Visiting plant nurseries is a passion of mine, as my good friend Matt Biggs (co host on our last Cruise around the Caribbean) knows. Just because you can’t always buy plants doesn’t mean that nursery visiting isn’t on the cards. Nursery visiting in the Caribbean is essential for me as it is so exciting – there are always new and unknown plants to tantalize the senses. To be honest, I would rather go and visit a nursery than spend a day on the beach! Strange you might think, especially as there is so much sparkling azure blue water around – an afternoon of bobbing up and down in the sea is about as much as I can take before the urge to go and see new plants takes hold again! In some ways, I think I prefer visiting nurseries to gardens as this is where new and existing plants can be found and drooled over, hence visiting plant nurseries in tropical countries is – de rigueur – as they are such a far cry from the mandatory roses, lupines and hollyhocks of an English garden centre with all the non-gardening paraphernalia they sell. All I want to see is the plants – that’s how it used to be in England only a few decades ago! Of course, there are a growing number of nurseries in the UK that retail tender and hardy tropical’s, with most selling an almost identical range, though there are a few that excel in trying to obtain genuinely new and unknown plants to stimulate the exotically oriented mind.
Obviously very few of the plants encountered in the tropics can be grown outside in the UK, though a good handful can certainly be grown to perfection during the summer months, with many tropical’s taking much lower temperature than might be expected for such ravishingly beautiful plants. For me, being in a plant nursery in the tropics is almost akin to visiting another planet with such strange, alluring and often unknown flora.
On our voyage around eleven islands we visited several interesting nurseries, but one in particular always stands out above the others – ‘St Rose Nursery of Exotic Plants’ on the green and very tropical island of Grenada, one of the Grenadine islands in the south eastern Caribbean. This ridiculously tropical nursery is the equivalent of walking into a daydream of delights, a veritable sweet shop for the senses. ‘St Rose Nursery’ nestles on the edge of a humid rainforest some 700 feet above sea level overlooked by a green and impenetrable jungle ridge, which is itself overlooked by 1712 ft high Mt. Maitland. This plant Mecca is owned by the inimitable and well tanned John Criswick, an accomplished plantsman who came to Grenada from England in the 1960s and has lived here ever since. Would he ever live back in England? No – though he does visit the RHS Chelsea Flower Show regularly. Grenada’s pavilion at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show 2010 won yet another coveted Gold Medal with many of his plants and flowers adorning the stand. John Criswick sells plants to every garden worth its salt on Grenada and the neighbouring islands. He has also sold plants to Anthony Hunt at Huntes’ garden in Barbados which I will be writing about in my next blog. I asked him if he had many visitors. He said that if nobody visited at all he would still run his garden and nursery as he enjoyed it so much – it is a way of life. I think that only the really dedicated come here as it is so far of the beaten track seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but for those who adore plants it’s a must.
It is a 25 minute or so meandering taxi ride from St Georges, the capital and port. Our taxi driver seems to know virtually everyone as we make our way past typical Caribbean style brightly coloured dwellings with friendly faces everywhere. Some of the houses are almost shacks, but with year round heat these buildings never-the less look attractive, surrounded by tropical plants that are almost climbing through the windows and doorways. Being a fully tropical island everything grows at breakneck speed – push a stick into the ground and it will root almost before your eyes!
From the taxi drop off point it’s a short walk for about 100 yards down a fairly steep pot-holed single track road to the entrance which is almost indistinguishable from its tropical surroundings. The large wire mesh fence that surrounds the entrance is covered in razor wire and across the top of the gates! I’m not sure if this is to keep would be plant thieves out or all the plants in! The gates are flung open from 8am to 4pm every day except Sunday – says the large blue sign on the tall chain link fence to the left of the gate.
The entrance fee is $10 or free if you buy a plant. Passing through the gates feels like walking into the Palm House at Kew Gardens, but on steroids as the tall palms are draped thickly with Philodendrons and other mysterious tropical climbers.
The garden and nursery are virtually intertwined as there seems to be no particular defining edge; even the dense tropical forest is creeping in at the indistinguishable borders. No wonder the gardeners -nurserymen or whatever they are called, all seem to be carrying machetes – it gives you quite an odd feeling when you only have a camera! The colours of the flowers are not always the dominant feature but those that are tend to be intensely vibrant. Much of the foliage is ridiculously colourful, almost pulsating in the sticky heat. There is a large tree in the middle of the nursery area and one of the workers said it was an apple tree, though not the sort I had ever encountered Before. It’s common name is ‘Golden Apple’, Spondias cytherea. It was huge and certainly didn’t have apples on it, but rather an interesting fruit that he was harvesting way up high amongst the branches.
John lives in a one story wooden Caribbean style house with a steeply sloping oxide-red tin roof. The wooden walls are pale creamy-yellow with pale blue window frames surrounding closed louvered shutters to keep it cool during the day. The nursery and garden encroach his dwelling in a profusion of luscious huge leaved plants and trailing vines. Enormous towering gingers, kaleidoscopically coloured Crotons, gigantic bamboos and dusky Bromeliads envelop the garden with countless shrubs, twiners and sprawlers I couldn’t even begin to name!
Unfortunately the Caribbean is prey to hurricanes and I had the privilege of visiting the island in 2004 only six weeks after Hurricane Ivan – the 10th most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded hit the island causing an incredible amount of damage. I remember the jungle being flattened as though all the trees were made of match sticks. It also decimated ‘St Rose Nursery’, snapping many of the trees and giant bamboos as well as blowing all of John Criswick’s shade houses down. Today though everything has grown back to the point that, unless you lived through it, you might be forgiven for thinking that it never happened.
Rather than me waffling on for ages about this amazing place, here is a selection of photographs of this magical part of Grenada created by an Englishman very much in his own element who tells me that he will never go back to live in chilly England and why would he want to anyway!
St Rose Nursery ~ PO Box 21, St George’s, Grenada, West Indies ~ Tel: 473 440 5870 ~ Contact: John Criswick ~ E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org ~ Speciality: Indoor & Outdoor Container Grown Plants…