I sit in my garden today, in the shade, out of the heat of a Dordogne sun, sipping a cool rosé from down the valley. I am surrounded by flowers – pink oleander, white lemon blossom, light purple June Roses (Lasgerstroemia, known as Crepe Myrtle in English or ‘Lilas d’été‘ in French), lavender, delicate pink Rain Tree blossoms (Albizia saman), roses, yellow and red and orange snapdragons. I could go on.
Shade is provided by a large oak, species unknown but too large to be scrub; two pollarded Indian Bean trees (I love their binomial- Catalpa bignonioides ); what I think is a small-leaved lime, also pollarded; and a grape arbor over the patio dining table, heavily laden with just-ripening purple and grey-green bunches .
Elsewhere, providing shade in other parts of the garden are two conifers, a willow, weeping beeches, horse-chestnut and more large oaks. And fruiting trees – apple, pear, a couple of cherries, hazelnut and a truly massive walnut.
I enjoy gardens, but not gardening. So, with the help of a young friend who does the heavy lifting, I do the minimum of work needed to keep this garden going. As a result it is still pretty much as I found it when I came here. A little has been subtracted here, something added there. There’s a copse of young trees on a hilly bit where only grass grew before; more shrubs, fewer bedding plants, but you wouldn’t not recognise the garden had you known it 15 years ago.
The oleander, June rose and Rain Tree blossoms take me back to the tropical garden of my childhood, my grandparents’ at Santa Elena, in the St Andrews foothills. These too grew in my grandparents’ garden
along with yellow allamanda; red poinsettia; bougainvillea in purple, and white and pink; single, double, triple and probably quadruple hibiscus rosa-sinensis in all its possible colours (its cousin the Hibiscus syriacus, or Rose of Sharon, grow in my Dordogne garden). There were beds of red and yellow haliconia, canna lilys and monkey tails. Hedges of Pride of Barbados (Caesalpinia pulcherrima); a fence covered in Mexican creeper; and, around the circular front drive , a low hedge of blue plumbago.
Of the trees, I remember a gigantic Flame of the Forest, to the left of the front driveway, and a very similar Royal Poinciana or Flamboyant to the right of it on the edge of the drive. You can see the branches and giant pods of the Poinciana in the picture. The pods became swords when my cousins and I went jousting! There was a yellow Poui, and two pink ones. My grandfather’s pride and joy was a Frangipani with great waxy ivory coloured flowers. We also boasted a Lignum Vitae which had delicate little blue flowers, and an Ebony, which burst into vivid yellow bloom as soon as the October rains began.
The back garden had orchards of oranges, tangerines and limes; one of paw-paws; yet another of avocodos. There were five mango trees: Bombay, St Julian, East Indian, hairy, and blackies if I remember correctly. And what every Jamaican house had, a breadfruit tree. There was a banana patch that also had plantains; beds of kalaloo and a couple of hills of pineapple. Up by the fence shared with the Commissioner of Police’s house, someone had planted a small bed of ganga, for medicinal purposes my grandmother maintained.
Most magical of all was an extremely tall, majestic yoke-wood tree that seemed to tower into the sky. Yoke-wood is a Catalpa longissima, sometimes called the Haitian Catalpa or Jamaican Oak.
Our yoke-wood was at least 150 years old, possibly 200. It was a youth when the land on which Santa Elena stood was part of a slave plantation on the Devon Plains. The tree must have been over 20m high and between 2m and 3m in diameter at its base. The lower trunk housed a small cave, hollowed out earlier in its life, probably by a fire caused by lightning strike. Despite the hollow base, the yoke-wood was strong and firmly grounded, and, but for the woodsman’s axe, would have outlived us.
The cave in the trunk of the yoke-wood was inhabited by my grandfather’s Dwendi, who had travelled with him from Belize in 1917, when the family first moved here. Dwendis normally live in rain forests, so our dwandi was quite happy with his cave in the Dwendi Tree.
If you look them up on a famous internet search engine (FISE), you will see dwendis described in the same terms as the yeti or bigfoot. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are in no way furry, but short and stubby, with ginger reddish hair. Probably just over a metre tall, they have very long arms, thumbless hands and long incisors that can be seen when they smile, which is rarely.
Although dwendis have a fearful reputation for attacking humans, and killing them when they can, living with one in the garden is quite safe provided you take a few basic precautions. Do not make loud noises in proximity of their homes; respect their privacy; and should you encounter one face to face, fold your thumbs into your palms so he, or she, cannot see them. For it is by their thumbs that dwendis recognise humans.
The garden at Santa Elena had no overall architect or designer, but its perfection was the combined genius of my grandmother and of my grandfather, each operating as a separate and individual creator with no reference to the other. How this worked was that each mid-morning, after my grandmother had finished her protracted piano practice, she would walk around the garden with the head gardener George and the under-gardener, Stanford, giving instructions for plantings here, diggings up there, dead-heading everywhere. In the late afternoon my grandfather would return from work and, after tea, would walk the garden with George and Stanford, giving instructions for plantings here, diggings up there, dead-heading everywhere.
Somehow, between the two sets of instructions, George and Stanford would work out a course of action, resolving conflicting wishes of the owners, and imposing on the garden a small foretaste of paradise. George was a long time family employee, now very old and without any visible teeth. He was of East Indian descent, but Jamaican to the core. East Indian descent didn’t mean that his ancestors came from Eastern India. Most probably they were Tamil from the South. He was East Indian to distinguish him from the real Indians, the West Indians. George was a very gentle man, who never lost his temper, loved plants, tolerated the company of small boys, and cooked a mean stew of pig’s trotters, salted pig tail, dumplings and gungu peas in an old kerosene tin over an open fire in the back garden.
Stanford was young, a teenager when he came to work for us. George taught him how to be a good gardener, how to graft plants, how to take cuttings, to prune and to plant. Stanford had the worst stammer in the world and should never have been named Stanford. But he lived with it, and never complained when callous boys teased him about it. He had a wicked sense of humour, and, when George wasn’t looking, would mix ganga with the kalaloo which George cooked to eat with the stew. When he was about 23, Stanford was recruited by London Transport to work as a conductor on the busses. He left for London full of optimism, not having told them that he was illiterate. Knowing Stanford, he survived, and I hope that he is today the patriarch of a huge family, enjoying a good retirement.
So today, I sit in my garden which I love, and think of that other garden, in that now inaccessible land, my childhood. Good gardens are like your children, you must love them equally. But, I have to confess, that, of these two, I do have a favourite. It is of course the Garden at Santa Elena. But why? Is it just the charmed memories of childhood? or the tropical extravagance of the plants and flowers? or the secret places that I thought only I knew?
I have been thinking about this a lot and I think I have an answer. It is all of those, but mainly this – every garden since, I have had to be a part of the effort of designing and implementing. For every garden since I have been aware of the aim, and of how far short of it we have fallen. But the garden at Santa Elena was different, because for me it was forever perfect, and I will never know if it fell short of the aim of its creators – my grandparents, Mother Granny and DJ, and their co-creators, George and Stanford.