INSIGHT: TROPICAL BOUNTY OF THE ISLANDS - Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides

Caribbean: The Lesser Antilles - Insight Guides (2016)


Flowers of the forest, fruit of the trees, vegetables from the ground - under the blazing sun there’s a treasure trove of color, dazzling greenery, and food.

Like the people of the Eastern Caribbean, the flora of the region is a great melting pot. There were plants that were here before man, plants brought by the Caribs in their canoes when they paddled from South America, those which came from Africa during slavery, and those brought from all over the world by the adventuresome Europeans.

For visitors to the region from North America or northern Europe, familiar only with expensive houseplants nurtured in a centrally heated room or the exotic fruit and vegetable section in the supermarket, the sudden sight of these magnificent plants growing naturally in a tropical landscape is intoxicating.

Market day

Venture into a local market in the rainier, more mountainous islands and explore the unfamiliar: the knobbly soursop (it makes an excellent juice); the pale green christophene or cho-cho of the squash family; tiny green and red peppers, some fiendishly hot. Drier islands will not have such a range, but there will be “ground provisions” - the root vegetables, such as yams, which are part of the staple diet. And there are the cut flowers: the amazing red or pink gingers, artificial-looking anthurium, and dramatic torch gingers. Everyone grows something somewhere.

And while there are the formal botanical gardens, and gardens of former estate houses to visit, don’t forget to admire the ordinary backyard garden growing an amazing range of vegetables, fruit, and exotic flowers, often in just a tiny space.


The startling flower of the shaving bush tree, or Bombax ellipticum, native to Mexico but grown in Florida and the Caribbean.

Sylvaine Poitau/Apa Publications

Spice and all things nice

There is a sweetness in the Caribbean air which romantics might attribute to spice, and in particular to the vanilla plant, a straggly plant from the orchid family with an exquisite-smelling flower that opens only for a few hours in the morning. Pollinating is done by hand and the resulting pods give the much sought-after vanilla flavor.

Although spices such as vanilla and nutmeg were once an important export crop, most arrived in the Caribbean in the 18th century from the Far East “spice islands”. Once, Grenada grew some 25 percent of the world’s nutmeg. You can still see the warehouses at Gouyave on the west coast where the spice is sorted. The outer lacy red covering is ground down into a powder and becomes mace. Visit local markets throughout the region for supplies of nutmeg and cinnamon (dried strips of bark), pale gold rhizomes of ginger, black pepper (grown on a vine), and cloves (dried flower buds).