Between Poivre and Pamplemousses, a spicy story…
The magnificent botanical garden, located in the proximity of Port-Louis, has come to be known under various names, ranging from “Jardin de Mon Plaisir”, to “Jardin des Plantes” or still, “Jardin Botanique Royal”. Finally, in 1988, it has been renamed to “Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden”, in honour of the man who led the country to independence and who once, was the Prime Minister of Mauritius. Although this name is quite a recent one, it seems to be scarcely used, even ignored by the visitors. The garden is frequently known as “Jardin de Pamplemousses” (Garden of Pamplemousses), which clearly originates from the adjoining village.
The garden owes its origins to François Mahé de La Bourdonnais, governor of Ile de France (ancient name of Mauritius island), who bought the property at Mon Plaisir, and had his house built and a vegetable garden created there. However, Pierre Poivre, a predestined name, was the genuine and passionate creator. When this botanist and explorer, once a seminarist, visited Ile de France, he turned out to be a real “missionary of spices”.
18th century… Poivre is a young man having a keen sense for adventure and he wants to ban the Dutch monopoly on the spices market. He has decided to import the spices in the French colonies. Consequently, he landed on the island with trunks full of seeds and shrubs that scented the holds of his ship! He had chosen them with great care during his voyages, or at times, the plants were cleverly absconded at his own risk. As such, nutmeg trees, clove trees, and pepper plants will gradually adapt to the climate prevailing at “Jardin de Mon Plaisir”. Unfortunately, Fusée-Aublet, a jealous horticulturist, sabotaged his cultures whenever Poivre was not looking! Even though Poivre returned to France, disillusioned from the experience, he did not admit defeat nonetheless, as a great determination characterised this man who has seen worse.
As a matter of fact, he came back some ten years later, in 1767, but this time, as the administrator of Bourbon Island (Réunion) and Ile de France. Pierre Poivre was a one-armed person (during a naval battle, a cannonball tore away his wrist and he had to undergo an amputation), but his skill, his knowledge, his tenacity and his experience helped him to overcome all obstacles. He introduced numerous trees and spices from all over the world in the Pamplemousses garden, whose names invited us on a worldwide tour: the Caribbean’s laurel, China’s camphor tree, the Philippines bread-root, or Cochin-China’s litchi… as well as many indigenous species as possible. Pierre Poivre, a noble and kind gentleman - besides, he was also against the ignominy of slavery - will be the originator of the first laws on the protection of nature. Together with his wife and daughters, he lived in the residence at Mon Plaisir (now destroyed, but substituted for an equally beautiful building, pompously named as “Château de Mon Plaisir”) till he decided to return in France, in Lyon, where he died in 1786. He was then sixty-seven years old.
His successor, Nicolas Céré, a botanist, tried his best to go on with the works of Pierre Poivre. He dedicated his life and fortune to enrich them with flowers and trees. Under such circumstances, the garden came to be highly valued by the most famous naturalists and is renowned worldwide today.
However, as from 1810, the British practically abandoned this magnificent garden. Yet, in 1849, James Duncan picked it up from abandon and brought back the garden’s original charm. He introduced new species such as ferns, araucarias, orchids, and bougainvilleas. The whole credit of planting numerous species of palm trees should be attributed to him. Nowadays, the royal palm, one of the varieties of the palm trees, adorns two magnificent avenues of the garden.
Various botanists, horticulturists and landscape gardeners succeeded him and carried on with what is known as a “work of art”, which will enchant visitors in search of beauty, serenity and poetry. We can only hope that they will not be disappointed of the effect of mankind on the garden’s spirits in the future…
Behind the impressive whitish iron-wrought gate, La Bourdonnais Avenue welcomes the visitors. Here, a huge baobab stands guard, and then, we stepped into the “Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam” or “Pamplemousses” Eden garden! On both sides of the avenue, a range of huge latans covered with creepers and philodendrons, an insight into the luxuriant vegetation of a tropical country, gave us a majestic and grand welcome.
Through a small transversal lane, we came upon Poivre Avenue, edged with gigantic royal palms, which seemed to be escorting us. On our right, a bridge spanned the whispering Citron River. We sat down in a small garden where trees coming from India and China grew side by side: cinnamon tree, teak, the Indian Almond tree, whose red wood is widely used by carpenters, and the royal guava tree. Here, simply admiring the landscape is not enough, we should feel and breathe in Nature itself! Even the trees scented the air with a light fragrance of flowers, fruits, spices…and the voyage went on…
A few steps further, in Epinay Avenue, we came across a thicket of yellow bamboo cane originating from India. The young shoots are used as vegetables and are consumed in most of Asia. Afterwards, strange open, fan-shaped palm leaves, similar to peacocks fanning their colourful tails, appeared at the intersection of Telfair and Cossigny Avenue. We had discovered the Talipot palm trees, adorned with gigantic leaves that could have easily measure up to 3 metres. They blossom only once in their whole lifetime. After 40 to 60 years, they offer a stunning view of a dazzling inflorescence, with more than 50 millions little flowers, that can be 6 metres above the tree and then, they die!
At the extreme end of Cossigny Avenue, we came upon the “Colonne Liénard”, a beautiful white-marbled obelisk, where the names of those who have greatly contributed to the prosperity of the island through constant development of the island’s flora and fauna are engraved. On one side of the marble shaft, a quotation of Bernardin de St-Pierre can be read as thus: “The gift of a useful plant is more precious to me than the discovery of a gold mine, and a longer lasting monument than a pyramid”.
Finally, here was the water lilies pond that offered a spectacular view of a fresh armful of white, blue or even pink flowers. Unfortunately, they will die after a span of two days. The extraordinary gigantism of these water lilies was surprising: the “Victoria Amazonica” has a diameter of 1 to 2 metres! It is generally said that it can carry the weight of a small child. Never try it out though, for this version of nature’s fact can only be felt with the eyes! Perhaps, we would have the chance to see the exotic beauty of the Pink Torch Ginger, concealed in the shadows of the surrounding foliage. Opposite the pond, Pierre Poivre's bust seemed to be watching over the garden…
At the start of Pope Henessy Avenue, we kept admiring the white or pale yellow flowers in the lotus pond. These flowers are highly venerated by the Hindus. Their leaves, lying on the still water, are “waterproof”.
In spite of our weary steps due to the heat prevailing, we continued our journey, as our curiosity prompted us further into this fairy tale landscape where we would not even be surprised to come across a gentle elf. Suddenly, we caught a glimpse of the Château de Mon Plaisir from afar, at the extreme end of the park. This large structure, with a lengthy veranda, is not the one that Mahé de La Bourdonnais had erected near the main gate. The British have built this one in the middle of the 19th century and today, it welcomes distinguished visitors who need to attend official ceremonies in the island. Indira Gandhi, Princess Margarett, François Mitterrand as well as many other famous and important persons, had the unique privilege of planting “their tree” in front of the Château.
We came back towards the interior of the garden, following Mon Plaisir Avenue. After crossing a little bridge, we discovered a gigantic age-old tree, known as the “sacred fig tree”. Then, the “lake” came into view. It surrounds various islets that are covered with luxuriant and dense vegetation. However, we simply cannot leave without greeting the famous statue of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, who stirred great emotions in everyone with his renowned novel of Paul and Virginie. Their imaginary yet romantic tomb is known to be at the end of avenue, which is obviously named after them. In fact, it is only a pedestal, which seemingly should have welcomed the statue of the two lovers but instead, remained empty ever since.
It’s only near the entrance gate that we woke up to reality all of a sudden. We could have been on a guided tour through the garden, but it will be for a next time! Today, we have preferred to wander and dream of the magic of the place, like Alice in Wonderland…
Text: © Valérie Claro • Photos: © Fabrice Bettex / Mysterra