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"Home away from Home, for tropical plants in Zanzibar,

by Flo Montgomery










In August this year I visited Peru and was surprised to find that a large section of the Amazon Basin lies in that country. One morning in Iquitos we rose at 04:30 and caught a motorbike taxi from the hotel to a landing post on the Amazon river. The only sign of the river was a mysterious rushing sound in the humid darkness ahead. As the dawn slowly appeared, brown waters appeared and in the distance the faint outline of the opposite bank, over a kilometre away.

After a lengthy wait, a large boat appeared and the many waiting passengers embarked. Soon we were speeding down the enormous river, a flying plume of spray on either side. Eventually we spotted a distant craft slowly chugging towards us: the Rio Amazonas, our home for the next few days. The Peruvian boatmen were experts, our speedboat edging alongside so that we could climb up a narrow gangplank with our bags and baggage as the two craft raced along side-by-side.

Friendly crew greeted us and we instantly felt at home. We were shown to a cool cabin with comfortable furnishings and en suite shower. This was luxury we had not expected. We soon re-christened our bark the “Amazon Queen” as her elderly and charming appearance totally reminded us of the famous denizen of Lake Tanganyika piloted by Humphrey Bogart.

Other things soon began to remind me of Africa. One day we landed on a muddy shore and took a trek into the rainforest. Ouch! Spiny branches underfoot, when closely examined, soon proved to be offshoots of palms I was very familiar with. Surely this had to be – Cryosophila nana, the Rootspine palm which I had last seen in a very different environment. One by one, other old friends appeared, Chamaedorea palms near the ground in dappled shade, Euterpe Oleracea, loved for its heart, the source of the original “heart of palm” and as we neared a village of the Yagua people, Bactris gasipaes, the Peach palm, whose fruits are sweet and edible.

I had never been to South America before but soon familiar memories were bearing me back to a small island in the Indian Ocean: Zanzibar. That was where I had seen these palms before. And not only the palms: the Cocoa tree – Theobroma cacao – was growing here; and Annatto – Bixa orellana - which the Yagua Indians amongst other dwellers in the Amazon Basin, use to paint their faces a beautiful bright red, Avocado – Persea Americana - and all sorts of other fruits and spices I knew, were growing luxuriantly in the area.

Way back in 1991 I started collecting seeds and cuttings and began to plant a botanical garden at the Mbweni Ruins in Zanzibar, where we were building a small hotel on the western side of the island, just a little way south of the Stone Town on a beautiful white beach fringed with Mangrove trees. I knew nothing of plants then – apart from supposedly having inherited green fingers from various ancestors in my family.

I was especially interested in the palms and began to receive palm seeds from a lady named Inge Hoffmann who lives in America. She collects in and sends out palm seeds from all over the world. The ones which tend to do well in Zanzibar were the tropical ones of course – and some of these are from the Amazon. Others are from the Far East, Indonesia, Malaysia, India and so forth.

This was how I knew these palms near Iquitos, having grown them from seeds and planted them on at Mbweni where today some of them are tall and very prickly trees. It was even better to see them in their native habitat and this drove home to me how amazing Zanzibar is, being home to so many exotic species from around the world. It seems the Zanzibaris and others have imported nearly every tropical specie of fruit tree that can be found – especially the most delicious ones.

Mbweni is an area with an important botanical history. It lay relatively undisturbed until some time after the 7th Century, when it may have been settled by Arabs, then by Persians after the 12th Century and finally by Portuguese in the 16th and 17th Centuries. In 1871 there was a country house belonging to a wealthy Arab family standing where the main entrance of the ruins is today. The Omani Arabs loved to retreat from the city in the hot weather, when open sewers and an absence of garbage removal made the town a dangerous hotbed of infectious diseases such as cholera, plague, dysentery, typhoid and smallpox.

‘Mbweni Point Shamba’, including this Arab house, was bought by Bishop Tozer for the UMCA (Universities’ Mission to Central Africa) for the purpose of setting up a village for freed slaves and an Anglican mission. It was the first such large missionary settlement in East Africa and the initial 30 acres were added to later until there were about 150 acres of land covered in schools, a church, workshops, villagers’ houses, a market and sugar, coconut and maize plantations. Lime was also burned in large circular wood stacks. Coral was dug both for lime burning and as the main construction material of the mission buildings, so many circular pits are to be found in the area today.

Presumably at the same time, Sir John Kirk, who was then Surgeon General and British Vice-Consul, bought or was given a piece of land adjoining the mission, on the northern border overlooking the ocean. Some historical records say that when he became the British Consul, Seyyid Barghash, the reigning Sultan at that time and a good friend of Kirk’s, built him a house as a country retreat on this land. Kirk and his family used the house frequently and he planted an incredible garden around it.

Kirk, a keen botanist as well as a Medical Doctor, had gone with David Livingstone on his Zambezi expeditions to Central Africa in 1858 and 1859 when they were the first foreigners to see Lake Nyasa. He collected specimens which later became the basis of the Flora of East Africa and developed a keen interest in African plants but when he settled in Zanzibar he decided to add exotic species as well. For his experimental garden at Mbweni, he imported seeds, plants and cuttings from Kew Gardens in England as well as from India, the Far East and South America. His main purpose was to find out which useful plants would survive in the Zanzibar climate because it was clear that though the clove industry was prospering, it was the only real export product of Zanzibar and if this monoculture should collapse, the islands’ economy could fail. As well as his own garden, there were other collections of exotic plants in Zanzibar: over the years the Omani Sultans had planted wonderful palms outside the “Harem Palace” standing next to the House of Wonders; the Victoria Gardens in Stone Town were planted by Sultan Barghash outside the rest house he used on journeys to Chukwani Palace and the south of Unguja Island. There are many wonderful palms there including Licuala grandis from Vanuatu. There was an experimental garden at Migombani, which specialised in useful rather than ornamental plants, such as cotton, rubber, quinine and many kinds of shade trees which later adorned the avenues of Dar es Salaam and Tanzania’s other cities. Migombani Gardens can still be seen, opposite the High Hills hotel in Zanzibar, on the Airport road just south of Zanzibar town.

Kirk established there spices other than the clove, such as nutmeg, cardamom, cinnamon, vanilla, black pepper and ginger as well as exotic fruit trees such as various species of bananas, mangos, mangosteen, durian, breadfruit, jackfruit, cashew nut, avocado, cocoa, lychee, rambutan, zambarao and many others. In addition he brought in palms and cycads which produced leaves for thatching, palm wine and sago. He experimented with rubber vines, both endemic and imported. He may have brought sisal and other fibrous plants, though the Germans were the first to extablish the sisal industry on the mainland, when they took sisal plants from Mexico to Amani in the East Usambaras. Kirk planted cinchona, the source of quinine, as well as other medicinals. His garden was used to propagate the core species for all the botanic gardens of Tanzania, including Migombani in Zanzibar and Dar es Salaam Botanical Garden as well as Amani Botanic Garden in the Eastern Usambaras, on the mainland. Other species were added later to all of these gardens.

In the Mbweni Gardens, there are over 650 plant species of plants including around 150 palm species. There is at least one label for every specie and these bear the locally known name where they exist, as well as the Latin name and country of origin. A pleasant walk from the hotel leads past St John’s church, which has an interesting cemetery and can be visited if the sextant, Mr Peter Sudi, is present. He is a descendant of the first African Deacon of the UMCA, John Swedi, who was one of the 5 slave boys who were handed to Bishop Tozer by Sultan Majid to look after, when he arrived in Zanzibar. In the cemetery are some very prickly cycads - Encephalartos hildebrandtii - which are endemic on the east coast of Zanzibar and must have been planted by the missionaries at Mbweni. Lining the road past the church are large old Rain trees - Samanea saman - which close their leaves when it rains and are no protection in a shower! They flower around November and have fluffy pink blossoms. A large example of this tree can be found at the end of the hotel rooms, just above the beach.

Sir John Kirk’s old house lies along the side road leading from St John’s church. When Kirk left Zanzibar in 1887 it was bought by Caroline Thackeray, headmistress of the St Mary’s School for Girls (now known as the Mbweni Ruins) for 50 years. Every year, Miss Thackeray used to open the grounds to the public for a Garden Party. She deeded the property to the UMCA before she died there in 1926; she was buried at St John’s Church. Kirk’s House and gardens are now privately owned and not open to the public. Today the gardens are overgrown and attractively jungle-like, with rare and exotic species grown wild and rampant, including coffee, cycads, caryota palms, African oil palms and many others.

The village market used to stand at the beginning of the road to Kirk’s house, opposite the church. Further up the road connecting the church to the police station, at a small crossroads, is the old brick mission well. The north fork leads up to Kilimani, the little boys’ school of the mission which stands on a hill overlooking the sea and is also privately owned.

Cycas thouarsii In the palm garden beside the Industrial Wing are two ancient Cycads: these are Cycas thouarsii which are endemic in Pemba. This pair could be over 500 years old and presumably they were planted here by the earlier occupants of the site, though they may also have been common in this part of the islands at that time. The leaves are slim and feathery, similar to Cycas circinalis, which may be found elsewhere in the grounds, and in Kirk’s garden. The origin of the Cycas thouarsii species was probably Madagascar. Both of the large old trees at Mbweni are males, and a new tree has been planted beside them in the hope that it may be a female and that it will eventually produce fertile seeds.

Near the reception two large Jackfruit trees - Artocarpus heterophyllus - can be found with their large knobbly green fruits growing straight from the trunks, and another is to be seen beyond the ruins. Other trees planted by the missionaries are a Zambarao, or Java Plum - Syzygium cuminii - whose indigo coloured bitter fruits are much loved by the Zanzibar children, and a Horseradish tree - Moringa oleifera - whose long beanlike fruits can be pickled and used as a kind of chutney. Both of these trees can be found in the area to the south of the reception.

There is an enormous mango tree in front of the ruins, above the beach. A strangler fig which was killing this tree was cut away from it in 1992. The same species of ficus had embedded itself in the ruins and many walls fell down when the trees were removed from them.

Probably the pride of the collection is the palms, of which there are over 150 species spread about the grounds. The most interesting one is possibly Dypsis pembana which is endemic to Pemba and probably originated from Madagascar. Its beautiful feathery leaves and green and white clustered trunks are very decorative and around February the bright red fruits appear to delight the eye. I found the seeds for these trees in Ngezi Forest in Pemba, where they can be seen in their beautiful natural habitat.

The largest of the palms are the Royal palms - Roystonea regia - which are to be found surrounding the ruins. Two particularly fine specimens are growing inside the courtyard of the main building of the ruins, sheltered from the sea breezes by the old walls. In the palm garden there are Betel nut palms - Areca catechu - several kinds of Fishtail palms among which are - Caryota urens and Caryota mitis, a clumping species - and a particularly spiny inhabitant, Aiphanes caryotifolia, which I saw growing in Peru. There are many specimens of the beautiful Licuala grandis, with its round leaves with serrated edges. This palm does not grow very tall and hails from Vanuatu, formerly the New Hebrides Islands. Probably most spectacular is the Bismarckia nobilis, large palms with blue-white fan leaves, two of which can be seen in front of the Industrial wing of the ruins.

There are all sorts of birds, butterflies and small mammals around, attracted by the fruits and shade of the gardens. In the last century, the Zanzibar Leopard was known to live in the scrub to the south. Certainly Mongooses, Galagos and Serval and Civets are still in the area. The Galagos, or Bushbabies, love to feed on the oily fruits of the Neem trees and in the dry seasons when these are not available, they eat the sweet gum of the Acacia trees. There is a grove of these near a bird bath above the beach in front of the ruins.

A spice garden has been planted beside the ruins, containing Cinnamon, Nutmeg and Clove trees. In front of the west facade are some hardwood trees, including African Blackwood and Red Sandalwood. By a bench overlooking the ocean and beach is an Ylang Ylang tree whose yellow orchid-like flowers are highly scented. In the car park near the reception are feathery leaved Cassia grandis trees - the Pink Shower, which flowers around November. There are many species of Cassia, the most well known being the common Cassia spectablis and the drooping Indian Laburnum, or Cassia fistula, both of which have beautiful yellow flowers. Examples of these can be found on the far side of the ruins, above the beach and there is a red garden in the vicinity.

Along the outside walls of the gardens are many species and colours of Bougainvillaea, the thorny climber which grows so well in Brazil and Africa. Near the reception is a collection of Heliconias and Gingers. These are not indigenous, but thrive in the tropical climate of Zanzibar. There are Caladium and Begonia collections and several species of Bamboo near the terrace garden. Dotted about on the grassy stretch between the reception and the restaurant are many flowering Bauhinia trees with their butterfly-like blossoms, and pink and white Frangipanis - Plumeria - with their waxy scented flowers.

Near the swimming pool is a collection of palms and cycads. On the slopes leading up to the bar are several Date Palms - Phoenix dactylifera - and a Bottle Palm - Hyophorbe lagenicaulis - which is named for the characteristic bottle shape of the trunk in mature specimens. Along the beach many Coconut Palms - Cocos nucifera - have been planted. In the past Mbweni had many tall coconuts, but most of these fell in the great hurricane of 1871. There are two common species of coconut in Zanzibar, namely the East African Tall, which grows up to 100 feet and can live for over 100 years and the Pemba Dwarf, which is short and has yellow fruits which are used for the coconut milk or madafu, which is extremely refreshing and totally sterile and safe to drink if freshly opened.

In the water below the beach, a species of Zanzibar Mangroves grow - Sonneratia alba - protecting their own little ecosystem of bird and marine life. Shellfish cluster on their trunks, crabs scuttle about their exposed aerial roots at low tide and the Mangrove Kingfisher can be seen flitting about with its brilliant blue feathers. Contrary to popular opinion, just like other trees, mangroves hate salt water but can survive in the sea because their roots have a special system which enables them to filter 95% or more of the salt from the sea water. Sonneratia alba is a species which appears at the beginning of the land reclamation on the sea shore. If you like, it is the first sentinel in the sea and other species follow as the water retreats and new land is formed. They have white flowers and large round fruits which can float until they reach a suitable planting ground.

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