Beyond the din, lush gardens reveal a nation's quieter nature

Senior editor Jorge Sidron spent five days touring Jamaica's botanical gardens and its great houses. His report follows:

Jamaica's deep roots. KINGSTON, Jamaica -- Everyone knows Jamaica as the land of sun, sea and reggae; Red Stripe beer and ganja, and won't-take-no-for-an-answer street vendors.

The frenetic hustle and bustle of daily life is everywhere -- from the markets of Kingston to the streets of the major tourist destinations. Hagglers apply high-pressure selling tactics, and the pulse of the boom box is always within earshot.

However, I discovered a quieter side to Jamaica, with stately plantation houses from the 1700s -- several of which welcome overnight guests -- and tropical gardens that beckon visitors with flowering plants and towering trees. My introduction to the gardens began with a lecture by Swiss-born Andreas Oberli, project director for the National Arboretum Foundation, a group whose main focus is to restore and rehabilitate the island's gardens.

In Jamaica since 1981, Oberli organizes public seminars and guides groups on off-the-beaten-path tours of Jamaica's mountains and gardens. Oberli prefers to work with small groups, generally no more than eight clients. He charges about $300 to $400 per group, per day, including transportation. If clients have a specific interest, such as bird-watching, Oberli will book an ornithologist to accompany the group.

Jamaica's plant diversity is the largest in the Caribbean, according to Oberli, with 3,800 species of flowering plants, including close to 1,000 endemic varieties, more than 200 species of orchids (of which 30 are endemic), 500 species of ferns and 10 varieties of cacti. He said Jamaica's plant richness is due to its varied topography and geography, which include a cloud forest (in the Blue Mountains), wetlands and tropical dry forests.

Jamaica's public gardens were created to encourage the island's agricultural development. Most of the food crops were originally imported, like breadfruit shipped by Capt. Bligh and mangoes from the South Seas. According to Oberli, the gardens also served as plant-introduction centers -- places where nonindigenous plants could be grown.

Jamaica's first botanical garden was at Spring Garden near Gordon Town in St. Andrew. The garden belonged to Hinton East, a Jamaican of English descent who established 600 species of nonindigenous plants in Jamaica. The plants were brought by sailing ships from Brazil, Sweden and Japan. For 17 years, East introduced a number of plants from his own overseas trips.

Oberli joined our group for a tour of Hope Botanical Gardens, not far from our hotel in Kingston at the top of Old Hope Road. Established in 1881, Hope Gardens is perhaps Jamaica's best known public garden, comprising 150 acres of green lawns flanked by royal palms and dotted with bougainvillaea.

Many varieties of plants and trees abound, including eucalyptus from Tasmania, Jamaican red birch, mauve jacaranda from Brazil and yoke wood, which is native to Jamaica. Admission to Hope Gardens is free, although clients should hire a guide to understand the garden's bounty.

Despite its claim as the queen of Jamaica's public gardens, the grounds lacked signs to identify plants and trees. My overall impression was that Hope Gardens had seen better days. Oberli had touched upon this during his lecture. "Jamaica can afford to have higher standards for its gardens. There are poorly trained guides, poor signs and poor brochures, if any. [The gardens are] not up to par, although they're worthwhile," he said.

Dallas Castle Gardens, a quaint private home-turned- restaurant/art gallery in the Blue Mountains, was our next stop.

A great spot for a getaway from Kingston or for an outing from Port Royal, Dallas Castle invites visitors to lounge on its lawns and stroll its informal gardens. For about $22 per person, guests can enjoy lunch or dinner (by reservation only) on a patio overlooking a lawn that rolls down to a river.

On request, the staff will also set up a dining table near the river. I lunched on a Jamaican feast of jerk barbecue chicken, fried red snapper, peas and rice, ackee, boiled plantain and Sara Lee cheesecake. My group christened a freshly squeezed drink made from a local citrus fruit as the Dallas Garden Punch. Stephen Jones, manager, said Dallas Castle "is perfect for a business group from Kingston who wants a mountain escape."

While traveling from Kingston to Ocho Rios, we stopped at a colorful roadside fruit stand to sample the fare, which included jackfruit (a sweet fruit that tasted like pineapple), naseberry (a round fruit resembling a kiwi on the outside with brown flesh on the inside), bananas, coconuts, oranges and ackee.

Our next stop was Shaw Park Botanical Gardens in Ocho Rios, where I spotted my first red-billed streamertail. This is the national bird of Jamaica, which locals call the doctor bird because its forked tail is twice as long as its body and resembles smocks worn by doctors. A hummingbird with a bright green body hovered near a bush of heliconias, one of the many ornamental tropical plants in the park.

Next on the garden route was a tour of Cranbrook Flower Forest led by owner Ivan Linton. A private garden, the 130-acre park is 20 years old but was opened to the public in May 1998. Admission is $6 for adults. A typical two-hour tour of Cranbrook starts at the greenhouse and ends with a dip in a swimming hole fed by a waterfall.

Along the way are orchids, palms, geraniums and lilies.

Linton, who oversees the park with the help of 30 employees, said Cranbrook was designed as a "hideaway for Jamaicans to come as families and cook and spend the day together." In addition to several outdoor grills, the park has a lawn for picnics, volleyball or informal soccer games.

Linton is one of dozens of Jamaicans who welcome visitors to their private gardens, which represent a sense of refinement and are a symbol of national pride. A visitor asked Linton his secret to growing such a beautiful garden. "What does not grow, we let die. What dies, we bury," he said.

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