A man of many plants

 After 15 years, Andrew Guthrie will be leaving his post as general manager of the 65-acre Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park on 31 May. In June he’ll be taking on a new role as garden manager at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Gardens at Wisley, just outside London.
   The Observer was fortunate to have the chance to tour the premises with Guthrie as he reflected on his time at the park.
   “Looking back I’d say I had the chance to work with some fantastic plants, and work with a lot of very interesting people,” he says.
   Entering the Park through the visitors’ centre today, it’s hard to believe it was only opened by Queen Elizabeth II in 1994. Owned jointly by the Cayman Islands Government and the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, in those days it was just a rough sketch of what it is today, and needed a general manager to get things up and running from both a horticultural and business standpoint.
   Guthrie learned about the general manager role while working as curator of the J.R. O’Neal Botanic Park in Tortola, BVI.
    “I knew about the project as one of the trustees of the garden in Tortola was from Cayman and mentioned that the park was opening,” says Guthrie.
   “I also heard about it from Commonwealth Historic Resource Management Limited, the Canadian firm in charge of the overall design, who kept calling me and asking questions.”
   Before his arrival in Cayman, Guthrie worked as a horticulturalist for the Pittsburgh Zoo, not far from his native Morgantown, West Virginia.
   With his roots in the Appalachians, working in hilly Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and arriving from mountainous Tortola, it’s no surprise Guthrie’s first impression of Cayman was not horticultural but geographic.
   “My first thought was how flat Cayman was!” he says, laughing.
   He got busy discerning the lay of the land.
   “I found a dedicated group of people committed to making the park happen,” he says.
   When Guthrie arrived, construction on the park was in full swing.
   “The property was rugged, not virgin land but the last time it had been used for anything had been 70 to 80 years previously,” says Guthrie.
   “There was just a dirt track leading to the property from the main road.”
   The first order of business was getting input on projects and setting up the property in business terms.
   “When I got here there were no official procedures, the staff didn’t have contracts, it was very loosely structured,” says Guthrie.
   “I had to get things organised so they followed government rules and regulations.”
   He adds: “We also had to decide what plants we were going to use!”
Hasn’t it always been like this?
   When Guthrie arrived at his new posting, work had already commenced on the park’s visitors’ centre, the Colour Garden, the Heritage Garden and the lake excavations.
   Today, the Visitors’ Centre features restrooms, a gift shop, office and meeting space, and a reception foyer. For those without first-hand experience of the destruction Ivan wreaked on the park, a photo exhibition shows just how far it has come since September 2004.
   Outside is a welcoming oasis of fountains and greenery where a dripping Jade Vine hangs over a tranquil pool and the resident Blue Iguanas frequently stroll through.
   The lovely colour garden features floral displays, wooded areas with native trees and open, grassy spaces where visitors pass through areas laid out in a wide variety of plants grouped together in pink, red, orange, yellow, white, blue, purple and lavender themes.
   Moving deeper into the park to the lake, which looks like it’s always been there, visitors will likely spot a number of winged residents including West Indian Whistling Ducks. As more and more wetlands are lost to development, the lake’s importance as a wildlife refuge is growing.
Cultivating heritage
   The Heritage Garden is always an interesting stop, as it features plants and trees that were traditionally used for food and medicine set in a traditional sand yard and adjoining “grounds.”
   For Guthrie, the Heritage Garden was an interesting exercise in history and culture, as well as horticulture.
   An old Caymanian house, circa 1900, owned by Julius Rankine from East End, was brought to the park and restored. Surrounded by a sand garden filled with traditional ornamental plants and traditional fruit trees, it features a tree which is increasingly rare, the Cedar, Cedrela odorata which takes up a prominent place close to the front walkway.
   “Putting the garden together, we had great help from a number of ladies who had been around in the old days who could tell us about the plants used for cooking and household use,” says Guthrie.
   Additionally, he credits Lorna McGubbin’s research of traditional medicinal plants, which resulted in the collection found alongside the cottage.

Not just random
    “In choosing the plants to grow at the Park, naturally, we had to look at what could grow well in Cayman, but there were other aspects we had to consider as well,” says Guthrie.
   “We had to eliminate invasive species, and keep an eye on others for their potential to become invasive.”
    The park has also avoided plants that are closely related to Cayman’s endemic plants, which might cross-pollinate with native species.
   Recent additions to the park include the development of a new palm garden over the past two years, which contains about 86 species of palm trees.
   Guthrie’s face lights up as he describes the work put into the garden, and reveals he’s a particular fan of the Talipot Palm, otherwise known as the Corypha umbraculifera, which grows for 80 to 90 years to a massive size. It then blooms for the only time in its life in a great explosion of flowers, only to die shortly thereafter.
   The Botanic Park’s specimen is a mere sprig, and Guthrie says he’ll regret not seeing it grow over the years. But that’s not to say he won’t be coming back for the occasional visit.
   “I’ll be living just a few miles from Heathrow,” he points out.
   The park’s newest feature, an orchid garden accessed by a boardwalk, only opened in February but it’s already sporting some impressive and interesting specimens, including Cayman’s national flower, the Banana Orchid and the extremely rare Ghost Orchid.
What’s in store
   “There is a lot of work still to be done and in particular the palm garden is only just emerging as an attraction at the park,” says Guthrie.
   “In a few years it will truly be a sight to behold.”
   But working out the horticultural developments at the park is not the only thing his successor will face.
   “We are in need of money all the time,” says Guthrie.
   “We do have a grant from Government, and the park makes money from memberships through the Friends of the Botanic Park programme, donations, grants, and memorial trees, benches and signs.”
   Revenues from tickets, the gift shop and the nursery also go toward running the park. With 15 staff members, the park has dramatically slashed its staff in recent months.
   “We’ve managed to cut to bare bones, and we’re finding it a challenge to get donations in this tough economic climate where there is only so much money to go around,” says Guthrie.
Not just tourism
   By diversifying its role and providing services as well as a pretty place to take a stroll, the park is slowly coming into its own in areas outside tourism.
   The above-mentioned native plant nursery was established through a Department of Environment initiative, after it received funds to grow native plants for local gardeners.
   “Park staff arranged the collection of the seeds and did the propogation, as well as growing them in the nursery,” says Guthrie.
   He says native plants are also incorporated into the park’s gardens to help local gardeners see how they can be used.
   The park’s conservation work with regard to endemic plants has led to some encouraging results.
   Walking along the path leading from the Visitors’ Centre, Guthrie points out a large patch of Cayman’s endemic bromeliad, recently awarded the common name “Old George” in a contest. Scientists might know it better as Hohenburgia caymanensis.
   The name is apt: the plant was growing in greatest abundance in George Town before a development wiped out a significant portion of it. It’s highly endangered, and quite finicky.
   “We have successfully been able to grow it from seed ourselves and then plant it here, but for some reason it does not grow on its own here at the park,” he said.
   “There is likely a missing element on this part of the Island preventing it from reproducing on its own.”
   He also notes the park’s collection of Pisonia Margaretia.
   “The entire world’s population is in a small area of Spotts. We propogated every single known tree, so the entire known genetic population is saved here at the park.”
   In the event all the wild specimens are wiped out, if all goes well, they will at least continue to live on in their last sanctuary.
   The Botanic Park also works closely with the Cayman Islands Orchid Society, which has a lab at the park, to propagate native orchids and establish them at the park and other protected areas around the island.
   The park is therefore attracting a broader spectrum of visitors as it matures.
   “We have members of the public who volunteer or come here regularly. In terms of the park as an educational resource, all the schools come here, as do Sunday schools and summer camps. A visit to the park can be important for kids studying science,” says Guthrie.
    “In these and other ways, I would say the park has become an important part of the community.”
A home to more than plants
   Birders know that the park plays host to an abundance of birds easily viewed from the paths and boardwalks.
   As home to the Blue Iguana breeding facility, visitors can also learn about Cayman’s elusive and nearly extinct reptiles.
   But thanks to the park’s four-legged residents, not everything that grows in Cayman is on display.
    “We can’t grow ornamental sweet potatoes or marigolds because the iguanas just love to eat them,” says Guthrie.
   “And the agoutis also like to eat a few of the ground crops.”
   For that reason, in the grounds area in the Heritage Garden, cassava and sweet potatoes are planted in a well fenced area.
A new beginning
   Leaving Cayman on 8 June Guthrie will have a few days to get settled before he officially starts work at Wisley at the end of the month.
   “Overall, I’m proudest of being part of developing the park to a state where it is a functional botanical garden,” he says.
   “But I’m sad to leave before I see the palm garden in its glory, which is a few years down the road.”
   Having gained the sought after posting at Wisley, Guthrie says he is looking forward to working at the 240-acre facility, recently voted an Attraction of the Year in the 2010 Enjoy England Awards for Excellence.
   Among its many exhibits, the garden features a vast glasshouse, which covers an area equal to 10 tennis courts and boasts a wide range of tropical plants.
   Guthrie is sure to find himself right at home.