At its peak it was a place of beauty and recreation, and also of plant science. So what happened to this 32 acre park, and why, after over 100 years of being tended to by the Government does it look so bleak now?

About twenty years ago the Bermuda Botanical Gardens was thriving. Plants and trees were labelled and cared for; specialist collections took pride of place; there were guided tours and a library filled with books for reference. It’s likely the dedicated team that operated under the direction of a trained horticulturalist could never have envisioned the state that the 32-acre property is in today.

Complaints over the years have focussed on the absence of what differentiates a botanical garden—“a documented collection of living plants for the purpose of scientific research, conservation, display and education”—from a run-of-the-mill park. Of greater concern is that the grounds aren’t valued, as the lack of funding, staff training and appropriate support might suggest.

Government maintains the gardens are “critically important” to Bermuda and that a five-year strategic plan has been drafted that will address those concerns. The property, which straddles South Road and Berry Hill in Paget, advertises 24-hour access, seven days a week. In the daylight hours, it is rarely empty. Birthday parties and playdates are common, people walk their dogs and push babies in carriages; anyone wanting to exercise has free rein. “The public has adopted it as a park and it serves that function,” said Dr Walywn Hughes, who lived on the property from 1975 until 1990 when he was Bermuda’s director of agriculture. “It’s never going to be back to just a small 10- or 12-acre botanic garden. It’s utilised much more heavily and serves a different purpose, quite a proper purpose. But the 10 to 12 acres of what were the original Public Gardens and Agricultural Station, which is where most of the specimen trees and shrubs are, I think does deserve to be kept up to a proper standard. If you’re going to use the name Botanical Gardens, you’ve got to live by that to some extent. You expect to see the plants named, the gardens well kept, and I’m afraid that’s gone by the wayside.

The Botanical Gardens began as the Public Gardens, with ten acres of land purchased through the Public Garden Act 1896.  According to Karla Hayward, former government archivist who had earlier been Hughes’s secretary, the idea was to further capitalise on a “lucrative export trade supplying winter produce to New York City.”

Agricultural developments at the time were lagging “for want of an experimental garden and professional staff to test seed varieties appropriate for sub-tropical conditions,” she wrote in The Bermuda Board of Agriculture 1875–1968: An Administrative History. The Public Garden Act allowed for the purchase of the land and funding for the gardens and a superintendent to oversee them. George Bishop, a professional horticulturalist trained at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was the first. “Professional administration tied to non-professional, essentially political management proved to be a source of conflict, for the Board maintained a hand in the day-to-day affairs of the gardens through its control of the budget,” Hayward wrote. “By 1911 the Legislature was so exasperated with the state of affairs at the gardens that they refused to renew the grant and asked the governor for an accounting.”

The Department of Agriculture was established the following year. It changed the name from Public Gardens to Agriculture Station and replaced the position of superintendent with a director whose role it was to operate the grounds “for the purposes of the development of agriculture and instruction of agricultural students.” A small section of the gardens had always been set aside for horticulture and as further land was acquired, the opportunity grew. In 1958 the property was renamed the Botanical Gardens and managed as a separate programme within the Department of Agriculture rather than a sub-programme of the Parks Department. “When we acquired Camden in 1965, that doubled the size,” said Hughes. “It made it a much more impressive establishment.”

Visitors today can see shrubs, flowers and trees on display. There is a ficus collection, hibiscus collection, cycad collection and cassia collection. The palm collection features native palmetto trees. There is a rose garden, banyan trees, a semi-tropical fruit collection, a sensory garden, a children’s maze and a collection of native and endemic plants. The grounds also serve as an ecological habitat for insects, amphibians and land birds. In the fifteen years that Hughes ran the department everything thrived because of the knowledgeable staff. “We always had horticulturalists trained at Kew or Wisley and local Bermudian boys who were very keen on horticulture and botany. That’s where the gardens got their support from.

“We were labelling plants, and we had a proper labelling machine. Somewhere along the line [the staff] took on other responsibilities and it became part of the Parks system which is a more general use rather than a botanic garden.” Last year, a visitor to Bermuda summed it up this way on Tripadvisor: “The Botanical Gardens are really a public park with a few trees and flower beds.

“With the tropical weather of Bermuda, one might expect a scientific based garden with organised and labelled plants and trees. Nothing of the sort. An old aviary sits empty and sad. Probably best for the birds. There were several workers trying their best to make a pleasant experience. A nice public park period.”

It would be “a hugely expensive effort” trying to become more than that but certainly worth it, Hughes believes. “It would be a shame to lose the collection of plants that are unique to Bermuda or native to Bermuda. I do think it’s worthwhile. A lot depends on economics, whether the finances of the times allow, but I’d hate to see the name dropped so it became Camden Park or something because that would be sad.”

Today there is no curator to work with and supervise staff, to encourage them and to build on and enhance the existing plants collections. Today you may have someone who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic, but without meaningful support it’s very difficult to get anything meaningful done.

Lisa Greene, Former technical assistant to the curator at the former dept of Agriculture & Fisheries

Lisa Greene, who worked at the Botanical Gardens for nine years as technical assistant to the curator, believes a botanical garden is as essential to a cultured society as a public library, as it is “first and foremost a place where learning can take place.”

“Bermuda is a cultured society or, certainly, that should be our aspiration. A cultured society, an educated society, would use these facilities to learn and we should be encouraging ourselves to reach higher, learn more, do better and the Botanical Gardens can do that,” she says. In an ideal world, she adds, the gardens would have knowledgeable staff and volunteers capable of using the collections to educate the public about local and international plants, our history and culture. “Not to mention that the plant collections can be used to support the island’s education curriculum.”

Greene ultimately left the Botanical Gardens to join the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum & Zoo as its museum collections officer. There, she was sent away for training that enabled her to meet and learn from people elsewhere working in her field. “I was very fortunate. We got tours of museum collections, then there were professional meetings where people presented papers. It was just incredibly inspiring and stimulating to have that exposure.

“For the nine years I worked in the Botanical Gardens, I wasn’t aware that attending professional meetings was an option and so I didn’t ask for it. But that should now be a regular part of the experience for the employees here in the gardens. It is important for personal growth and the standards of the gardens.”

Vintage Botanical Gardens in full bloom

In its heyday the vegetation on display was boosted by scientific documents, a collection of preserved plants and an education programme. All of that would need to be built up again. “Is there a library? There was an herbarium, there were educational programmes—none of that exists now. There are fewer staff,” Greene says. “Today there is no curator to work with and supervise staff, to encourage them and to build on and enhance the existing plants collections. Today you may have someone who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic, but without meaningful support it’s very difficult to get anything meaningful done.” With that in place, she believes it would be possible to transform the Botanical Gardens into something special. “So, what does the Botanical Gardens have today? It has acreage, and a number of its collections still exist. But if the gardens aren’t supported and nurtured in a meaningful way they will lose more and more of their value. The gardens should be valued and supported—from the top of government down—and that value needs to be demonstrated with funds and appropriate support including further training for staff.”

Hughes thinks a fundraising arm like the Bermuda Zoological Society, which “has done a heck of a job” for the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum & Zoo, could be the answer. “None of these government departments has excessive funds or extra funds to spend as they see fit. They’re all on budgets. Public involvement can make a difference.

“You can’t just throw money at everything; it takes a mind shift. The department would have to commit themselves to doing the simple things to start with—keeping the gardens more tidy, cultivated, start to label the plants; try to develop a public involvement. Those are some of the things that could help restore some of the glory of the Botanical Gardens. Let’s not be overly grandiose about it, it was never a huge, internationally famous botanic garden. It was a locally attractive, well-run small garden. But it held a high standard and that’s probably the most you can hope for.”

Established in 1985, the Bermuda Botanical Society relies on volunteers to achieve its mission “to encourage and support the study and promotion of the botanical sciences within Bermuda.”

Education is a key pillar of a true botanical garden. A student or a visitor to Bermuda or a resident being given a tour or similar educational experience in the Botanical Gardens is being exposed to the beauty and complexity of the plant world… What you can learn from or about plants is vast, varied and fascinating!

Lisa greene, Former technical assistant to the curator at the former dept of Agriculture & Fisheries

“We’re only a small society, less than 100 members and of course out of those 100 members there’s probably about 10 who volunteer. So we are small, but I think we do punch well above our weight,” says Jennifer Flood, the charity’s president. The group helped build the Visitors’ Centre, which is no longer in operation, and lends help to the Native & Endemic Plants collection every other Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. “[The gardens] were doing extremely well, maybe 20 years ago. They were able to keep the annual borders looking good; the trees were well maintained; the collections were in good shape. The slat houses were excellent. 

“The cactus house, particularly, was fantastic. The collection there was amazing; it was labelled and documented. It was a pleasure to be there. It was a pleasure to visit. Things were going on. The cafe was open, the shop was there—we had a gentleman who was working on a book of the different hibiscus…So it was thriving.” Having a staff of about thirty helped. “They’re now down to 10 garden staff, if they’re lucky; 10 people can’t look after 30 acres,” Flood says. “And sometimes they’re pulled away from here to go to other parks. 

“We lost the parks director and we’ve had acting directors probably getting on for 10 years. The acting directors were just pulled from a variety of government departments—they might have come from accounts; they might have come from somewhere else—so they didn’t know plants. And that was demoralising for staff frankly.” Especially, she says, as it is promoted as one of the top places for tourists to visit, a better investment is needed. “Ideally, what I would love to see is a secure place with paid entrance. Locals could get an annual pass for say $50 and then you’d have some income that could help the park.” Throughout the world, it’s the way most gardens operate, she adds. “If those of us who do value it don’t keep expressing the value nobody will know.” Like Greene, she describes the loss of the library, “where you could reference the books, magazines and scientific articles” as “a major disappointment.”

Many of the trees are hundreds of years old. Without proper labelling, it falls to volunteers to share their stories. A concerted effort was made to label the palms with the help of a curator who visited just before the Ag Show last year. “We’ve been without labels for at least 20-odd years,” says Flood. “So that’s a major improvement. People like to know what they’re looking at. When I was doing tours, people said, yes, you walk through the gardens and they look nice—it’s one tree; it’s another tree. It’s this tree, that tree. But it’s the stories behind the tree that matter, the connection between the people and the trees.

“Why are these trees important to people? Well, because they provide them with shelter, food, medicine, alcohol, thatching, boats, building materials, you name it they provide them.”

“Education is a key pillar of a true botanical garden,” Greene concurs. “A student or a visitor to Bermuda or a resident being given a tour or similar educational experience in the Botanical Gardens is being exposed to the beauty and complexity of the plant world. It might even change the course of their lives. Someone might be inspired to study chemistry after learning that natural dyes come from plants, or engineering after learning about the inherent strength of bamboo. What you can learn from or about plants is vast, varied and fascinating!” And of course, she points out, “The gardens can be an inspiration for art—photography, painting, poetry, etc.—as well as intellectual curiosity.”

LOOKING AHEAD

The Botanical Gardens 5-Year Strategic Plan
In 2022, the Ministry of Public Works outlined a plant to improve the Bontaical Gardens. Below is a statement from the Ministry regarding their initiative.

The Bermuda Botanical Gardens are critically important to Bermuda and the global community! Why? Put alongside other green spaces locally and globally, our Gardens contribute to triple-bottom-line value, helping to provide multi-functional benefits!

Our Gardens are green assets that actively tackle climate change and promote physical, emotional, and mental wellness. They hold essential lessons about plants that address current island concerns like food security, job creation and household healthcare, not to mention the conservation of some of the world’s rarest and most threatened species on the planet.

The Bermuda Botanical Gardens are historical and cultural assets that tell a unique story of Bermuda’s people, architecture, and events that have shaped our island into what it is today. The Botanical Gardens’ iconic status is a national symbol in our community! It is home to the beloved Agricultural Exhibition, the Premier’s official residence, and is used by more people and from a broader range than any of our national parks. Furthermore, it contributes to our tourism product, stimulating visitors’ interest in our island.

New initiatives are planned, and following public consultations, a 5-year Strategic Plan was drafted to set the definition, vision, mission, values and priority development targets leading to long-term improvement for the Bermuda Botanical Gardens. Objectives and progress to date include the following:

  • Recovery and plans for the Botanical Gardens Reference Library and Herbarium
  • Development of public-private partnerships for restoring high-priority plant collections
  • Phased restoration of plant identification labels and interpretive signage in support of the Garden’s educational objectives

The public will continue to be updated on the Draft Strategic Plan and are encouraged to join the active Volunteer programme. All those interested in joining can e-mail the Department of Parks at parksdept@gov.bm to learn more and get involved.

Masterworks Announces Partnership with Government to Revitalise Building at Botanical Gardens
Spring 2024

Masterworks Museum is delighted to announce a partnership with government to restore the iconic historical building, Montrose House, in the Botanical Gardens with plans to develop an art and design centre. This transformational project will create a dedicated space for arts education and practice for all Bermudians. Additionally, the renovation of an architectural and historical treasure for educational purposes will bring back to life the original entrance to the Botanical Gardens.

The renovated building will allow the museum to expand its current educational offerings to include a much broader variety of classes across all ages and levels of art experience; to nurture and guide aspiring professional artists; and to provide working artists the necessary space, technology and community in which to develop their practices. Classes specifically designed for Bermuda’s youth in the applied and media arts as well as the traditional fine arts will support mental health and promote the development of lifelong passions and the exploration of art-related career opportunities. The art and design centre will also house much-needed studio space for working artists and provide a central gathering place for artists in the community.