Her piece of paradise

Anne Jno Baptiste has spent 20 years nurturing a dream - and a botanical garden - in the rain forest of Dominica.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Lunging out of the sea like dark shark's teeth, Dominica is the largest, most mountainous of the chain of Windward Islands in the Caribbean.

Located between Martinique and Guadeloupe, this "nature island of the Caribbean" is a wonderland of tumbling waterfalls, narrow sun-glazed beaches, an east coast lush with rain forest, a west coast dry in mountain shadow, not to mention a central "boiling lake" that occasionally flushes itself out, only to return.

Along with internal ferment, Dominica is sometimes shaken by strong winds - as Anne Jno Baptiste and her husband can attest. When Hurricane David tore through the island in 1979, it literally tore up the Roseau Valley - including their garden at Papillote Wilderness Retreat.

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The hurricane "ripped out every bit of soil and vegetation, turning what had been green to bare brown in a matter of hours," says Ms. Baptiste.

Surprisingly, she wasn't discouraged. "You have to take everything as an opportunity," she says matter-of-factly.

Today, Papillote, hidden away in the rain forest close to the twin plumes of Trafalgar Falls, boasts one of the loveliest small botanical gardens anywhere.

It may have taken more than 20 years, but nothing deterred this transplanted American from renewing the garden she was creating before the hurricane arrived. "It's my passion," says Baptiste, who was born in New York City, grew up in Miami Beach, and had a career in micropaleontology before moving to Dominica.

To a visitor, the garden she has created and nurtured appears to be tropical perfection. But, like gardeners everywhere, Baptiste has had to cope with less than ideal conditions.

Besides hurricanes, the challenges include rainfall of about 200 inches a year, rocky soil, and an altitude of 1,000 feet. Constant attention must be paid to terracing, drainage systems, and erosion control.

What looks like luxuriant wilderness has actually been carefully designed: Nestling under a canopy of tree ferns and breadfruit trees are five acres of begonias, heliconias, aroids, bromeliads, rare and native orchids, and gingers - not to mention banana, cacao, and coffee trees.

Visitors from North America have seen many of these tropical plants only as houseplants or as cut flowers.

Baptiste knows exactly what every plant needs. She watches "how the sun traverses the sky, what areas get sun at what time of day and season," she says. She also spends a lot of time observing what's happening in the garden.

Starting at the main entrance with its big castor bean tree, she and I ascend a long set of steps onto a stone patio, passing banana trees, a Cord fig - whose stem makes rope for sewing Dominican grass mats - heliconia, and daturas, while some 50 different species of begonia bend and sway. Indigenous orchids and peperomias make their homes on an orange tree.

Across the patio are calabash trees and a rare jade vine, which is glorious in bloom.

Ahead is the Iguana Pool, one of three beautifully sculpted pools whose water is piped into Papillote from higher on the mountain.

Farther up the hill is a lookout surrounded by habanero peppers, Dominican strawberries - looking more like American raspberries - guavas, verbenas, and roses, as well as herbs. All of these plants are particularly attractive to birds, says Baptiste.

We come to a steep slope absolutely covered in greenery. "After the hurricane made the hill nearly perpendicular," she says, "I created little niches and planted begonias as part of erosion control. Above them I planted bamboo in a "V" to catch anything that falls down. I've spent years working on drains [so vegetation is not washed off the hillside]."

Heading lower, we pass a show of bromeliads with cups in yellow, mauve, deep violet, and blood red; then an oil palm from Africa; and an African tulip tree. "If you look way back in there" - she gestures at slopes high above - "you'll see Acroma pyramidalis going out of bloom and into seed. It produces a fluff that [local] people collect to stuff mattresses and pillows."

Bantam hens, guinea fowl, and peacocks decorate the path under a cacao tree, yellow pods thrusting from its trunk. Smashing a pod, she offers a sample. "Don't bite the bean, because it's bitter. Suck the white pulp off. The bean is what Dominicans make chocolate from."

She's working even as we speak, picking up fallen branches, tucking in soil where it has washed loose. We come to a platform overlooking a high waterfall and look down on enormous sword-shaped leaves. "Everything sparkles," she points out. "That's a Gross Michelle banana, one of the biggest."

Baptiste is committed to conserving indigenous species. In addition to an endangered orchid, Epidendrum discoidale, she grows rare aroids. She also experiments, keeping in touch with international developments, and sending for unusual seeds, such as the surreal Amorphophallus paeoniifolius, which is closely related to the rare Amorphophallus titanum, often called the world's largest flower for blooms that usually exceed 6 feet.

An aquamarine jade vine is another extraordinary plant, spreading its leaves on an overhanging orange tree. It flowers at Papillote between January and May.

How much help does this remarkable woman have with all this gardening? "One young man helps," she admits. "But I'm a workaholic. I really like to work and be outdoors. I'm happy in the garden, just being in it. I love it. Every part of it."

Practically everyone who visits feels the same.

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