My mother’s gardens around the world bloomed in abundance. The five-acre garden in the centre of Kuala Lumper, where the Twin Towers now loom over the city, is the one I remember best. Huge rain trees under one of which a King Cobra could often be found, much to human and canine consternation. A mangosteen grove, home to all manner of frightening things that I knew must lurk behind coarse trunks and amongst decaying leaves and fruit on the ground, led to the perimeter fence where I rarely ventured. But oh, the fruit, juice dripping from the plump, white flesh hidden deep beneath a thick purple skin, was heavenly and worth the risk of who knows what. And row upon row upon of my mother’s pride – orchids – purple vandas, striped yellow tigers, whites and pinks. Red hibiscus – bunga ray – the national flower of Malaysia, and canna, boisterous in their yellow and orange and red finery but also home to snakes who relished the damp ground. And frangipanis.
Mum had two and half gardeners to help her. One permanently pushed a mower, one helped with the garden itself and the half came in each afternoon to help tend the hundreds of pot plants. I showed no interest in the mechanics of gardening but loved the beauty.
My foray into horticulture did not take place until, as an adult, I was again in the tropics. We lived in Bangkok, on Soi Attawimon. The garden was an expanse of grass which bordered one edge of a fishpond. An ornate wat, high on a pedestal placed in the corner was, morning and night, adorned with joss sticks and offerings to the temple gods by Es, our house girl. Cannas and crotons rimmed the house.
Frangipani trees have always been a favourite, perhaps because their many-forked branches invited climbing, despite my irate mother shouting at me to get down. I don’t think Mum was concerned about a broken arm or leg, rather more the imminent snapping of her tree. Whatever the reason, I like both the delicacy of the flowers, whether white, pink, or yellow, and their fragrance.
And so I decided to plant a frangipani. Bangkok used to be known as the Venice of the East. Klongs, canals, threaded their way through the city before many were filled in and tarred over. The knock-on effect, apart from dreadful traffic jams, was a severe flooding problem. Each tropical deluge merged our pond with the garden, snakes and koi, swimming freely. The upshot of this flooding was a dense red clay below the topsoil. Heavy digging.
The Chatuchak weekend market provided the tree, about three foot tall. I can’t remember why I didn’t wait for the man who mowed the lawn to dig the hole. Most likely my normal impatience. Whatever the reason, I regretted it.
“Madam?” Es, her voice hesitant, looked at me from the shade of the veranda, concern etched across her smooth face. “Madam, not good.”
I glanced up. “What?”
Es had a green thumb for herbs, and I expected a horticultural lesson.
I looked at the hole, painstakingly dug. “Why not?”
“Tree for wat, not house.” Her tone was adamant.
“Why?” I asked, sweat dripped from my face to my drenched tee shirt.
“Call lân tom. Sad flower. By wat,” she repeated.
I looked at her gentle face and all arguments fled. Who was I to ignore a cultural taboo?
I waited until the mower man came and he dug the next hole. By Es’ wat.
Thereafter, in various countries around the world, I have asked before digging. Each time we have moved on, I have been sad to leave my garden and I wonder how my gardens grow.
Thirty-five years later, on an island in the Caribbean, I have a garden I’m not leaving.
From a tan-tan and coralita jungle over which two coconut palms presided, emerged a quarry of rotten rock, glass and Chaney, the shards of crockery from bygone eras. From that has come, with a lot of sweat, some blood but no tears, a garden that offers respite, calm and abundant pleasure.
Loathe to remove the palms, sanctuary to wasps, bananaquits and iguanas, I agreed to their removal after my husband’s magic words, “falling coconuts on grandchildren’s heads”. I missed the sound of the fronds in the trade winds, I did not miss the downward thump of nuts landing.
We had a plan. The garden we have is nothing like the plan. Rather it has evolved. Our only hard and fast proviso demanded a garden for birds, butterflies and bees. We have all three, and even on occasion play host to a gluttonous night heron who, with great patience and stealth, steals fish from the pond.
Our planting, to a true horticulturalist, might seem haphazard but it works. Portlandia rubs shoulders with lemon grass and duranta. Natal plum nestles next to gardenia. Lantana (a weed to my Australian friends) plays nicely with ixora. Plumbago and jasmine share purple and white space. Cuban palms reach skywards, their trunks adorned with orchids. Hamelia and snow-on-the-mountain nudge the fence line with Ginger Thomas, the national flower of the Virgin Islands. A few we’ve bought – one, a bottle brush, in a nod to my Australian heritage. Some plants were in the garden – a China rose hibiscus, milk and honey lilies, mother-in-laws tongue although, it must be said, my MIL’s words were never sharp.
Plant sharing is a way of life on St Croix and so, as I wander from the patio to the pergola to the perch on the peak, I am reminded each step of the way of friendships made. Parakeet flowers, poor man’s orchid, hibiscus and gingers from Emy, cacti from Pat, orchids from Susan, all manner of unnamed seedlings from Rosalie, jatropha from Don, and from Toni and Isabel respectively a yellow and crimson frangipani.
How does my garden grow, the one I won’t be leaving? Very well, thank you!