I mentioned I had been to the tropics. It was Malaysia and included the magical Perhentian Islands which were pretty much a perfect tropical hideaway. Waving palm trees, golden sand, warm sea with coral reefs just off the beach, no roads, so no vehicles, not even motor bikes. All transportation was done by small boat and wheelbarrows. What they did have was a sewage system and a daily rubbish collection (by boat) which is always reassuring.
Did I come home with a yen to re-create my holiday experience by building a tropical garden? Well, no. See, there is something missing here. The temperatures in the tropics are consistently in the 30s. Soggy, cold tropicalia in winter does not seem so evocative of warm holidays, in my opinion.
Many others do not share my reservations, however, and the tropical garden has become increasingly de rigueur, particularly in Auckland but also in points further south where the folly is magnified by even cooler temperatures.
It occurred to me that we may have evolved our own tropical gardening style in this country. It is perhaps best described as “cool climate Balinese-hotel-style” or, if you have been to Bali, even more specifically as “Ubud hotel-style”. I have never seen that garden genre beyond a hotel environment in the tropics and it does not reflect the wider environment.
In Malaysia, the closest I saw to domestic gardening was more akin to a food forest. The focus was on production, not aesthetics, so tended to feature a mango or two, coconut palms, plenty of bananas and maybe a breadfruit. Ornamental gardening is more likely to be limited to a bonsai bougainvillea in a pot.
Nor does the forest resemble a tropical garden as we understand it and our domestic, cooler climate version cannot be seen as an interpretation of that. Besides, we lack the monkeys (big, long-tailed ones ripping the beachside abutilons apart when I saw them).
Plantings for beautification are clearly the domain of the public sector and commercial entities (hotels, in particular). Growing conditions are pretty forgiving in the tropics. They can often cut things off and stick them in the ground with no special preparation and a reasonable expectation that they will grow. I saw Cordyline terminalis treated in this very fashion, growing in pure sand. So it was a puzzle to me as to why the riverside in Kuala Terengganu was furnished with fake trees. Fake trees designed to look like Norfolk Island pines and oak trees colouring up for autumn, in fact. Bizarre. Yet the street trees included the much favoured and very fragrant Michelia alba which is devilishly difficult to propagate in this country.
As in so many Asian countries, it is possible to beautify cities with planters, often ceramic. Indeed, I saw a row used to temporarily block off access on a road in Kota Bharu. Anyone want to take bets on how long these would last in any New Zealand city? It is just one of those unspoken reminders of the vandalism and theft we live with. No council is ever going to contemplate using something as easily destroyed, let alone putting little clipped topiaries into them.
Palms are planted everywhere and the public plantings go well beyond the ubiquitous coconut palms and the utility monoculture of the palm oil plantations. The beautiful bismarckias and curious two dimensional traveller’s palms (which is not a palm but actually related to strelitzia) are certainly stand-out plants.
Underplanting? The only places I saw underplantings were on roadside verges and in hotel gardens. These are commonly the tropical crinums and ornamental gingers. The gorgeous frangipanis which we associate strongly with the tropics are mostly in hotels. Of course these are Central American plants, not Asian. Mind you, so too is the bougainvillea and it has done pretty well in establishing itself as a first choice plant in warmer areas across the globe.
All of this made me realise that the many “tropical gardens” in tropiNZ are eclectic mixes of plants from around the world put together in the classic layered style, but tidy. We won’t accept the wild abandon of tropical growth, the droop of scruffy banana leaves, the debris and litter of the forest floor. No, this is warm climate plants put together with a little tasteful Asian ornament or two, straitjacketed into suburbia.
In fact the model is those immaculately groomed gardens you find throughout Asia in better quality hotels. Presumably for many such garden owners, the evocation of happy, holiday memories centres primarily on their hotel and the hotel pool. It does not have a whole lot to do with the wider environmental or actual gardening in the tropics. As I said, Ubud hotel-style, but without the warm temperatures.
First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.