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Round About Aburi

Continuing our occasional series of little-known Botanic Gardens, Colin takes time off to visit Aburi, in Ghana.
Colin Crooks, 230 Lonsdale Aye, London E6 3PW, U.K.
Chamaerops No. 12, published online 23-09-2002

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Top: A reclining Cycad has begun to sprout from the base.
Below: The author dwarfed by a Silk Cotton Tree (Ceiba pentandra). Aburi Gardens, Ghana.

After reading the article about the botanic garden in Cluj, Rumania in Edition 10 of Chamaerops, I thought it would be a good idea to continue the theme of smaller and lesser-known botanic gardens of the world.

As a humble functionary of the Civil Service, I occasionally work on projects abroad, mainly in West Africa, usually in Ghana and I always take the opportunity to visit the Aburi Botanic Gardens near Accra. It is located about 30 miles north of that city in the mountains some 1600 feet above sea level. There are superb views from the winding, climbing road with sheer drops on one side. Its cooler and healthier climate is ideal for people recuperating after illness, and a sanitorium is also sited in the gardens.

On previous visits, the gardens have been a haven of coolness and quietness after the heat and hubub of Accra but on my visit in July - their winter - the weather was decidedly un-African. In my EPS T-shirt and shorts I was very inappropriately dressed for the rains and chilly winds. Ghanaians in sweaters and raincoats pointed and sniggered!

The gardens were founded in 1890 for the 'advancement of the Gold Coast Colony' with a curator appointed from Kew. Lord Knutsford, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, took an interest and helped it to develop. The aims were 'to teach the natives the most approved methods of planting and preparing their produce for the home markets'. 44 acres were acquired and divided into plots for growing economic plants such as rubber, kola, coffee, coconuts, raffia, cotton, bananas, tobacco and castor oil. A bronze medal was awarded at the Paris Exhibition in 1900 for cocoa. With the addition of ornamental plants, it had the same basic layout that can still be seen today. Since then, botanists from all over the world have helped in its development as a centre for pleasure and research.

Ghana is a developing country with grave economic problems and it is not therefore surprising to find that Aburi gets by with meagre resources from the Department of Parks and Gardens. It is a tribute to the staff that the grounds are maintained to such a high order. That is assuming there are staff - on my four visits I have never managed to find anybody who works there!

On entering, the visitor is faced with a magnificent 800-foot long avenue of Royal Palms planted at the time of the garden's creation. One section is devoted to cacti and succulents on a steep hillside overlooked by a bar. Many is the Star beer I have enjoyed while watching geckos do their 'press-ups' or lizards wiggle precariously up the stems of Cereus plants. Strangely, there is an almost complete absence of birdlife in the Gardens apart from the nasty looking Hooded Vultures forever circling overhead looking for their grisly diet.

Centre-piece of the gardens are the colossal, awe-inspiring Silk Cotton trees (Ceiba pentandra, also known as Kapok) towering over 70 metres high. The largest, named in honour of Lady Knutsford, is the sole survivor of the original forest that covered the site. These and other native trees often have their branches festooned with bromeliads or choked with variegated Swiss cheese plants. There is a good selection of tropical fruit trees Guava, Mango and Paw-paw - and vegetables such as Cassava, Yam and Taro. There are good plantings of Breadfruit and Locust-bean trees and yellow bamboo and splendid clumps of variegated screw pines underplanted with Canna, coleus and Setcresea purpurea. Lush and leafy bananas and plantains grow like weeds everywhere. In a clearing stands a forlorn, rusty Westland Whirlwind 'helicopter, for the presence of which I have so fur been unable to obtain a logical explanation.

Several species of palm, mainly native to West Africa, are grown. These include Raphia hookeri with their huge arching feather leaves. This and others in the Raphia group are cultivated extensively in the area where they are of great economic importance. Most parts of the tree are used. The leaf mid-ribs are used as poles in house building, the leaves are used as thatching and for making raffia, the leaf-bases provide brushes, and rope is made from the fibre. From the fruit, which is sometimes boiled and eaten, comes oil, and palm wine is made by drilling into the trunk and fermenting the sap (I've drunk it - it's powerful stuff. After sampling this lethal brew once in Sierra Leone I fell into an open sewer at the side of the road!). There are stands of the many-trunked Phoenix reclinata (Senegal Date Palm) and Elaeis guineensis (Oil Palm) which is another commercially important palm for providing oil used in the manufacture of margarine, soap, shampoo, cosmetics etc. Similar uses are made of copra, dried coconut flesh from the ubiquitous Cocos nucifera (Coconut Palm).

All in all, a small homely gardens that even a horticultural philistine would enjoy. Ghana is just developing an infant tourist industry to exploit its historical slave forts, so if you ever visit do make an effort and spend a lovely day at Aburi.

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