Bermuda’s manicured environs are the product of its hothouse climate, a subtropical mixing bowl of high humidity, loads of sunlight, and brief, torrential rainfall that makes green-thumbs of even neophyte gardeners. Not much is difficult to grow here, and garden clubs and horticultural societies devoted to raising roses, orchids, cacti, island endemics, and other dedicated plant varieties have flourished as a result. Yet, while gardens thrive, Bermuda’s wild spaces are few. More than 75 percent of the island’s landmass is developed; of that, over 10 percent is covered by concrete, roads, and buildings. Open space in the form of nature reserves and national parks makes up just 7 percent of all of Bermuda’s land and is therefore strictly protected. It is in these reserves that various habitats, including inland forest, mangroves, and coastal zones can be witnessed as they have existed for centuries. But mixed-use areas such as agricultural land, hotel properties, forts, and golf courses—though designed for different purposes—are also important breeding and nesting areas for bluebirds and other species and are home to many different types of both wild and planted flowers, bushes, and trees.
Flora blossom throughout the year (there is no autumnal fall of leaves here), infusing the island with deep color and scent. Lanes infused with the prolific oleander (Nerium oleander) turn pink with perfumed petals starting in June. Midsummer carpets of flaming royal poinciana (Delonix regia) splash the landscape red in July. Riotous magenta bougainvillea vines paint parks and gardens showily year-round, while waxy frangipani trees (Plumeria rubra and Plumeria alba) and lady-of-the-night turn evenings sweet with fragrant flowers throughout the summer. Morning glory vines laden with blue-violet blossoms creep over walls and fences, and banks of red, yellow, and orange nasturtium hem the roadsides. Trumpet lilies tumble onto sidewalks in October like a pile of golden goblets. And hedgerows of ubiquitous hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa sinensis), hillsides of February freesias (Freesia refracta-alba), and Bermuda Easter lily (Lilium longiflorum) fields stretching as far as the eye can see are iconic to the landscape.
Bermuda has 17 surviving endemic (or unique) plant species, some 150 native, or naturally occurring, species, 1,000 introduced species, and an estimated 900 cultivated plants. Such abundance has always entranced visitors. Former Beatle John Lennon was so taken by a particular species of yellow freesia he encountered in the Bermuda Botanical Gardens during a June 1980 sojourn—six months before his murder—that he gave his next album the same name: Double Fantasy. (Gardens staff planted a lily, suitably named Strawberry Fields Forever, where the freesia had once grown, though, predictably, the sign noting this vanished almost immediately.)
Much of Bermuda’s plantlife can be seen without special visits to nature reserves—along city streets, hemming roadways, and on public properties and attractions. The island’s 130 miles of roadsides alone offer an eclectic mix of most island plants, from wildflowers to aloes and agaves, from bamboo thickets to herbs and exotic trees. Similarly, Hamilton’s streets are lined with ornamental trees, including flamboyantly hued varieties such as the lilac jacaranda (Jacaranda mimosifolia), the cassias (golden and pink showers), and the African tulip tree. Reid Street’s parade of sweet-smelling black ebony sends down cascades of fragrant powder-puffs in early summer. Outside the Bermuda Library on Queen Street, a centuries-old Indian laurel welcomes visitors to Par-la-Ville Park; it looks like a tree from a storybook, thanks to its vast canopy, wide-stretched limbs, and gnarled spread of roots. In Flatts, a similarly historic mahogany tree stands at the junction of Middle Road and Harrington Sound, while a gargantuan banyan tree spreads over nearly an acre of land at the Southlands property in Warwick. Many of these landmarks are protected by law under tree preservation orders. Hamilton’s Victoria Park and Fort Hamilton property are also beautifully planted; the latter’s highlight is a circular moat garden accessed through limestone dungeons and boasting a bedded jungle of towering ferns, sprawling vines, locust and wild honey (or “Swiss cheese”) plants, elephant ears, bromeliads, life plants or “floppers,” and other shade-loving species.
Bermuda’s natural harvest of wild fruit is just as impressive. At different times throughout the year, roadsides, reserves, gardens, and trails are littered with abundant piles of fruit, lots of it collected by locals and used for making preserves—or eaten on the spot. Surinam cherries, produced twice a year, in the spring and fall, can be seen thick on evergreen bushes bordering many properties; the fruits are good to eat, though more sour than North American cherry varieties. Loquat trees are heavy with fat, yellow fruit in January and February—a favorite after-school treat for passing children. Guava plums and prickly pears, though difficult to pick from thorn-infested plants, are commonly eaten or boiled for jams. Bay grapes ripen in the autumn along waxy-leafed coastal bushes. Summer storms shake down plump avocados en masse. Towering pawpaw trees, palm-like in appearance with large, round yellow fruit that are good for baking and renowned as meat tenderizer, can be found everywhere. Local bananas also grow abundantly; small and thin, they are sweeter than imported counterparts.
Bermuda’s British inclinations are nowhere so beautifully on display as in the parishes’ many rose gardens. Indeed, the island has been proclaimed “a living museum of roses” by one garden historian, with more than 140 different varieties noted. Tea roses, Chinas, bourbons, noisettes, hybrid musks, climbers, ramblers, and miniatures—old garden roses are prolific on the island. Perhaps the most intriguing group is the so-called mystery roses, whose original name and provenance are not known. Instead, these sometimes-unusual blooms have been given the name of the place or owner of the garden where they were found, and most commonly are simply labeled “Bermuda roses.”
Roses have been part of the Bermuda landscape since early settlement. In 1639, a visiting Spaniard noted that many gardens were full of roses, and since then, numerous references point to the popularity of the rose here through the centuries. The Bermuda Rose Society (P.O. Box PG 162, Paget, PG BX, tel. 441/236-0215 or 441/292-4575), founded in 1954, today is affiliated with similar societies in Britain, North America, Australia, and New Zealand and is a member of the World Federation of Rose Societies. Its 100 members work to encourage the cultivation of roses, conserve old garden roses, and import others suitable to the island’s climate and conditions.
Society members propagate hundreds of rose bushes for sale every year and also care for several dedicated rose gardens around the island, where all varieties can be appreciated free of charge. These include the rose garden at the Botanical Gardens in Paget; another at the Heydon Trust Property in Sandys; and the Heritage Rose Garden at Waterville in Paget, the Bermuda National Trust headquarters. Old garden roses can often be found in sheltered church gardens, too, such as Christ Church in Warwick; Holy Trinity Church in Bailey’s Bay; and old Devonshire Church. Somers Garden in St. George’s is another showcase for almost two dozen types of Chinas, teas, and mystery roses. The flowering season for most roses in Bermuda is October–May, though, depending on weather conditions, some varieties bloom throughout the year.
Interestingly, through the exchange of cuttings between society members and overseas colleagues, Bermuda roses such as the “Smith’s Parish,” “Emmie Gray,” “Miss Atwood,” “St. David’s,” and “Bermuda Kathleen” have taken root around the world, including several U.S. locations: Huntington Botanic Gardens in San Marino, California; the Antique Rose Emporium in Brenham, Texas; and the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens in Brooklyn, New York.
Island folklore has enshrined the healing and nutritive value of many Bermuda plants. The practice of herbalism dates back to the colony’s earliest days, including the use of poisonous species as a form of revolt by black slaves against their owners. Nontoxic plants also fueled a plethora of uses: the large red leaves from match-me-if-you-can bushes were soaked in whiskey or vinegar and wrapped over the body to relieve measles and fevers; plantains were believed to heal sexually-transmitted diseases; allspice leaves were used as antioxidants; a bath of chicory and herbs could combat eczema and diabetes; the raw pulp of prickly pears was said to stop diarrhea; and cedar berry syrup was a common cold remedy.
A small medicinal garden, planted next to the kitchen beds behind Camden House, can be found at the Botanical Gardens. Herbalist Juliet Duncan lectures and writes on the therapeutic value of local plants. Her publication, Historic and Edible Herbs & Berries of Bermuda, can be found at some related retail outlets, including Brighton Nurseries (12 Brighton Ln., Devonshire, tel. 441/236-5862, brighton [at] logic [dot] bm).
Gardening clubs include the Bermuda Botanical Society (Visitors Centre, Botanical Gardens, Paget, tel. 441/236-5291); The Garden Club of Bermuda (tel. 441/232-1273); the Bermuda Rose Society (P.O. Box PG 162, Paget, PG BX, tel. 441/236-0215 or 441/292-4575); the Bermuda Orchid Society (P.O. Box HM 3250, HM PX, tel. 441/293-2035); and the Bermuda African Violet Society (P.O. Box HM 1112, Hamilton, HM EX, tel. 441/236-5669 or 441/234-1050). Most clubs meet once a month through most of the year and welcome visitors.
© Rosemary Jones from Moon Bermuda, 2nd Edition