Monday, September 20, 2010

High in the Blue Mountains, Jamaican Flowers and Gardens

Flowers and gardens are part of the rich tapestry of everyday life in the Caribbean, startling in their variety, vibrancy and colour for the first time visitor, but an element of the landscape it’s easy to become blasé about. Run of the mill even, and often overlooked. Every major city will usually have somewhere to while away time amongst unusual trees and plant life, a welcome oasis of tranquillity and calm amid the clamour of urban living. In Kingston Jamaica, the 200 acre Hope Gardens which were officially designated by the Queen in 1953 serve the purpose well and there are other long established havens beyond the city at Bath, Castleton and Cranbrook.

It’s probably true to say though that most of the populace will be oblivious to that holy grail of gardens due east, the stunning sanctuary at 5500 feet in the beguiling Blue Mountains and only 2.5 miles as the crow flies from the central ridge line. It’s impossible to know everywhere in the Caribbean of course and Jamaica casts a veil over its secret places better than most, but Cinchona Gardens has a definite other worldly feel, an ethereal ambience of swirling mists and strange new aromas. The stairway to heaven is never easy to locate either, it’s not the sort of spot you come across by savour the spirit of Cinchona you have to be committed to going...and be prepared for the rigours of the ascent and the occasional landslip.

Deep in coffee country, past Pine Grove, Guava Ridge and Mavis Bank and on towards the mystical heights of Clydesdale, a rough road suddenly veers upwards for two miles to the aptly named Top Mountain junction, from where an even steeper incline, riven with crevasse like gullies and channels to hinder weary hikers, leads to Cinchona, which commands an utterly spellbinding location on a remote bluff above the Yallahs and Green river valleys. It’s quite probably the highest botanical garden in the world (if anyone knows of another at a higher elevation let us know)

Its history and development is equally fascinating; European settlers encountered malaria on the first incursions along the coasts of Africa and Asia in the sixteenth century but it wasn’t until the wife of a Spanish nobleman, the Viceroy of Peru, was miraculously cured by a tea prepared from the bark of a cinchon tree, a native of the High Andes, by the Inca descended Quechua Indians that quinine was taken seriously as an extract. In 1868 seeds were brought from Kew Gardens in London and planted in conjunction with Assam tea but the dual project failed due to competition in India and the site slowly changed from a scientific arboretum to English country garden. By 1874 it was more a centre for orchid propagation under Kew’s William Nock and subsequently botanists arrived from all over the world to view night flowering shrubs and other magical visions in his glass palm-houses.

Sadly it fell into disrepair over many years, severely damaged as well by hurricanes, vandalism and general neglect. I was fortunate to discover this place almost thirty years ago when I was brought for an audience with Andreas Oberli, a Swiss botanist who had just been engaged as project manager to restore the gardens to their Victorian grandeur. Lloyd Stamp, keeper of the estate, has been here even longer and both are dedicated to the cause though Andreas lives in Kingston now. The uninhabited central Great House contained a large fireplace with a ton of dried wood, my first indication that it could get cold in the Caribbean and, though I came for an hour, I finished up staying three days such was the power of the experience.

That spirit still exists today, much of it down to these two latter day guardians. In the early 1980s Oberli dissuaded then Prime Minister Edward Seaga from developing it as his helicopter accessed private mountain club, and even observed another PNP politician Ronald Thwaites ordering his henchmen to dig up rare plants and bulbs to cart off to his own garden. Through all this, Cinchona has somehow survived, not intact, but forever changing; the 150 feet high Masson pines remain, a landmark even in the murkiest of light from as far away as Lime Tree Farm (a stupendous site in its own right several miles away, a working coffee farm and one of the best places to stay in the mountains) the Panorama walk too with its wonderful vistas of the Blue Mountain ridge and main peaks.

There are well tended lawns and flower beds and a lattice work of paths and walkways, interspersed with extraordinary tree specimens like eucalyptus, juniper, Japanese cedar, Chinese cypress, rubber trees, cork oak, incredible gold washed ferns and banks of hydrangea and azalea. At every turn, something new draws your eye. Nowhere is the term splendid isolation more fitting—for a new perspective on Kingston far below, here is somewhere to head for.

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