Tropical tour de force

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Barbados Flower Forest is worlds away from the manicured resort garden

By Ailsa Francis, Citizen Special March 19, 2011

In the Barbadian hills overlooking the rough seas of the Atlantic Ocean is a botanical wonderland called the Flower Forest. When we were there in the middle of February, we were told it had been unseasonably wet, since the rains usually come between June and November. Thankfully, the showers didn't last long and when the sun returned, our stroll through this huge, privately owned garden felt like a walk back in time when tropical forests originally blanketed this island. Open every day of the year, it is lovingly tended by David Spieler (and his team), who is also the owner of a ceramic business on the island called Earthworks Pottery.

The Flower Forest is located in what is known as the Scotland District of Barbados. This means that the area is quite wild and hilly, with elevations ultimately reaching between 850 to 1,100 feet above sea level. The island boasts a sub-tropical climate with 3,000 hours of sunlight every year (compare this to Ottawa at 1,989 hours a year) and an average daily temperature of around 30 C.

This horticultural delight was christened the Flower Forest in 1983 after several years of development by the Hill family, with the design help of American architect Fritz Laundy. Don Hill must have been at his wit's end since his first attempt to farm the land ended in failure, followed by an unsuccessful stint at growing fruit trees (the monkeys ate the fruit and damaged the trees). After Hill, the land was run by a board of directors until it was purchased in 2008 by Spieler (who had been a member of that board for three years).

Helped along the way by Kewtrained horticulturist Richard


Flower Forest, Richmond, St. Joseph, P.O. Box 5T, St. Thomas, Barbados, West Indies. Telephone/fax: (246) 433-8152

Website: flowfrst.htm

Open: Seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: $20 Barbadian (approx. $10 Cdn.) for adults; $10 Barbadian (approx. $5 Cdn.) for children.

More: There is a gift shop on site as well as a café serving a modest selection of small meals and snacks. Coughlan, who runs another botanical must-see on the island called Orchid World, Spieler has been continuing to build this garden into a worthwhile tourist destination.

The Flower Forest has a vast array of trees, shrubs and flowering plants, many of which are indigenous to the Caribbean and, in many cases, Barbados in particular. One of the most common plants is the Royal palm (Roystonia oleracea, known colloquially on the island as the Cabbage palm) which can reach heights of 40 metres (130 feet). Spieler describes this plant as very fertile; the three gardeners employed here have to regularly remove the seedlings to keep them from overtaking less vigorous species. Other plants showcased here include the Agave barbadensis or Maypole, (indigenous to Barbados and all the islands of the Lesser Antilles) and the grapefruit (Citrus x paradisi), a hybrid citrus actually bred in Barbados during the 18th century. The pineapple (Ananias comosus), which is indigenous to South America but made its way to the Caribbean, is also present. A rare and primitive fern known as the Skeleton Fork Fern (Psilotum nudum) has also been introduced; found in tropical and sub-tropical areas around the world, this rootless plant has an unusual branching form that resembles coral.

Outrageously colourful and exotic tropicals like false lobster claws (Heliconia), torch ginger (Nicolaia elatior), glory bower (Clerodendron thomsoniae) and the Pride of Barbados (Poinciana pulcherrima) are all found blooming throughout the gardens. I also spied huge crotons, philodendrons, Sago palms, snake plants, bougainvillea, blue sky vine (Thunbergia grandiflora) and orchids while walking along, as well as the unusual Chinese hat or parasol plant (Holmskioldia sanguinea). And on our visit, we were routed around the fallen orange-red blooms of the African tulip tree (Spathodea campanulate) that decorated the paths.

Growing plants in this tropical location has its own unique brand of challenges. Last fall, Hurricane Tomas brought damaging winds and eroding rains to the island, the detritus of which the gardeners are still clearing. There are also giant African land slugs that are eating their way through the garden. At 20 centimetres long and 10 cm wide, these pests are not to be scoffed at.

Spieler has been introducing a predatory wasp to deal with a thrip problem that is affecting the Sago palms.

Unchecked, these pests would really mar the beauty, not to mention affect the vigour of these majestic palms.

If you're in Barbados, do seek out this treasure. It showcases tropical plants the way in which they were meant to be seen.

Visit Ailsa Francis's blog at


Morgan Lewis sails again

DSCN3565.JPGBy Patricia Borns, Globe Correspondent

Even if I can't make the Sunday, March 20 turning of Morgan Lewis on Barbados, I'll sleep better knowing that the sugar grinding mill is sailing again. Right, sailing, with a full set designed just for historic windmills by Doyle Sails.

At the height of Barbados's sugar empire in the 1800s, 90 percent of the island's land grew sugar cane, and over 500 stone tower mills turned on the wind. Morgan Lewis was perfectly positioned on a hillside of Scotland District National Park facing the Atlantic Ocean, with arms outspread to catch the trades blowing from Africa. Very few of those mills are left today.

The mill manufactured muscovado sugar, syrup, molasses and rum from about 1727 until 1944 when it ceased to function. Eventually the World Monuments Fund selected it among 100 sites on the planet for urgent preservation. A spokesman said, "The mill offers an opportunity for profound historical and cultural reflection.''

Today Morgan Lewis is sailing again, an example of a superbly built 18th century sugar cane crushing mill, the largest still intact in the Caribbean, The turning is a happy event with volunteers racing to keep the grinders stoked with locally grown cane (watch those hands) and people lining up with plastic jugs for delicious cane juice.

Love the view, check out the crafts, then take a hike to Cherry Tree Hill and St. Nicholas Abbey, or skip down the hill to the beautiful, usually deserted east coast beach

Phone: 246-426-2421
Price: $10 (children half price)