A garden full of life

“I am his Highness’ dog at Kew. Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?” reads the epigram inscribed on the collar of a dog gifted to the Prince of Wales by poet Alexander Pope in 1736.

Kew Gardens, once the haunt of British royals, are internationally famous for their plant collections gathered from the furthest points of the earth.

I don’t know that you would have come across any royal corgis in Suva’s Thurston Gardens, but the Governor’s Staffordshire bull terriers would frolic there sometimes.

Certainly one of the gubernatorial dog family, name of Bodger and living with the Governor’s Private Secretary, used to go walkies in the gardens.

One day Bodger popped into the Fiji Museum, which is sited at one end of the gardens, and relieved himself on an ancient artefact. The director had harsh words to say and Bodger was banned forever.

So much for privileged canines. But it is still a privilege for the people of Suva, and visitors to Fiji’s capital, to wander at will in Thurston Gardens (possibly dogs well under control and on leashes are also allowed).

The thing is, over recent years people weren’t so eager to stroll in Thurston Gardens. Much of the time it was a gumboot job, through puddles and muddy patches. Kew it was not.

Our immediate past president, Ratu Epeli Nailatikau knows the gardens well, after all he used to live next door. A couple of years ago, he gave an outline of its history in a meeting of concerned people at the Fiji Museum.

He said the gardens were originally established on land next to Waimanu Rd, the advice given in 1880 by British botanist John Horne. In 1882 it was sited adjacent to the original Suva Village after the community moved across the harbour to Suvavou and Suva became the capital.

Mr Horne was at the time director of the Mauritius Botanical Gardens and came to Fiji at the invitation of the then Colonial Secretary, John Thurston.

Mr Horne spent a year in Fiji, travelling widely and making many important recommendations on sugar and other crops, and draft legislation for the conservation of forests.

The present gardens were moved to their current location in 1913. Known as the Suva Botanical Gardens, they had community support even then. In 1914, the Marks family built the drinking fountain, followed by the bandstand and clock tower in 1918.

These classic constructions continue to serve their original purpose, although the music is now less military brass and more pop, and also provide “picture opps” for bridal couples and kids with phone cameras.

The Fiji Museum was built in the grounds in 1955 and is currently undergoing valuable reconstruction and expansion. The large verandah with a good cafe and space for displays and events is already a pleasure for many Suva people.

It wasn’t until 1976 that Suva Botanical Gardens became Thurston Gardens and was then administered by Suva City Council.

“Poor drainage has impacted on the gardens, mainly as a result of reclamation opposite, on the sea side of Queen Elizabeth Drive. This, together with the effect of hurricanes, has resulted in many of the original tress having been lost,” Ratu Epeli said.

“The gardens are not in the state they were around 1970, and the water feature and lily pond, for example, need to be fully repaired.

“Many indigenous trees, ferns, palms and orchids are no longer present in the gardens.”

Poor Horne must be spinning in his grave!

Thurston Gardens is an important Fiji heritage site, together with the adjacent listed built heritage properties of the Grand Pacific Hotel (now magnificently renovated) Government Buildings and State House as well as Albert Park (now minus its revered trees) within what is increasingly recognised as an extremely historic precinct.

Ratu Epeli believes it is vital that the gardens be restored so that we can “maintain our pride in this national asset”.

He threw his support behind the latest moves to improve and maintain the gardens while being well aware that past attempts have faltered.

He said the gardens needed proper drainage, improved plant and tree collections with proper labels, lighting and a suitable memorial to the original Suva Village.

This and other developments needed a master plan based on thorough and broad consultation, to be supported by implementation and financing strategies for sound professional governance and sustainability.

And so more than 100 years on, we do indeed have a master plan, produced with the recommended consultation, by the still-informal Friends of the Thurston Gardens.

The Friends group include such organisations as the Office of the President, Department of National Heritage and Arts, Suva City Council, National Trust of Fiji, Fiji Museum, University of the South Pacific, Conservation International, Nature Fiji/Mareqete Viti, FAO/Global Environment Facility project and a number of staunch individuals including Elsa Miller, Elizabeth Erasito, Adi Meretui Ratunabuabua, Suzanne Misaele, Bruce Sowter and Robin Yarrow.

When constituted, the Friends of Thurston Garden will also have a corporate membership category and a number of companies have already expressed keen interest.

The plan itself is beautiful and full of wonderful ideas such as a floating garden collection surrounded by picnic tables; Fijian endemic palm collection, especially of the many critically endangered species; food gardens showing Fijian, Indian, Chinese and European vegetables; medicinal plants and endemic fruit trees; a collection of hanging vines; Fijian forest trees and endangered species; a perfumed garden of endemic scented plants; Fiji hibiscus growing under frangipani trees; a collection of prehistoric plants; South Pacific orchid collection; artistic garden furniture; rainforest walk; wall of plants; garden roads and a splendid plant motif gate to “give a sense of arrival and security”.

It is a huge project, but the Friends have sorted the priorities that include drainage, lighting, architectural features and landscaping zones and, of course, seeking support and sustainable funding.

Meanwhile, they are getting on with surveying the existing plants, identifying the dead, damaged and duplicate trees, counting coconut palms, and working on seedling propagation with the Forestry Department and SCC.

In a developing country with so many needs, why bother with a pleasure garden?

Because a botanical garden is so much more than a delight to the senses, a place of family enjoyment, education and recreation, a site of preservation of rare species and a major tourist attraction.

The friends have a mission to conserve, discover and share knowledge about plants and to link Fiji people with their natural and cultural heritage.

“The future of life on earth depends on how we understand, value and protect plants, other wildlife and the natural habitats that sustain the world.

“Thurston Gardens will be where the increasingly urbanised schoolchildren of Fiji can learn about Fijian botany, the wider biodiversity including native birds and the environment they will inherit for future generations,” their plan says.

Beautiful natural environments are important to people’s physical and mental health and botanical gardens do have serious economic potential.

At the same time, an increasing number of our young people living in urban areas are becoming “disconnected” from nature. Gardens can help to address this trend.

Many cities with less potential than Suva promote their gardens, including places such as Cairns in Australia, which features many of the plants that grow so well here.

The Singapore gardens have been in existence for “150 years of heritage” and stage regular cultural events.

Then there is Kew, outside London, with its amazing glass house, many scientifically important collections and rare species from around the world, gardens of plants from grasses to mushrooms and country collections include Chinese and Japanese formal gardens and trees accessible by a treetop walkway.

It also has remarkable architecture, botanical art treasures and royal treasures that include Kew Palace and the Georgian Royal Kitchens, well preserved although not used for the past 200 years.

Thurston Gardens, with more than 100 years of history and the associated Fiji Museum, has all the right ingredients.

It just needs friends to help as volunteer guides, newsletter and pamphlet editors, special event organisers, nursery workers and Open Day helpers.

* Seone Smiles is a long-time contributor to The Fiji Times. The views expressed are hers and not of this newspaper.

More Stories