Cinchona - Lessons from a Secret Garden
The mystery and obscurity of the unheralded sometimes carries the greatest allure, and behind that allure lay chapters, waiting to be dusted and reread, reinvented.
It is the places we don't know that reveal the most interesting facets of life and time, and at the same time, invite us to participate in an unprecedented journey of discovery.
To unearth some of these treasures, one has to take an uphill climb and in this case, both literally and figuratively.
At an altitude of 4,500 to 5,500 ft, snuggled in the hills of east rural St Andrew, lies Jamaica's Cinchona Botanical Gardens, a secret paradise that conceals a wealth of history and natural beauty obscured by years of untelling and an onerous mountain trail.
Once the residence of acres upon acres of cinchona trees and a sanctuary for European plants, Cinchona has the distinction of being the highest garden of its type in the Caribbean.
Cinchona's historic charm begins with the hike trail from St Peter's district, one mile below Clydesdale.
From that starting point, almost five miles of arduous uphill trekking is punctuated by breathtakingly beautiful views of the Blue Mountain Ridge, Liguanea plains, Strawberry Hills, and Kingston, assuaged by refreshing rivulets of icy cold water running at intervals across the path.
In Clydesdale are the ruins of an old coffee pulping mill built in the 1820s. Once a majestic ode to the lifeblood of Jamaica's plantation economy, the mill is now shrouded in overgrown grasses and offers an ironic representation of society's complete abandonment of a system built on the backbones of slaves.
Further along the trail, expansive hillsides, verdantly awash with clusters of pine trees reminiscent of cotton candy, provide the backdrop to an authentic slice of rural Jamaican life grinning farmers on wooden benches in dirt yards, wooden huts, and the stench of outhouses greet exhausted passers-by. The farmers smile as if knowing that the hikers will get no reprieve until they see the sign welcoming the truly resilient to Cinchona Botanical Gardens.
From there, nature provides a lively, green feast for the eyes and a lesson in Jamaican botany. According to the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Cinchona was established in 1868 by Sir John Peter Grant, a past governor of Jamaica, and became the centre for experimental botanical work within the island [by 1874]". Forty acres of Cinchona was planted with Asian Tea, and the cinchona trees were used in the production of quinine, a medication used to treat malaria. European plants and vegetables cultivated in the garden included "cork oak, jalop, camphor, mulberry, rubber, green peas, carrots, Irish potatoes, cabbage, tomatoes, [and] citrus".
That beauty sometimes comes at a price is a lesson Cinchona visitors will not forget. They will appreciate the tranquil lushness that Cinchona offers but maybe only after they've rested their tired feet and quenched their thirst and hunger.
- Ruth Howard is a nature enthusiast who was part of a group of adventurers in a hike organised by Jamaica Hiking & Heritage Tours, led by tour guide and hikemaster Leon Barnaby. See more pictures from the Cinchona hike trail at tinyurl.com/digcinchona.