“I came to the island in 1961 on vacation with a friend and a motorbike,” she recalls. “We explored the island, staying in various places. Every time I came up this valley my heart beat faster, and I was overwhelmed by its beauty. One day, an old man came running after me; he was desperate to sell a piece of land. I bought it, went back to the States to finish my life up there, and came back to stay in 1967 when Dominica was still a British colony.”
Baptiste immediately started to work on her garden, which proved to be a very challenging task—partly because of the location on an extremely steep hillside ending as a dramatic cliff. Above the cliff face, two big streams are descending. One is cold fresh water cascading down in a waterfall. The other, a hot mineral spring with orange-coloured water, trickles down the hill, captured in several hot spring pools along the way. This is an awe-inspiring, hauntingly alluring site. In fact, this exceptionally beautiful valley holds another natural wonder: twin Trafalgar falls situated a short walk away from Baptiste’s garden.
The beginning of the garden consisted mainly of shade-loving plants under a thick rainforest canopy of trees. And then Hurricane David came in 1979 blowing everything away. Coping with such monumental destruction wasn’t easy, but Baptiste and her Dominican- born husband were determined to start again. Over the years, they not only replanted the garden, but also built a nature lodge and a restaurant. Papillote Wilderness Retreat as we know it today was born.
The name Papillote comes from two freed slaves, Pappi and Alliot, who farmed the land in the 1850s. Hurricane David took down all tall trees, and suddenly the whole garden was opened up to the sunlight. This gave Baptiste a new opportunity to have a richer variety of plants including sun-loving ones. Today, the garden looks like it has been here forever.
The planting is immensely lush and it has a spontaneous-looking, naturalistic effect. Baptiste became an enthusiast of the naturalistic planting style long before it became fashionable. This approach requires from a gardener very careful management and knowledge. Plants were chosen not only for their ecological compatibility but also for their contrasting shapes and forms. The effect is astounding, like being transported into the original Eden.
Plantings resemble rich tapestry and have a sense of transparency. Sunlight filters through lace-like tree fern leaves, interweaving with layers of different colours and textures, like delicately shimmering threads set on a strong background of dark waterfall rock. Sudden splashes of light shining in different shades of green add a stained-glass effect to the whole composition.
When you look up, you realize that everything grows on everything else. There are bromeliads growing on tree ferns, orchids on mossy trunks, vines climbing up calabash trees. Begonias seed themselves on steps and walls. The towering scale of planting creates a lasting impression. The lushness and richness of this composition resemble vertical gardens, sometimes also called “living walls,” which have gained such popularity in recent years. Comfortable paths wind throughout the garden, crisscrossing the hot and cold streams, travelling up to the waterfall. They provide a framework for collections of gingers, heliconias, aroids, ferns, anthuriums and bromeliads thriving happily together.
This garden is home to many rare indigenous plants. “We’ve been protecting many native species,” she remarks. “Preserving them is one of the tasks of this garden.” Among the garden’s most unusual plants is a striking aroid from Asia, Amorphophallus paeonifolius with a giant flowering structure. Visitors marvel at turquoise jade vine, pipevine (Aristolochia) or black and white bat flower plants with extraordinary long whiskers. The speed of growth is phenomenal. This is a real rainforest with an average of 250 inches of rainfall per year. This, however, also represents a serious gardening challenge. The rains are leaching the soil, depriving it of its nutrients. Composting and mulching is necessary. “Another big challenge is climate change,” says Baptiste. “It affects us with a change of weather pattern; now much harder to predict.”
“I’ve been here 50 years now,” she remarks. “Over the years we employed three generations of people from the village of Trafalgar.” It is very unusual for a garden to be the under care of the same gardener for such a long time. Only a handful of Caribbean gardens were lucky this way: Andromeda Gardens made by Iris Bannochie was one of them. Mamiku Gardens, designed by Veronica Shingleton- Smith, and Diamond Botanical Gardens in St Lucia, a creation of Joan du Boulay Devaux, share the same good fortune, being still fine and thriving gardens. “I really hope this garden will last when I’ll be gone,” Baptiste says. “I hope it will continue to be such a strong tourist draw and an valuable asset for Dominica.”
Papillote is an astounding creation. It is hard to believe that Baptiste, now a gardening guru, never had any formal horticultural training. “In my previous life I was marine lab researcher not a gardener,” she says, with a twinkle in her eye. “Then I came to Dominica for my current life, which is wonderful. Gardening remains to be the biggest passion of my life.”
To be immersed in this ethereal beauty is an almost transcended experience. These exceptional gardens will feed your sense of beauty, fine-tune your capacity for perception, and uplift your soul.