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Gardenlust: Golden Rock Inn in Nevis, West Indies

by Timber Press on September 25, 2018

in Design, Gardening

When two world-famous artists decide to turn their creative energies to sculpting an entire landscape, only amazement can result. Helen and Brice Marden decided to buy the Golden Rock Inn, a veritable piece of paradise on the Caribbean island of Nevis, and looked at the work of the world’s most prominent garden designers to help them realize their lush vision.

Brice and Helen Marden, Raymond Jungles • 25 acres (10 hectares) • 2010

They easily decided to call in landscape architect Raymond Jungles, who specializes in subtropical and tropical landscapes, to help translate color from the abstract canvas of a paper plan to a fully three dimensional, sensual reality. Helen says she and her husband are each naturally attracted to different aspects of the undertaking: “Brice concentrates on the rocks, and is meticulous with their placement. Raymond and I look at the plants. I focus on color, Raymond adds to that, and then applies his great knowledge of design and horticulture.”

To mesh the needs of guests with the ruins of historic sugar mill buildings on the site, they added architect Edward Tuttle to their charrette. He designed a series of rectangular pools, the restaurant, a number of outbuildings, and a rill—a narrow waterway that leads away from the formal terraces to a garden below.

Situated on the slopes of Nevis Peak, the garden surrounds the small hotel’s eleven guest rooms. It may be one of the most botanically enthusiastic small hotels in the world. Designed in three phases—the owners are coy about adding a fourth—it feels appropriately like wild tropical abandon, but with deeper observation it becomes clear that it’s more of a highly stylized wildness.

Jungles’s signature of having spent lots of time at the site is the large and sweeping gatherings of bromeliads that swirl down the slopes. His deep knowledge of the family allows him to choose plants with uncommonly bright colors and fat leaves; as they tumble through and around each other, they create rhythmic patterns that both propel and pull the garden together.

If there is one dominant plant among considerable competition, it is the sun-loving, orange-leaved bromeliad Aechmea blanchetiana ‘Orangeade’. With a height of 4 feet (1.2 meters) and a spread of 3 to 4 feet (0.91 to 1.2 meters), even one plant would stand out. He takes it a bold step farther and plants in groups of twenty or thirty, making each swath a gloriously rubicund tidal wave. When their tall flower spikes of brilliant red rise from the central rosette and last for many months, the effect is simply staggering. The orange foliage is a unifying color among the many other shades of green, always bright as fast-moving clouds, pushed by the trade winds, are constantly changing the light. Orange works with blue and red, and the bromeliad is planted next to the blue leaves of Agave americana and the blood red bracts of Bougainvillea ‘Flame’. It seems a simple combination, but of course the simplest and bravest choice is often the strongest.


Other bromeliads are also planted en masse. Hundreds of them. The huge rosettes of Alcantarea imperialis, with waxy, blue-green leaves tipped in purple, can reach up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) across. The silver fountain foliage of Alcantarea odorata plays against the deep copper-purple leaves of Aechmea ‘Marcelino’ and the burgundy of Alcantarea vinicolor. And then there are the palms. Lots of palms. The Montgomery palm (Veitchia montgomeryana) grows tall from the flat terraces of the ornamental pools. The ruffled fan palm (Licuala grandis), with such elegant leaves, is planted throughout the grounds, while the zombie palm (Zombia antillarum) from Hispaniola, with its trunk wrapped in 4-inch spines, is wisely planted back from the paths.

As well as being particular about rocks, Brice is particular about bamboo. This interest reflects his knowledge of Japanese and Chinese art and minimalism. Near his studio, there are clusters of Timor black bamboo (Bambusa lako), shiny and dark, and Dendrocalamus latiflorus ‘Parker Giant’, or dragon bamboo, a fast-growing variety that can reach a height of 115 feet (35 meters). The clacking of their stems in the wind provides percussion for the whoo-whoo melody of ground doves and the night-fluting of tree frogs. In the afternoon, a troop of vervet monkeys, seeking fruit, may pass from tree to tree. And on a walk through the garden, if you stop to sniff the sweet perfume of a frangipani, you might be lucky enough to see a 6-inch-long (15-centimeter-long) black-and-yellow caterpillar, the larva of the gray sphinx moth, nibbling at the base of a flower.

All this abundance is set against a mixture of eighteenth-century Caribbean colonial plantation architecture, romantic ruins, mid-century furniture, and brightly colored cottages. It is a hospitable jungle, ineffably sublime, loud with color and then, just when you think you’ve had enough, you notice one more ingenious combination, like the delicate finery of tiger grass (Thysolanaea maxima) and its fuzzy flowers planted against the huge, dark-green leaves and smoky stems of Alocasia macrorrhizos ‘Black Stem.’ Or you come upon a soft swarm of sand cordgrass (Spartina bakeri) or the simplicity of a dragon fruit (Hylocereus undatus) climbing between two red window shutters, and you stop, slow down, and breathe in the garden all over again.


Christopher Woods began his gardening life at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew. He was director and chief designer of Chanticleer, and he has served as vice president for horticulture at the Santa Barbara Botanical Garden; director of the Van Dusen Botanical Garden in Vancouver, Canada; executive director of the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden; and director of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Meadowbrook Farm.


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