Jason Payne, 'exotic landscape gardener', visited
the tropics for the first time last year. His impressions make fascinating
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Jason Payne, Landscape Gardener, 9b, Girdlers Road, London W14,
Chamaerops No. 5, published online 23-10-2002
Left: Royal Palm avenue - Singapore Botanic Garden
Right: Johannestejismannia - so beautiful it could be man-made!
My initial inspiration for specialising in exotic
landscape gardening was palms. Apart from their atmosphere of tropical
climes, their architectural effect within a landscape can be stunning.
The climate of this country soon frustrated my growing fascination
with these eminent members of the plant kingdom, though fortunately
Kew is only a few miles away from my home in London and 1 can easily
visit the Royal Botanic Garden anytime my enthusiasm needs a boost.
With the Palm House collection of plants to learn from, I soon began
to pick up tongue- twisting names of beauties such as Pritchardia
pacifica, Coccothrinax dussiana and Verschaffeltia splendida. However,
behind the enjoyment of this newfound pleasure in palms there was
always the question, 'what must it be like to see these plants en
masse, in their natural habitat, perhaps in a rain forest?' After
trying to create exotic palmacapes during the summer in London,
I positively had to head for the Tropics, including heaven-on-earth
itself: Singapore Botanic Garden.
The partygoers (to Thai islands for New Year) on
our last minute Christmas Eve flight to Bangkok could not understand
that one would go to Thailand specially to look at palms, after
all how can you miss them lying on your back on a beach?
After three hours waiting in Sofia, in an airport
waiting room at -5c, courtesy of Bulgarian Airlines, our first sight
of a tropical coast was Sri Lanka. It just didn't look real, the
white strip of sand and the inevitable Coconut palms, looked too
perfect. Stepping off the plane was like getting into a warm bath;
fortunately, the humidity was something I was not bothered by throughout
the whole trip, even during this brief stay in hot and humid Bangkok.
I boarded a bus to Singapore, one of the only ways
left to leave Bangkok during this hectic holiday time, for an overland
journey that was designed to get me to Bali as soon as possible.
The coach was certainly full and would take two days and nights
to reach Singapore. As it roared with abandon around the ridiculous
bends into the glare of garishly lit trucks, red and green, I managed
to take in the odd Borassus flabellifer or Nypa between the rubber
plantations. As we entered Malaysia, the jungle seemed to close
in and I got my first sight of rolling hills covered with dense
forest. Plantings of Elaeis guineensis (the Oil Palm) became as
frequent as the rubber plantations and the villages became smaller
and seemed to be in the midst of miles of dense vegetation. The
bus would stop at 'hawker' stands in these villages, where food
sellers have rows of tables for the travel weary to test their bravery.
On one such visit, I decided to wander around the roadside and to
my pleasure I found a steep and quite overgrown gully. The buses
are notorious for leaving people behind in the middle of nowhere,
so I dared not explore further, but as I peered into the gloom I
had what was one of the most exciting sightings of the trip. Near
the bottom of the gully, I could make out fronds over two metres
long. My first thought was that it was a tree fern, but it did not
look as if the plant had a trunk and was generally much too squat
and heavy set to be arborescent without a very stout trunk. I believe
that this plant was Angiopteris evecta and that it was growing wild
in this shady damp area, a factor that made all the difference to
my seeing it. Malaysia gave me my first sight of what appeared to
be dense rainforest, and its gradual destruction. (Malaysia is one
of the largest exporters of tropical hardwood in the world). The
huge grey and sometimes burning scars that cut through the forest
appeared in this case to be a clearing for a new road. The tree-clad
hillsides and vistas of endless dense vegetation looked both beautiful
and fragile as we sped down the thin tarmac line through it.
At last we arrived at Khota Bharu on the southernmost
tip of Malaysia and crossed the causeway to Singapore. At once the
palmscape improved. Caryota urens in the central reservation of
a motorway, for example. The pressure to get to Bali meant that
I reached Singapore at lOam and left at about 5pm on a KLM flight
to Jakarta. A shower and some hustling for the flight were about
all I had time for. I did notice Roystonia regia, Licuala grandis,
Cyrtostachys renda and Areca catechu just from travelling between
ticket agents and the airport. Jakarta, in Indonesia, was fairly
uninspiring from what I briefly saw, its wealth of public monuments
are not accompanied by impressive avenues of palms, the only addition
which could redeem them from such bleak ugliness.
The train which was to take me most of the way through
Java was called the Mutiara and provided me with a class of travel
shared exclusively with Javanese, impressively titled 'Executive
Class'. It left Jakarta through its shantytown suburbs, which were
badly flooded; the malnourished inhabitants threw mud as we cruised
by. The train pulled into Surabaya, at the eastern end of Java the
next morning where I was to change trains. But when I bought the
ticket there was no mention of a six-hour wait.
As we chugged pleasantly through urban villages
the oil on the ancient fans on the ceiling of the carriage seemed
to wear out so that one by one they stopped their feeble movement
of the air after squeaking defiantly for hours. The urban scenery
at last gave way to forested areas and the classic sheer outcrops
of rock, finger-like under their carpet of forest. This was a magnificent
setting for my first tropical thunderstorm. Sitting on the tailboard
of the door of the last carriage, I could take longer looks at the
now very lush landscape. Electric blue Kingfishers, three times
as large as our native European species, hunted in the ever-present
rice paddies. Tapioca, Manihot esculenta, bordered the tracks, banana
plantations, Artocarpus altilis - Breadfruit Trees, Carica papaya
and Artocarpus heterophyllus - the Jackfruit Tree, were all part
of the general landscape. The train stopped frequently at small
villages that seemed to be pristine, with smiling but shy people
looking on. Flamboyant trees: Delonix regia, with bright scarlet
flowers, and endless Acalypha and Codiaeum varieties made the villages
as colourful as the traditional dresses that are worn in the countryside.
At the eastern-most tip of Java, the port of Banyuwangi is home
to several moribund ferries which run continuously between the islands,
and which serve excellent food. From here Bali looked as tiny as
it does on the map.
Once I got the chance to sit on a beach I forgot
about palms for a couple of days. Although it is possible to have
a great time in Bali; i.e. eat great food, enjoy company, watch
the sunset on the beach etc, the real old traditional culture and
much of the natural beauty has been destroyed. The main towns are
overcrowded and polluted with traffic jams as serious as those in
London, and the building of hotels and apartment complexes progressed
at an alarmingly rapid pace even during my short visit. To see the
more natural side of Bali one must drive extensively, and if you
want to see wilderness, travel quite far from the southeastern,
touristy end of the island.
The climate changes considerably in different parts
of Bali. The southeast is fairly arid without Coconut palms and
the central area is mountainous with dormant volcanic peaks such
as Mount Batur at 1717 metres. I was struck by the change in plant
species as we climbed. Coconut and Borassus palms were quickly left
behind. Datura plants and tree ferns took their place as the dominant
feature, with lower growing ferns, coniferous trees and Cycas rumphiana
appearing. We paid a brief visit to Bali's Botanic Garden and I
was not surprised to find it in a fairly unkempt state. I was able
to see a Calamus palm rambling in a tree, an avenue of what was
labelled Areca palms, a palm labelled Thrinax, Cyrtostachys renda
and many large tree ferns, some of which resembled Cyathea australis.
As I spent more time winding down and swimming I
began to want a real palmy adventure. At this point, however, the
Gulf War interrupted. All of my flights were cancelled and I could
not contact the airline office in Bangkok. I was planning to go
to Sarawak, one of two Malaysian states on the island of Borneo.
Instead, I decided that it might be wise to head back to Bangkok
and sort out my ticket problems. The whole trip was turning out
to be less palm orientated than I had planned; a trip to Sarawak
would hopefully have involved an excursion into rainforest, and
a visit to Bogor Botanic Gardens in Java would have added immensely
to my knowledge gained on this trip. On reflection, however, the
East is an experience in itself, which requires attention to absorb
and reflect upon. The return bus trip through Java was terrifying
and dangerous. It did however deliver me to Jakarta in time to catch
the afternoon flight to Singapore.
Even the British Embassy could not help with the
problem of my still uncommunicative airline office. This required
that I make haste to Bangkok, and cheaply, not knowing how long
it might be before a flight could be arranged. I only had five hours
to walk around the Botanic Gardens in Singapore. After about five
minutes I decided to stop trying to take notes and just look. I
felt that most of the garden was landscaped as attractively as Kew
and was maintained to the same high standard.
I saw hundreds of plants that I did no more than
gaze at without even looking for their names. There were a few palms
that I wanted to search out, particularly a Corypha umbraculifera,
preferably in the process of flowering, and Hyphaene, the only truly
branched palm. I saw Lodicea maldivica - the Double Coconut or 'Coco
de Mer'. Also close to this area was an imposing example of a Royal
Palm avenue, this led me to the office of the gardens where I was
directed to the tantalizingly named Palm Valley.
Near the rainforest area I spotted a favourite that
I recognized from the palm house at Kew: Verschaffeltia splendida,
and nearby Johannesteijsmannia altifrons. In a shaded area under
mature trees these palms were thriving, and although I was familiar
with the excellent specimen of Verschaffeltia at Kew, the palms
were so much more impressive there in a group in their own space,
as opposed to the jungle-like growth of species in the palm house.
Acoelorraphe wrightii and Cyrtostachys renda (the Sealing Wax, or
Rajah Palm) were planted frequently and many tall feather palms
were planted throughout the garden.
I have heard that the inflorescences of Corypha
umbraculifera are the largest floral display of any plant, with
the total span of reaching twelve metres and containing literally
millions of flowers. Of all the plants that I have learned about
so far, this is the one that I would most like to see in flower.
The plants in the garden were no taller than seven metres, which
I assume is too young to be near flowering age. Sabal palmetto and
Sabal minor were other fan palms that have a 'costapalmate' leaf
form as does Lodicea or 'Coco-de-Mer'. I had hoped to see some of
the other imposing fan palms such as Copernica baileyana or macroglossa
and perhaps a large Pritchardia pacifica, but Hyphaene compressa
was the next best thing, and the tall specimen was an impressive
South East Asia has a richness of plant life that
was a good introduction to tropical horticulture. The very nature
of a tropical climate, its sights, sounds and smells is a great
experience for anybody who is interested in these exotic plants.
The Wilson Botanic Garden in Costa Rica (mentioned in the current
edition of Principes) sounds like an attractive prospect for the
next holiday. I wonder if they need any extra gardeners?
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