First Impressions

Jason Payne, 'exotic landscape gardener', visited the tropics for the first time last year. His impressions make fascinating reading.
Jason Payne, Landscape Gardener, 9b, Girdlers Road, London W14, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 5, published online 23-10-2002

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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 plant indeed.

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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