Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Martinique Gardens of Bounty and Tears: From Vestiges of Colonial European Society to Varied Creole Plantings, This Island's Landscape Reflects Its Eclectic and Turbulent History

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Martinique Gardens of Bounty and Tears: From Vestiges of Colonial European Society to Varied Creole Plantings, This Island's Landscape Reflects Its Eclectic and Turbulent History

Article excerpt

GREAT STANDS or FEATHERY BAMBOO CURVE overhead; lianas dangle from giant fromager trees, and bright bursts of color accent myriad shades of green. If these are the vistas that greeted the original inhabitants of Martinique, it's small wonder that they called their island Madinina, "Isle of Flowers." The name still applies: Throughout this French Caribbean island, in botanical gardens and flower-lined towns, thousands of tropical plant varieties take root in the rich soil.

Like France itself, Martinique encompasses an astonishing variety of landscapes within a relatively small space. And along with its Caribbean neighbors, the 425-square-mile island shares a tangled history of rival European colonizers dueling for dominance even as they annihilated the native populations. But aside from its French facade and its location in the Lesser Antilles, Martinique exudes a cachet all its own. Improbable incidents footnote its past, and illustrious characters wander through the pages of Martinican history like actors popping up on the wrong stage.

Daniele Sirugue, a well-traveled native of Martinique, says that "the history of Martinique is different from even the other French islands in the Caribbean."

If the remnants of a primeval rain forest call to mind the Amerindians who first settled here, more formal gardens suggest an imported European culture. One of the most celebrated horticultural showplaces overlooks the capital city of Fort-de-France from a hillside climbing toward the jagged Pitons du Carbet. Jardin de Balata is the work of one man, Jean-Philippe Thoze, who has taken advantage of Martinique's fertile soil and generous rainfall to transplant specimens from the world's tropical regions. In his Balata Gardens, visitors wander among three hundred species of palms, hibiscus of many hues, gangly bakoua trees, and blooms that in less favored climes appear only in exotic flower arrangements. Less manicured but equally appealing is the Jardin de la Pelee, on the high plain of Morne Rouge. Here, interpretive signs identify the heliconia and other flora that bloom without benefit of labels outside the preserve. But the garden also undertakes to educate visitors about the imposing peak that rises to the north: Montagne Pelee (Bald Mountain), its French name alluding to the sparse vegetation at its summit. At 4,583 feet, Pelee forms the centerpoint of the north end of the island. Eruptions of this volcano that the Amerindians called Fire Mountain have alternately enriched the soil and destroyed everything in its path.

At the foot of Pelee, on the northwest coast, Martinique's first botanical garden took root. As early as 1803, the residents of Saint-Pierre established a garden in which both native and imported plants flourished. Part agricultural school and part recreational venue, the garden became a source of rare plants--ferns, orchids, bromeliads, philodendron, bamboo--for European gardens. The flower-filled oasis was only one of many amenities in a town that boasted a high school, a courthouse, a town hall, a cathedral, and an eight-hundred-seat theater, thereby earning Saint-Pierre a reputation as the "Paris of the Antilles."

Founded by French colonists under Pierre Belain d'Esnambuc in 1635, the colony had developed into an important Caribbean port and a cosmopolitan community of thirty thousand inhabitants. Though Fort-de-France served as administrative center, Saint-Pierre was the cultural and commercial capital of Martinique. A few miles south, at Carbet, Paul Gauguin once set up his easel for a few months, before sailing off to his better-known tropical retreat in Tahiti.

On an island that had already experienced a multitude of foreign attacks and internal rebellions, May 8, 1902, marked the most devastating turn of events in its recorded history. The violent explosion of Mount Pelee sent an avalanche of mud, rocks, and clouds of burning gas cascading down its slopes, incinerating within minutes the structures on land and ships in the harbor. …

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