Plant Whisperer

Pretty plants make powerful medicine.

Mapai, elfin-like head gardener and plant whisperer at the National Trust’s botanical gardens on Montserrat, crushes a leaf and hands it to me.  It smells like coriander, but has a much stronger olfactory kick.

“Good for contractions,” he informs with a cheeky grin.

“Think I’m a bit past all that,” I reply.  The grin is still there.

Mapai’s age is impossible to determine.  He’s short and springy, carrying not an ounce of excess flesh.  He ties his dreadlocks back with a brightly coloured bandanna, and his face glistens with sweat.  But it’s mainly his eyes and reassuring lilting voice that you’re drawn to.

“Come, come,” he says, leading me further into his medicine garden.  We come across several aloe vera plants about which I am at last able to show off my scant knowledge, having often used it to treat minor burns and scratches.  Past plants that are good for diarrhoea, another for constipation and, looking at my husband John, one for ‘treating the prostate’.  He points to another bush which, if I’m honest, looks exactly like the one next to it, and pulls off several leaves.  The little label says it’s a Hypericum perforatum or St. John’s Wort – a herbal remedy for treating anxiety or depression he learnt about from his grandmother.  I’ve seen it in pill form in chemists, but never as a plant.  Before I can discover which bit of the bush, bark, leaf or root I should use to produce this medieval elixir, he’s off, this time heading for what I can only describe as plants that look like, in horticultural terms, the runt of the litter.  I’m obviously wrong, as he lovingly picks a couple of leaves from one of the bereft looking plants and places it gently into the palm of my hand.

‘Dis Guinea hen weed,’ he says, ‘it cure many cancers.’  This, I think, is taking plant whispering just a bit too far.  But, again, I am wrong and Mapai is right.  Of the many websites I later consult, this naturally growing herb has been used in much of the Caribbean (Jamaica in particular) for hundreds of years – originally to fight off coughs and colds, rheumatic pain, sinusitis, spasms and anxiety and now as a cancer treatment.  The website ‘’ reports that it’s now been discovered to kill bacteria and its root, according to scientists, contains Dibenzyl Trisulfide which has been found to kill cancer cells.

We’re soon back to matters of the intestine.

“I love papaya,” I say, as we pass a slender tall tree bearing a cluster of cocoa shaped fruits at the top.

“It’s good for treating de worms,” he says, “the black seeds and the leaves both good.”

No wonder this man appears so at one with the world.

I ask him why some leaves on my lime bush are curling and turning yellow at the tips.  “Perhaps not enough water, I suggest”, still valiantly trying to make a small gardening contribution to the conversation.  “And maybe if I dug in a few of those fertilizer pellet things, they may help?”

My suggestion, judging by his shocked expression, is obviously profane.

“You need pen manure and some ghut sand washed down from the mountain, that work.”

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I’m now on a horticultural supermarket trolley dash, snatching every snippet of information I can from his encyclopedic knowledge.

We  move on to a bed of red, white and pale pink ginger flowers – their waxy petals bonding to each other in perfect symmetry to form a conical shape.  I ask if he would be able to have some ready for me in three weeks.  He laughs and assures me that they could be, but he’s not about to tell me the secret.

I want to know more about this man.  How he came to be so knowledgeable about plants and trees.  Was he born on Montserrat?  Does he ever get ill and, if so, do his medicinal treatments work?

I remember once seeing him at a party held at Government House, dressed like a Spanish dancer, with tight black trousers, cowboy boots and hat and a splash of red from the kerchief round his neck.  He danced all night like a gymnast.

The sun is beating down and the sun cream stinging my eyes.

“Leave your number, an I’ll call you, when the gingers and pen manure is ready.” he says, turning towards his orchid house, of which he is justly proud.

And no doubt he will.

Buy Plenty Mango – Postcards from the Caribbean in paperback, eBook or audio formats from any of the links below.

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