A mini orchid floats in my Cayman Punch. Actually that’s about all the flower gazing I have planned for this beach trip. Yet, through the haze of mid-day drinks and the occasional dip in the ocean, a floral cocktail garnish is enough to rouse my rum-soaked garden gene out of its stupor and into action.
Admittedly, most of my garden-hopping exploits are mapped out with about as much precision as a St. Paddy’s Day pub-crawl– long on fun, short on planning. This spontaneous way of stalking gardens makes for my most memorable adventures–just like a last-minute blind date–Hello garden, my name is Kim, tell me your secrets and I’ll tell you mine.
Grand Cayman Island, famous for its aquamarine waters and sheltering vast fortunes, also has other hidden treasures: among them, the Queen Elisabeth II Botanic Park and a cab driver named Dahlia—I’m lucky to have discovered both. More a gifted tour guide than a mere cabbie, Dahlia’s roots dig eight generations deep into Caymanian soil. Unlike some limp varieties of her floral namesake, this Dahlia stands strong and proud—no staking required!
Dahlia catches the vibe of my garden-marauding ways and begins to deliver her entertainment like the Jimmy John’s guy in reverse—freaky slow but with a genuine island-friendly ease. “Sugar, you gotta take the sceeeenic route,” which I learn means the long way in Caymanese. Grabbing the front seat beside her, I listen as Dahlia begins a melodic dissertation about her beloved island and the garden she’s taking me to see.
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.
Joni Mitchell’s lyrics hang out in my head as Dahlia recites the complete history of plunder: explorers, pirates, developers, tourists and various other miscreants, were slowly transforming the natural beauty of the island into one giant Kroger parking lot. But, by the early 1980’s, the National Trust closed ranks and establish a garden to protect the vanishing treasures of the island’s indigenous flora and fauna.
Without notice, Dahlia pulls over to point out a unique horticultural treat—the famous Cayman Shoe Tree. While plentiful on the island, not all towering Casuarina Pines are alike. This one serves as a time capsule of Easter celebrations past: where islanders traditionally camp out under the stars but often leave shoes behind in the wake of their resurrection revelry. The result? A Chagall-like mosaic made up of a thousand pastel rubber flip-flops. “Cool, eh?” prompts Dahlia. Oh, Yeah mon, ridiculously cool.
Every garden has its own mojo: some cheery, some demure, others as moody and musky as an old Orthodox Church. I love them all and couldn’t possibly choose a favorite. This garden clearly puts out its own deliciously steamy and exotic vibe; one I’m sure didn’t exist back in 1994 when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II showed up in her pearls and pumps for the official opening.
Off on an Adventure
But now, beneath a sultry canopy of trees and vines, a 65-acre concoction of exotic garden rooms beckon. Flaming Nicki Minaj hairdos dangle from Red Wax Ginger. Plants with naughty common names like Tittie Molly and Pokemeboy grace the Medicinal and Sand Gardens. And what garden seduction is complete without a bit of folklore to juice things up? “Tell me something nobody else knows about this garden,” I beg Marilyn, an employee with a history of her own—she’s been with the garden since the start and even met the Queen! “ Well,” she whispers back with all the drama of someone burdened with a heavy secret, “some say it’s built on the ground of an ancient tribal conflict.”
This revelation might explain some of the garden’s strange magic, but nothing prepares me for the prehistoric dragon with hacky-sack jowls heading my way. There’s no mistaking the celebrated Blue Iguana. The nearly extinct creatures roam the garden’s pine paths freely thanks to the National Trust’s program to repopulate the island. Like many reptiles, these guys are walking mood rings.
In the sun they turn the color of stonewashed denim and under cloudy skies they chill to a more erotic Fifty Shades of Grey.
Skipping the Woodland Trail (and the chance of further iguana encounters), I inhale the last bit of garden elixir and head for the car. With Ghost Orchids and Bismarck Palms still on my mind, Dahlia and I ride quietly together retracing the jagged coastal road. Gently, Dahlia breaks the garden’s spell and resumes her delightful role as tour guide: “Maybe you should try some turtle while you’re here,” she says in her friendly island lilt. “It tastes just like chicken.”