break down and work its magic. Alternatively, a liquid feed can be made up in the same way as comfrey might be used back in the UK. During my time at Andromeda, I was lucky enough to get involved in a range of practical tasks including cutting back and weeding, (a daunting prospect when you don’t recognise any of the weeds!), propagation such as taking cuttings and air layering, and assisting the other students with cataloguing the collection.

Propagation area (c) Robyn Booth

Air layering was a completely new skill for me, and it was amazing to get the chance to practice something I’ve only ever read about. It’s a great way to propagate a range of trees and shrubs, and in a tropical climate rooting may only take a matter of weeks. We spent a full morning propagating Ixora coccinea in this way. Head Gardener Troy and visiting student James talked me through the technique.

First, a cut is made with a sharp knife through a node, all the way around the stem. Then, a second cut is made a few centimetres below this one. The outer layer of bark is peeled away to reveal the cambium, and this wound is packed with a mixture of peat-based compost mixed with perlite and lots of water.

Air-layering- a cut made and bark removed to expose the cambium. (c) Robyn Booth

A small handful of the compost mixture is placed onto the middle of a square of tin foil, and this is wrapped around the wound, tightened at the bottom first and then squeezed onto the stem before being tightened around the top. It’s important that the compost is making good contact with the stem. All being well, within a few weeks the little foil parcel will have hardened – this is a sign that roots have formed, and sometimes they can even be seen peeking out. This is a great way to ensure a decent sized plant can then be cut off from the parent and used elsewhere in the garden.Whilst an alternative to peat is being sourced for the future, for now it’s a useful medium that holds enough moisture for a long enough period so that roots can form. This technique can be seen on a range of plants in the garden and proves to be a useful talking point for visitors.

Air-layering, the wound is packed with compost and wrapped in foil for several weeks. (c) Robyn Booth

Each morning ‘the walk’ is carried out by a member of staff. They wander through the garden to cut back any dead or dying leaves and generally make sure everything is looking its best before visitors start arriving. I joined Troy on his walk through the garden on my last day at Andromeda. We spent a bit of time cutting back Heliconias and Philodendron that were past their best, picking up the large, hand like leaves of the breadfruit tree and keeping our eyes peeled for anything untidy. Troy knows this garden so well and spotted anything amiss much quicker than I, but I did my best to get stuck in and whilst we worked, he told me about some of the traditional uses of the plants we came across.

Ixora coccinea (c) Robyn Booth

One that really fascinated me was the ‘fish poison tree’ (Barringtonia asiatica). This species of tree is native to tropical Asia as well as islands in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific. Its curious, four-sided fruits are shaped like a squared off green apple and grow in clusters. Troy explained that traditionally, the seeds within are ground up into a pulp or powder and this is placed in a woven basket. The basket and its contents are then rinsed through with water in a nearby river or stream, and the toxins in the powder stun any fish within range. They rise to the surface, enabling the larger fish to be caught, and any that are too small left to recover and swim away. On our walk we also spotted enormous tropical almonds that had been scattered over the garden paths by bats, and we accidentally disturbed a hermit crab as we cut back a stand of Heliconia. I’d assumed they lived on beaches, but Troy said they only went there to lay their eggs and that quite a few could be spotted carefully picking their way through the garden from time to time. It seemed to vibrate menacingly in its shell, perhaps to warn us to give it some space!

Although I was only able to spend a short time volunteering at Andromeda, it was an incredibly eye-opening experience and an amazing garden to learn in. The variety of plants, the beautiful way in which they’re put together and the knowledge and passion of its team make it somewhere truly special. If you’re looking to find somewhere that will get you out of your comfort zone and expand your horticultural horizons, then this garden is a must-visit place.

© Robyn Booth 2023
Robyn is a Gardener at NT Packwood House.