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Jamaica / Special Interests / Flowers & Gardens

By James Henderson

Jamaica is immensely beautiful and unbelievably fertile. It is so lush that you might almost expect a pencil to take root. It is also an island of exceptional geographical variety. While it is originally volcanic, parts of the island are also clad with limestone. It is far rainier in some areas of Jamaica than others. There are areas of rainforest and cloud forest but there are also very dry areas that look like savannah. About two fifths of the island is above a thousand feet in elevation. And of something over 3000 species of flowering plant, around 800 are endemic (including around 200 species of orchid), not found anywhere else in the world. There is plenty to keep anyone interested in flora hooked.

If the Arawak Indian word Xamayca ever actually meant ‘land of wood and water’ the description is extremely apt, because even now they are the principal features of the geography of the island. Almost the whole island is covered with forest and the rivers are extraordinary. There are dry limestone forests, where the trees grow out of a gnarled substrate of pitted rock and tend to be spindly with small leaves. Red birch and bauhinia grow here. There are even sections of Jamaica dry enough to have cacti, such as Portland Bight in the south, where there are also logwood and acacia trees. Then there are wet limestone forests, in the mountains and particularly in the rainier North-east, where the ground manages a small amount of earth. Here you find broadleaf trees that grow to over 100 feet, including West Indian cedar. Beneath them is a layer of shrubs such as thatch palms and bromeliads, as well as many of the orchids. The different types of forest attract different animals of course, including birdlife. On the coasts there are wetlands, tangles of mangroves that surround reed beds and stretches of brackish water and which attract a different wildlife again, including crocodiles and wading birds.

As you climb higher you come to montane forest (rainforest), where the large trees, such as the blue mahoe, are sometimes overgrown with bromeliads, ferns and ginger lilies. An estimated 60% of the species in the montane forest are endemic. And the elevation can have curious effects too. In the Blue Mountains they can grow crops as untropical as lettuce and strawberry. And above 5000 feet you pass into elfin forest, where the growth becomes stunted and the branches hang with wispy strings of old man’s beard.

Of course you can see some of the flora of Jamaica just by wandering around the gardens of your hotel or villa, but visiting botanical gardens in the Caribbean is always fascinating, even for people with very little interest in horticulture. Many of the plants have extraordinary stories of having been carried across the world by the plant hunters two centuries ago. The famous Captain Bligh may be remembered for his mutiny, but six years after the saga of the Bounty he succeeded in his mission, which was to bring breadfruit from the Pacific to the Caribbean where it was used to feed the slaves after a famine.

Plants you may well see in the botanical gardens include the lignum vitae tree (guiacum officinale), whose blossom is Jamaica’s national flower, a pretty cluster of blue to purple shaded blooms. The trees are very attractive, however traditionally they are also useful, as they have the densest wood in the world. It is so heavy that it sinks and was strong enough to replace metal parts in engines, such as ball bearings and even axles (if your tools were tough enough to fashion it, that is…). It is also used to make police truncheons. Translated, the Latin name means “wood of life”, as the tree is also known for its medicinal properties, and its gum resin is used in some drugs.

The national tree is the blue mahoe hibiscus elatus), a fast growing tree that can reach 60ft or more and which produces splendid hibiscus-like flowers that bloom bright yellow and then gradually change colour as they age, going golden, then orange and finally dark red before being shed. The wood of the blue mahoe is durable, and very attractive, and is often used for making furniture and carved objects.

Areas and gardens of note in Jamaica include:

Bath Gardens, near the eastern end of the island - The second oldest gardens in the Western hemisphere, created to propagate plants for food and cultivation, including the breadfruit.

Blue Mountain & John Crow Mountain National Park - A reserve around the Blue Mountain and other peaks, with a couple of orientation centres and fairy glade hill trail.

Castleton Botanic Gardens, on the Wag Water River north of Kingston - An old botanical garden originally used for the propagation of plants for plantations, now full of stories about the plants and their histories.

Cinchona Gardens, above Section, Blue Mountains - A garden first planted in 1868 with cinchona, from which quinine was extracted to treat malaria.

Cockpit Country, south of Falmouth - An extraordinary area of wet limestone forest, once so dangerous that it was called ‘the land of the Look Behind’, now interesting for its plants, caves and endemic birds.

Coyaba River Garden and Museum, Ocho Rios - A modern botanic garden above the town, lots of tropical flowers and trees. The museum shows St Ann’s Parish since Arawak times, in artefacts, maps, colonial pictures and local architecture.

Cranbrook Flower Forest, Laughlands, St Ann - Forty acres of landscaped gardens and walkways showing tropical plants and flowers and a section of rainforest. Also a hiking trail.

Fern Gully, above Ocho Rios - A delightful fertile cleft running down to the town (also a main road) overhung with a tangle of ferns and lianas, through which only angled shafts of light protrude.

Martin’s Hill Orchid Sanctuary, Kirkvine Manchester - A garden with over 100 of Jamaica’s 200 species of orchids on view.

Royal Botanic Gardens Hope (Hope Gardens), Kingston - More a park than botanical garden now, but a pleasant escape from the humdrum of the city. Also a small zoo.

Shaw Park Gardens, Ocho Rios - Lawns and multi-layered lily ponds and many flowering trees and bushes.

Non-profit organisations and Government links:

For further information see under Parks & Botanical Gardens Heritage Sites, Jamaica National Heritage Trust (JNHT), Headquarters House, 79 Duke Street, Kingston, t 922 1287-8/922 3990 | f 967 1703 | jnht@jnht.com | www.jnht.com

Contributors: Deana Bellamy

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Looking for inspiration?

  1. Sample some fiery jerk chicken or pork at one of the many stands in Boston - the home of jerk 
  2. Take a tour of Appleton Estate, Jamaica's oldest rum producer
  3. Spend the day exploring Dunn's River Falls & Park
  4. Enjoy a round of golf at one of Montego Bay's five, 18-hole courses
  5. Immerse yourself in local culture and pay a visit to the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston

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