Cranbrook Gardens: Water, Water, Everywhere

Bounded by two pristine rivers near Jamaica’s north coast, the Cranbrook Flower Forest is a lush paradise of trees and lawns, trails and pools, and thousands of brilliant tropical blossoms. Martin Mordecai visits this tranquil 40-acre St Ann garden, created by master horticulturalist Ivan Linton in the grounds of a former coconut estate, and discovers that the sound of rushing water is music to the jaded soul. Plus six other magnificent Jamaican gardens worth exploring

Bamboo stands rise over the river path like cathedral archesEverywhere at Cranbrook you hear the sound of rushing waterForty acres of the Cranbrook Estate are planted with tropical flowersHope Gardens, in the foothills of the Blue MountainsTowering royal palms lead to the garden pavilion

You’re never far from water at Cranbrook. Even when you can’t see water, the sound of it is everywhere. Not surprising, since the Cranbrook Flower Forest is bounded by two rivers, both of which rise on the property. These rivers tumble down the St Ann hillside, chuckling or roaring at different points in their descent to the Caribbean Sea, sparkling on the other side of the north coast highway between Ocho Rios and Montego Bay.

You turn off the bustle and occasional madness of that highway and ascend into quiet through a tunnel of trees that deposits you at the start of the Cranbrook Flower Forest: a walkway of 40 or so yards between towering royal palms to a circular pavilion large enough to accommodate a wedding or a dinner party. The gazebo is surrounded by manicured lawns and stately palms, across from a restored sugar mill that houses a bookshop; above that is a cafeteria; and above that, perched in a tall star-apple tree, is a large peacock, whose screeching call breaks the quiet, but whose lordly presence adds just the right note of seigneurial style.

By now you’ve begun to appreciate why this is called a “flower forest”: flowers are everywhere, from shrimp plants and begonias to orchids and red gingers. True, they’re in unforestlike beds and rows, but they jump at you anyway with the colourful ebullience of happy children.

But the gardens are only part of the attraction. Cranbrook also boasts a “River Head Adventure Trail”. The river head is the source not only of the property’s water, but also of its joie de vivre. But you have to walk a mile to get there — “an hour’s leisurely walking”, round trip, says the brochure.

The guides — there are five of them — are considerate, cheerful, and knowledgeable. You begin easily enough, strolling past mesh-covered greenhouses and beds of seedlings, some of them planted around “coppers”, the old cast iron pots that sugar used to be boiled in when Cranbrook was a sugar estate. You notice the expansiveness of the grounds, and how much space is set aside for people to enjoy themselves in simple, everyday ways: volleyball nets, basketball hoops, soccer goalposts, all with the space around them to enjoy those sports. There’s a tarpaulin-covered stand, complete with oil-drum barbeques, fronting a large lawn scattered with tables and benches; in fact benches are everywhere on the property, under large trees or tucked into floral corners, for just sitting and immersing yourself in the surroundings.

Eventually, following your guide, you leave the fields and benches behind and enter the flower forest proper. The sound of rushing water accompanies you, whether you see it or not; most times you can, because the pathway never strays far from the river. And you can easily, among the profusion of torch gingers, elephant ears, and tree ferns, the heliconias and the lilies, and the giant cotton and flame-of-the-forest trees, develop the sense of being lost in the jungle — in a wild, primordial place.

That is the illusion Ivan Linton, the proprietor and horticultural eminence of Cranbrook, wants you to enjoy. In fact, practically every square yard of the publicly accessible property was designed and planted for just that effect. Well known across Jamaica as a farmer and horticulturist, and as a lay preacher, Linton brought his decades of experience to the development of the 130-acre property that he and his wife Faith have called home since 1983; 40 of those acres comprise the flower forest.

When they took it over, Cranbrook was a working farm, with cattle, pimento, a lime factory, and a copra house for a coconut grove so productive that it was known locally as Never Done — “you couldn’t stop reaping coconuts,” says Linton with a chuckle, “it never done.” But lethal yellowing swept through Cranbrook shortly after, on its way to destroying the entire island’s crop of tall trees. The soil is good for pimento, and there’s still some grown on the property. But the yield is not all garnered by the Lintons: those who would reap what they do not sow are active in pursuit of their own interests. “Jamaica has changed somewhat,” says Ivan sadly.

Cranbrook is still a cattle farm in some respects, but even the large Jamaican ranches, such as the one next door whose cattle come down to the shared river to drink, are having a hard time competing against low-cost imports from the US and Central America. “You can sell two cows to buy a goat,” says Linton laconically.

From the beginning, also, Cranbrook had been a place where Linton, a former president of the St Ann Horticultural Society, grew plants commercially: orchids, foliage, decorative shrubs, whatever was in demand; there are still greenhouses and nurseries that supply that part of the business. The portion of the farm that became the flower forest was “very poor scrub land,” he says, “poor pasture.” So he went about improving it, and creating his dream.

An ardent environmentalist, he did it the responsible way. “No bulldozer was used,” he says proudly of the process of clearing the land. “The natural contours were followed, and soil type determined what was planted. And no artificial fertiliser was applied — a lot of compost from the farm.”

Look carefully as you go further up the trail to the river head and you will see occasional indications of the hand of man — some of the plants originally placed in rows, pieces of lumber and stones arranged over rivulets. But the overwhelming impression, reinforced by the river’s constant laughing and quarrelling beside you, is of nature’s profusion, of its own abundance.

The development of what became the Cranbrook attraction began soon after the Lintons acquired the property. It is a work of 19 years of love and respect, not only by Ivan but by a team of gardeners and other support staff who currently number 20 — and who, he says, “run the place better than I do” when the Lintons take their annual fortnight’s vacation in September. You do indeed always feel in the care of capable hands, even when you’re alone wandering this large, friendly property.

Cranbrook is a work in progress: the planting continues, and the planning. Eventually, there will be cottages — not a large number, and not the sprawling villas that decorate the hillsides and comprise the upper echelon of Jamaica’s all-inclusive product. And an auditorium, as a gathering place for the numerous groups who want to and do meet at Cranbrook, and as shelter from the sudden tropical rains that descend without warning.

“We’ll use bamboo and thatch as much as possible,” says Linton. He won’t have to look far for raw materials. The bamboo stands, towering over parts of the path to the river head like cathedral arches, predate the Lintons’ stewardship, and are plentiful.

A river head is where a river appears; usually from just one place in the ground, or from a rock face. The Laughlands Great River — called, with typically Jamaican ironic inversion, the “Little River” — can have up to four “heads,” depending on the seasonal rains. The main head, the constant source, murmurs out of the rock face at the foot of a towering escarpment of trees and shrubs and into a green-blue pool that can be swum in (there are trained lifeguards).

From other fissures in the rocks, the river explodes with a roar of release, as though it has been held captive inside the mountain, and goes tumbling down to freedom over boulders and tree stumps. You stand — or sit, or swim — at the apotheosis of Ivan Linton’s dream for you: to enjoy and respect nature, and to participate in its splendour.

 

AN ISLAND OF GARDENS

Jamaica’s diverse topography ensures a wide range of pleasures for the visitor who is horticulturally inclined. There is a range of attractions across the island, some public and free, some private and fee-paying, some private but available for viewing by arrangement.

Bath Botanic Garden (St Thomas): Established in 1779, and said to be the second oldest botanical garden in the western hemisphere (the oldest being in St Vincent), the Bath gardens are part of the small town of the same name, which has also enjoyed modest fame as a spa since the 19th century. The well-known breadfruit tree brought to the island by Captain Bligh in 1793 was first planted here, and its descendents are still to be found in the gardens. Though not the splendid site it was a few generations ago, Bath is on its way back, thanks to local boosters who have organised various fund-raising events in the town, including the annual Breadfruit Festival in August. Worth a visit just for the large trees and shady lawns. Public, free.

Castleton Botanic Gardens (St Andrew): An hour’s drive from Kingston, straddling the Junction Road to Annoto Bay on the north coast, this is a popular picnic spot. Castleton at one time had upwards of 400 botanical specimens from the gardens at Kew near London; at the turn of the 20th century it had a palmetum, with about 180 palm specimens, and it is still noted for the variety of its palms, and the neck-craning height of some of them. Other plants here include the strychnos (from which strychnine is derived), spathodea, and poinciana. The Wag Water River runs through the gardens, and the stones and boulders in the river bed provide bridges, sit-down spots for contemplation, and shelter pools for dipping in. Public, free.

Cinchona Botanic Garden (St Andrew): Located nearly 5,000 feet up in the Blue Mountains behind Kingston — and perhaps because of that less well-tended than the other gardens listed here — Cinchona nonetheless retains a loyal cadre of devotees who consider the difficulty of getting there — by foot is the surest means, after a certain point — well worth the effort. The gardens’ height was the rationale for all sorts of botanical and agricultural projects, and in fact it derives its name from its original purpose: as a nursery for the trees, brought from the Andes, whose bark provided quinine for the treatment of malaria. There are still cinchona trees in the area, though modern medicine has rendered them useless. Assam tea was next, and thereafter various fruit and vegetables, some of which are still grown by the small farmers in the area. But the panoramic view alone is worth the getting here, not to mention the thrilling purity of the air. Public, free.

Coyaba River Garden and Museum (St Ann): St Ann prides itself on being “the garden parish of Jamaica,” and Coyaba is one of its many gems. Off the main road in the hills behind Ocho Rios, it packs a lot into a fairly compact space: not just colourful garden areas, but a small museum of Jamaican history and a professional recording studio. Tasteful use of cut stone in the buildings and walkways adds a touch of old time elegance, which makes Coyaba popular for weddings and receptions. Private, US$4.

Fern Gully (St Ann): Not a garden per se; rather, a cathedral-like passageway just outside Ocho Rios on the road to (or from) Kingston. Planted out with a variety of ferns and trees at the end of the 19th century, the gully has weathered many storms, literal and metaphorical, the most damaging of all being the exhaust fumes of motor vehicles passing through. Trucks were recently banned from using Fern Gully, and the bankside plants are already showing signs of revival. There is only one place in the 4.8-kilometre gully itself where travellers can pull off the road.

Hope Gardens (St Andrew): The Royal Botanical Garden at Hope, to give it its proper name, has been popular with the citizens of Kingston, from all walks of life, since its establishment at the end of the 19th century. Situated on 200 acres of land at the base of the foothills of the Blue Mountains, the gardens are set out in a number of discrete areas offering both space and privacy. There is a small zoo, very popular with children, that is home for many endemic species, such as the Jamaican iguana lizard, which was thought extinct just a few years ago. There is a vegetarian restaurant on the grounds. Public, free.