The garden on the rocks

Debbie Jacob strolls through the Andromeda Gardens of Barbados

  • A close-up shot of the jade vine. It blooms every year from February to the end of May. Photograph courtesy Andromeda Gardens/Jemima Stuart
  • An area above the pond showing pink tip cordelyne, palms, chinaman’s hats (orange) and cat’s whiskers (white). Photograph courtesy Andromeda Gardens/Jemima Stuart
  • The bridge over the lily pond and the weeping willow. Photograph courtesy Andromeda Gardens/Jemima Stuart

With a name like hers, you might have predicted that Iris Bannochie would have developed a passion for flowers in her lifetime and even become a renowned horticulturist, but Bannochie exceeded everyone’s expectations. Her personal dream of a floral garden of mythical proportions turned into an unexpected gift to the people of Barbados, and a major tourist attraction as well. When she died in 1988, Bannochie left her beloved garden in the care of the National Trust. The gardens are also affiliated with the University of the West Indies, which uses Bannochie’s creation for research and education. Since her death, a steady stream of bird-lovers and flower enthusiasts has flocked to the Andromeda Botanic Gardens.

In 1954, Iris Bannochie began to shape her passion for flowers into a fragrant garden that wove its way through rocky terrain sloping down to the Atlantic Ocean in the picturesque village of Bathsheba, in St Joseph parish, on the eastern side of the island. Because Iris’s garden seemed to be chained to rocks, it became known as the Andromeda Botanic Gardens, named for the Greek myth about Andromeda, the girl whose mother bragged she was more beautiful than any sea nymph. Enraged by Queen Cassiopeia’s bravado, Poseidon demanded her parents sacrifice their daughter to a sea monster by chaining her to a cliff. Perseus rescued the princess and placed her in the sky.

The journey to the Andromeda Botanic Gardens is an historical treat in itself. Winding roads pass Gun Hill Signal Station, an early English lookout point established circa 1697. Look out for the white lion at the foot of the fort. He was carved from limestone by one of the military officers stationed there. The drive takes you past a sugar factory and onward towards the Atlantic Ocean, where rugged waves have shaped huge rocks like well-manicured bushes. Endless rows of banana trees line the hills climbing to the gardens.

Near the top of the hill, overlooking a breathtaking view of the ocean below, the Andromeda Botanic Gardens begin their delicate decline down the slope. Six acres of trees include breadfruit and date palms, with a dazzling variety of flowers, from the mystical and much maligned angels’ trumpets, in burnt orange, to fragrant frangipani, exotic purple and white orchids, and xerophytes, plants that adapt to the dry conditions and attract birds like a magnet.
Bannochie filled her garden, originally her beloved weekend retreat, with plants from all over the world: the octopus tree from Java – a towering evergreen that grows to 40 feet and produces crimson flowers – stands guard with the bilimbi, from Madagascar, with its edible gooseberry-like fruit. Bannochie had a taste for the exotic, planting papyrus, from which the ancient Egyptians made paper for Cleopatra to write on, and the bearded fig tree, found in Florida and South America. Its massive, creepy roots run like thick ropes down from its branches.

Bannochie also showcased Caribbean flora. She developed her own strain of heliconia, Heliconia stricta “Iris”.  These plants are related to bananas and gingers, and the garden prides itself on its work on the conservation of West Indian heliconias. Caribbean-based mammy-apple trees abound, along with representatives of our South American neighbours such as the calabash tree, coconut palms, and gooseberry trees. One of the most interesting trees representing the Americas is the Panama hat palm. It produces leaves that are cut into strips, bleached and woven together to make Panama hats, once popular for decades throughout much of the Caribbean.

There are two main walking paths to choose from in the Andromeda Botanic Gardens: Iris’s Walk and John’s Path. They can be graded as an easier and a more physically challenging hike. Some of the flowers, such as orchids and frangipani, can be viewed along both trails.

Iris’s Walk is the easy hike, which takes 20 to 30 minutes to complete. This gently sloping trail meanders through the terrain, creating the effect of Andromeda’s chains. The paths vary from cobblestone to carefully laid rocks or brick paths. Visitors cross small wooden bridges to view everything from southeast Asian ginger spice and ixoras, which are related to the gardenia. Lilies float on a pond. Chirping birds and a small waterfall cascading down the slope create an ambience worth soaking in.

The second hike, John’s Path, takes 45 minutes to an hour to complete, and has steeper hills to climb. John’s Path features more towering trees. Among them you’ll find the talipot palm from Sri Lanka and India, which boasts of being the most massive of all fan palms. The talipot palm grows to 75 – 90 feet and bears only once, when it is 25 – 50 years old. Looking like something out of the dinosaur age, this tree, whose leaves have a span of 15 – 20 feet, is sometimes used to make roofs in rural villages in India.

John’s Path also has its fair share of flowers, including the dove orchid, which piggybacks on the trunk of the frangipani, where it flowers exactly nine days after a heavy rain. Bougainvillea, with its brilliant spray of colours, pink, orange and purple, is commonly found in many West Indian yards, and blooms brilliantly in the Andromeda Gardens during the dry season. There are strange plants and trees like the Barbados gooseberry, originally from tropical America. This is really a cactus. If you happen to get caught in the rain, there’s no mistaking the garlic vine, from the odour it emits when wet.

A leisurely trip to the Andromeda Botanic Gardens is well worth the effort. You’ll need a full day if you’re going to take in the scenery on the way and take both hikes. There’s a small gift shop and café where you can sit and eat or order a picnic lunch to enjoy in the gardens. Iris’s Path could use more places to sit and enjoy the surroundings, but when you do find a spot, it’s worthy of a pause to marvel at the hummingbirds and listen to the chirping birds and waterfall tumbling towards the sea.

The Andromeda Botanic Gardens are a lush tropical paradise bursting with exotic charm, a unique way of bringing the world together, through the eclectic choice of trees and flowers that began with one woman’s extraordinary vision.
While in Barbados, Debbie Jacob stayed at the family-owned, oceanfront Rostrevor Hotel in St Lawrence Gap, the heart of Barbados’s nightlife. The hotel features air-conditioned efficiency apartment-style rooms, fully equipped kitchens, a terrace that overlooks the sea, cable TV, and wireless Internet. There’s a pool and access to a stretch of beach mere feet from the hotel rooms.