Sexy orange & purple petrea

Sharon Millar battles snakes, hard soil and a jungle-like backyard to create a garden that leaves her breathless with excitement

A striking variegated colocasia is a stunning counterpoint to the red blooms of the double chaconia. Photograph by Sharon MillarFishtail ferns soften the edges of the riverstone path. Photograph by Michelle JorslingGardener Sharon Millar. Photograph by Michelle JorslingPurple petrea is the showy centrepiece of this multicoloured bed. Photograph by Sharon MillarThe pendulous orange inflorescences of the Heliconia platystachys (Sexy Orange) are irresistible to visiting tanagers. Photograph by Sharon Millar

I had never seen a live coral snake. But certainly I had read about them and been warned as a child never to pick up a snake that “looked like a bracelet.” At 9.05 pm on an ordinary Tuesday evening, I opened my car door to one very boisterous Labrador puppy and one very dazed-looking coral snake. Not an ideal combination.

We had been living in our new home for less than a month, and, having left modernised West Trinidad for the more rural, old-fashioned St Ann’s valley, I wasn’t sure whether to be charmed by my new adventures or terrified by the potential dosage of lethal venom that was lurking in my garden.

In those early days it seemed we had bitten off more than we could chew. We lived in verdant splendour, under the magnificent canopy of a spreading samaan, and the house was charming and nostalgic, but it was also very old (circa 1940s) and we were young and naïve. While I loved the idea of the wildlife all around me, I was struggling with day-to-day maintenance in a garden that was determined to revert to jungle.

Contrary to popular belief, the soil in St Ann’s is not terribly fertile. The giant forest trees provided beautiful shade and ambiance, but the lack of sun and the hard, flinty soil made my first attempts at colour, with lantanas and pentas, a miserable failure.

This was the Northern Range, which is, according to A Guide to the Birds of Trinidad and Tobago by Richard ffrench, “a prolongation of the coastal cordillera of Venezuela, which rises to over 3,000 feet in the peaks of the Cerro del Aripo and El Tucuche. Formed of phyllite, quartzite and some limestone, these mountains have a rather poor soil on the whole.”

This majestic range had no time for the frivolities of gay, flowering shrubs. I would have to try a little harder to please.

I spent at least two years planting and replanting several beds. Some things worked and some didn’t. I learnt quite by accident about the natural symbiotic relationships that are vital to a successful garden.

Gardening has taught me that there is nothing subtle about nature. The Sexy Orange heliconia (Heliconia platystachys) that was languishing in the cool of the clump of palms burst its bag, burrowed into the ground and grew with almost obscene speed. My husband and I stood beside it in amazement.

“But there’s almost no soil there,” he said, bewildered. “It’s all rock.”

After that rather sci-fi experience, we began experimenting with other heliconias. Eureka. It should have been obvious; this was their natural habitat. The only problem with heliconias is that they are “walkers.” That is, they do not stay still. They spread rapidly by tuber offshoots, and varieties such as the common Rostrata (also known as lobster claw) will take over a whole hill if permitted to do so.

We were also discovering the birds. The previous owner had one request: that I continue to feed the wild avian population who visited every day. While no ornithologist, I did enjoy bird-watching and discovered that, in the still relatively undeveloped St Ann’s valley, there was an astounding variety of birdlife. The afternoon bananafest attracted silver-beaked tanagers, palm tanagers, the barred antshrike with his striking black and white plumage, the rambunctious great keskidee—who was also a great dog-food thief—yellow orioles and others. The Martiniquan or turquoise tanager also made visits to our garden when the large cashew tree was heavy with its red fruit.

We set about placing hummingbird feeders in strategic areas, only to discover that these little jewelled beauties are ferociously territorial and will go to great lengths to protect their domain. Each feeder was dominated by one bird and woe betide the pretenders.

On a recent trip to the Asa Wright Nature Centre, on the Arima/Blanchisseuse old road, I picked up a book, Tropical Nature: Life and Death in the Rain Forests of Central and South America, by Adrian Forsyth and Ken Miyata, and found myself captivated by the complexities of this remarkable ecosystem. I was learning that I would have to shape my landscaping around the basic premise of this forest code. The hummingbirds were fascinating in their role as important pollinators of the rainforest. With their excellent vision, they are particularly colour-sensitive and are attracted to reds and oranges. Hummingbird flowers tend to be tubular in shape and often adapt to “match” the hummingbird’s beak.

In setting up my beds, I was following standard landscaping guidelines of differing heights and textures. I was fortunate in that the garden had “good bones.” That is, while it was grossly overgrown and littered with out-of-control ixoras of every colour, there were several large trees that provided the framework for my initial designs. In addition to the magnificent samaan (or rain tree) on my driveway, there was also a thriving red flamboyant, three julie mango trees and a bank of purple petreas which would spontaneously burst into purple glory several times a year. Two Norfolk Island pines (Araucaria excelsa) also provided a focal point in the lower part of the garden. It was not an enormous space, at 17,000 square feet, but it was just enough for me to manage.

As the years went by (eight in 2007), I learnt that there is nothing static about growing a garden. I began to see the development of my garden space as something far more than simply an aesthetically pleasing project. It also roots me in the here and now. I’ve planted things that give me pleasure. My coffee trees send me into a pitch of excitement every time I’m fortunate enough to catch the divinely scented but short-lived flowers. My heliconias have given me the Cole’s Notes version of the rainforest, as I learn something almost every day about the variety of wildlife that feeds on the brightly coloured bracts.

It’s been raining on and off all day and it’s amazing to see how much the light can change when there’s so much humidity in the air. Everything looks really saturated and colourful. My Amherstia nobilis (Pride of Burma) is thriving. When I checked this morning it had sent out even more new shoots in their characteristic pinky, rusty colour.

I learned there was a palpable link between the landscape, the culture, and my own place in my homeland. I was beginning to understand, in the orchids handed down to me by my grandmother, in the blooming of the poui, in the pendulous flowers of the yellow cassia (Cassia fistula), my tie to it. The inexplicable euphoria of poui in bloom, the smell of the Dendrobium superbum and the intangible smells, soft breezes and idiosyncratic things that bring childhood memories back in a rush, made me understand why people refuse to leave even a war-torn country. My garden is perhaps what keeps me tied to this one, more than any other bond.