London-, England — The British are well known for their love of plants, in quest of which many have travelled the world. Some, as in the case of Englishman John Criswick, have never wanted to return home. “After 50 years away from England,” says Criswick,
“I should like to be seen as an individual who sees the world as my oyster and Grenada as my home.”
Criswick’s home is the St Rose Nursery of Tropical Plants, described by the American Horticultural Society as, “the most extensive nursery in the Caribbean”. Set in the Grand Etang rainforest overlooking Mount Maitland, the nursery is home to rainbow-coloured tibouchinas, strelitzias and heliconias, which bloom in the lush greenery. It is plants such as these that Criswick has provided for past exhibitions by Grenada at the Chelsea Flower Show in London.
So how did Essex-born Criswick come to run a nursery in Grenada? As a child his first love was animals but in adolescence he turned to plants. “I always loved anything exotic,” he says. “At the age of six I remember saying that one day I would leave England.”
At school Criswick had always been good at art so decided on a teaching career, studying fine art at Reading University. There he met a student from British Guyana who helped him get a job there as the art master at Central High School in Georgetown.
Criswick continued to paint in Guyana. His portrait of Sir Arthur Chung, the first president of Guyana, which now hangs in the parliament building, was his most prestigious commission, he says.
During this time his interest in horticulture developed but his efforts to garden were hampered by Guyana’s unforgiving clay soil, high water table and poor drainage.
In 1971 he visited Grenada and, as the small aeroplane prepared to land at the old Pearls airport, he remembers looking out over the landscape: “I saw so many flowering plants: snow-on-the-mountain, garlic vine, cassias, poinsettias … It looked like the Garden of Eden.”
Grenada, it seemed, would be more suitable for his sort of horticulture.
The following year, Criswick relocated to the island and bought a quarter of an acre of land for EC$1,500 (£312.50), soon expanding his plot by buying a further five acres from the adjacent St Rose Estate which, it turns out, proved to be a very fortuitous purchase.
St Rose had no access by road at the time – the previous owner reached it on the back of a mule – and so he managed to buy it for a reasonable price. But because Criswick already owned that original quarter-acre – the only piece of land accessible by car – he held the key to the value of the property.
When he arrived, Criswick bought a small wooden house. “It was a chattel house, which means it could easily be moved to another location along with the rest of one’s goods and chattels. For this you have what is called a maroon, when you invite all your neighbours for the day, provide plenty of rum and food and they take the house apart and rebuild it.”
With the floor remaining intact, the four sides of the house were taken down and the roof separated in two. The pieces were then loaded on to a truck and by 4pm the house was re-erected on the newly-acquired land. It consisted of two small rooms. “The living room [was] called ‘the hall’ and the bedroom, ‘the room’,” he says. “My double bed took up most of the bedroom and one day, lying in bed, I made out a faint message on the pale blue-painted woodwork: ‘Mother died. 1957’.”
Surprisingly, the house had electricity – for which erecting a pole was necessary. There was also a pit latrine, a stove and a sink in one outhouse and a shower in another. “I was very happy in that house and had to be persuaded to build a bigger one,” he says.
Later, after buying the remaining 11 acres of St Rose, he demolished the chattel house and built the home he lives in today. He based the design on a 100-year-old house in Guadeloupe, where, he says, “they know how to build for the climate”.
The house is certainly well built; in 2004 it survived hurricane Ivan, while most of the houses in the village were damaged or destroyed.
A vital factor behind establishing the nursery was the copious amount of water coming down from the mountain, which Criswick was able to dam. With this, good soil and a warm climate his plants have thrived. People had warned him that a nursery wouldn’t succeed because local people preferred to swap cuttings, but he proved them wrong.
“Once you present an irresistible plant, someone is going to want it,” he says. Some, like his blonde philodendron P warscewiczii ‘Flavum’ or Camoensia maxima, a west African vine with gardenia fragrance, are rarities but the majority are ordinary, such as syngoniums, which Criswick refers to as “bread-and-butter plants”.
“In fact, you don’t make much money from rarities; 80 per cent of the clients buy run-of-the-mill items.” He also supplies private gardens and hotels, and offers tours of the nursery.
When asked what he misses about England, all he can come up with is “thick cream from Jersey cows and smoked haddock to be eaten with poached eggs and creamed potatoes”. These seem insignificant when contrasted with all that he loves about Grenada: the warmth, he says, the plants and the friendly people.
Criswick is thankful of his successes. “I have always done what I wanted regardless of security, pensions and suchlike. I am living where I want to live, in one of the world’s most stunningly beautiful places, among people I want to be among, doing what I love doing. How many people can say that?”
His favourite place on the island is Saint Andrew Hot Spring. “A ‘bath’ is cut out of the soil in which you can immerse yourself and feel the warm water against your back with all around steep mountainsides clothed in green.”
(Reproduced from the Financial Times in London, England)