A Traditional Garden of Uncommon Beauty


THEY lived in a beautiful place but could not enjoy its delights. From the 17th century onward, that was the lot of thousands of unfortunate Africans who were kidnapped from their homelands and brought to Guadeloupe and Martinique. Slavery in the sugarcane fields of these Caribbean islands would occupy most of their waking hours for the rest of their life.

Many plantation owners on the islands made the slaves responsible for feeding themselves, so the slaves planted gardens. More work was the last thing they needed, but at least they could grow foods that they liked. They raised manioc, yams, and other foods that tasted better and were more nutritious than anything they might have received from their masters. They also cultivated medicinal herbs as well as spices for cooking.

In 1848 the French government abolished slavery on the islands, but the newly freed citizens kept planting their gardens. Today the people of Guadeloupe and Martinique, many of them descendants of those hardworking Africans, continue to cultivate what are now known as Creole gardens.

A Rain Forest in Miniature

The slave households came to have two types of gardens. The vegetable garden was usually set off a distance from the house. The “house garden” (or, jardin de case, as it is locally known)  grew next to the house, and the typical Creole garden today takes this form. Such a garden holds an interlocking abundance of flowers, grasses, trees, and bushes that can be as thick as the undergrowth of a rain forest. Since vegetation fills all available space, your first impression might be one of delightful disorder. But this garden is well organized and divided into sections. Narrow paths allow the gardener to get up close to all of his plants.

The garden extends from the back of the house to the front, where it serves as a spectacular reception area. When visitors call, the family welcomes them amid iridescent crotons, golden-trumpets, and the brightly colored leaves of bougainvillea and ixora.

Medicinal plants occupy other parts of the Creole garden, often those areas shaded by the house. Basil, cinnamon, goatweed, bay leaf, and jack in the bush are part of the traditional pharmacopoeia of the islands. Lemon grass also grows in the garden, and burning its dried leaves helps keep mosquitoes away.

Many people in the islands treasure their knowledge of medicinal plants. In times past, when someone fell ill or was injured, the doctor was often far away. So the herbs of the Creole garden allowed people to treat their own health problems. These plants are still used medicinally, but self-medication can be dangerous. Instead of curing the patient, an herb applied incorrectly could make him worse. So, modern residents of the islands generally entrust their medical care to those trained to administer it.

The main part of the Creole garden, the part located behind the house, is set aside for food plants. There you will find yams, eggplants, corn, spleen amaranth, garden lettuce, and other crops, with the spices used in preparing those foods growing close by. Banana plants may grow there, and you might see such trees as breadfruit, avocado, guava, or mango.

Feel the Attraction

When you walk by a Creole garden, you may feel drawn to enjoy its beauty up close. Once inside, you can admire blossoms and leaf arrangements as the sun highlights their colors. Meanwhile, the breeze stirs a mixture of fragrances that bottled perfume cannot imitate. Yes, you take pleasure in the garden, and you are just visiting. Imagine the enjoyment of the householder who planted that garden and spends time in it every day!

Will the Creole garden survive? Some islanders lament the lack of interest younger ones show in maintaining such an attractive and beneficial tradition. Still, many young people, as well as older ones, treasure the garden’s beauty and its cultural meaning. Each Creole garden is a reminder of how African slaves made the best of bad circumstances.

[Box on page 27]


The word “Creole” originally referred to people of European descent who were born in the New World, but it has come to have a multiplicity of meanings. Some Haitians use “Creole” to describe something very attractive or of high quality. Certain languages in Jamaica, Haiti, and other places are called Creole. Basically, a creole is a language that evolved from a pidgin language but has become a native language of a group of speakers.

“Creole” has also come to designate a specific way of life, the indigenous culture that has developed on many Caribbean islands. In Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the related Spanish word criollo has that connotation. In the Caribbean the descendants of natives, Africans, and Europeans have intermingled and married one another over the centuries, producing beautiful children and intriguing traditions. It is in the spirit of such traditions that the Creole garden of Guadeloupe and Martinique got its name.

 [Pictures on page 26]

Inset photos (from top): alpinia, pepper, pineapple, cacao, and coffee