Memories of plants and site
Our connection to place and culture is impacted on by the plants we associate with in our landscapes, many of which are imprinted in our memory. In this post I will highlight two trees in the Dominica Botanic Gardens which bring a smile as I reflect on a fun childhood growing up in Dominica and walking through the gardens after school. These two trees are the Velvet Tamarind Tree and the Cannon Ball tree. The history of the plants found in botanical store houses such as the Dominica Botanic Gardens should be valued and documented as an important part of our heritage. Memory and human stories give a voice and life to the history of a place.
Dominica played an important role in the economic expansion of Britain even after slavery was abolished and well into the 20th century. The Dominica Botanic Gardens established in 1889 is sited on a former sugar plantation. It was a satellite station of Kew Gardens in London and was an important testing ground for tropical plants brought in from all over the world. Many of these specimens have been destroyed over the years by hurricanes and other circumstances.
With trade and global exploration came the increasing fascination with the new and exotic botanical species, “Gardens became like precious jewel boxes in which each gem was laid out side by side in order to be inspected and admired." (Wulf A. 2008)
The title of this post ‘Cannon Balls and Velvet Hearts’ reflects Dominica’s turbulent Colonial history, a history full of invasions, battles. To this day our landscape is littered with evidence of this. Today cannons can be seen strategically sited at many of our heritage locations.
Black velvet hearts for me symbolize the African souls taken from their homes and transplanted into Dominican soil as a result of The Transatlantic slave trade. Tamarind, a tree which makes me reflect on the sourness of this part of our African history, a tree connected with the hangings of our African ancestors on the plantations.
Velvet tamarind (Dialium indum)
Also known as Monkey tamarind, African velvet tamarind, Yuk Lee and locally as tamawen – vlu
In Igbo it is known as Icheku, In Yoruba as Awin, and Hausa as tsamiya-kurm. It is also called licki-licki by some people
The Velvet tamarind tree was located in the ornamental section of gardens close to the Cannonball tree. Sadly it is now lost to us since the passing of hurricane Maria in 2017. This fruit-bearing evergreen tree, prefers a tropical climate and is native to S.E Asia and tropical areas such as West Africa.
It belongs to the family Leguminosae, and has small, flatish fruits with a beautiful hard shell covered in the smoothest black velvet. When cracked open there is a brown edible pulp which surrounds a single brown seed. When the pulp is sucked it has a tamarind flavour with a dry powdery texture. The tiny fruit are popular in Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria and Senegal and in Asia the pulp is collected and mixed with spices and served as a sweet which sounds very much like our much loved tamarind balls.
The flowers are white and arranged in shoots and are loved by hummingbirds, bees and butterflies
In Dominica the fruit though small was loved by children walking through the gardens on their way to and from school. Many adults who enjoyed the gardens in younger days will remember Velvet tamarind and searching in the grass for the tiny black velvet hearts which had fallen from the tree.
The Velvet Tamarind fruit in many countries is used in traditional medicine. The leaf, bark and the fruit are valued and used in herbal applications. This fruit is also known to be mineral and vitamin rich, acts as an antioxidant and promotes digestive health. The tender leaves of velvet tamarind have been used in skin treatments to stimulate the growth of healthy skin and protecting wounds.
I find it fascinating when I look back to things we ate as children, unusual fruit and plants which unknown to us at the time, we now find that many of these have health benefits. I would love to hear from anyone who has special memories of this tree or any other unusual trees in the gardens.
Cannonball tree – Couroupita guianensis carrion tree
The Cannonball tree is native to the tropical forests of northern South America, especially the Amazon Basin. It is also found in India, Thailand and parts of Africa. The tree was given its species name Couroupita guianensis by the French botanist J.F. Aublet in 1755.
This tree was severely damaged during hurricane Maria and like much of the vegetation on the island is still in recovery. This year I am pleased to see it is bearing its first fruit since the hurricane.
The Cannon ball tree is an unusual tree as most trees bear their flowers and fruits on the branches, rather than along the trunk. The large round fruit are rusty brown in colour with rough skin. The mature fruit are about the same size and resemble cannon balls, hence the name. The ripe fruit have a white flesh with many seeds and when exposed to the air the flesh turns blue. In some countries the fruits are eaten, but only occasionally because of the unpleasant odor. The brightly coloured flowers are zygomorphic and measure around 12 cm across. They are thick and waxy in texture with a sweet scent attractive to bees and bats which aid pollination
The extracts of some parts of the Cannonball tree are said to possess antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. In some cultures this plant is valued for its medicinal properties with extracts of different parts of the plant being used to treat hypertension, tumours, inflammation, common cold, stomach ache, skin conditions, wounds and treating toothache. In some Asian countries it is valued as having cultural and religious significance.
The Fruits have hard shells which are used as containers and the wood of the tree is used to manufacture boxes, toys,