Noel On A Trip To India

– Posted in: Garden Travels

 Written by Noel Kingsbury


A visit to the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary in Wayanad region of Kerala in south-west India is a real inspiration and a very special place. Its basically a private trust who own a slab of virgin forest (in the Western Ghats bio-region, where only 3% of the original forest is left) and who are involved in habitat restoration on former tea and coffee plantations. They do also have a very good display garden of tropical flora (local, Indian and global) for educational purposes. Their conservation and research work is clearly rooted in a lot of good horticulture. I have a fantasy of coming here and spending time learning about the very different ways that have to be used to manage tropical species; there is clearly a lot to learn.

coconut, betel-nut, banana, rice

Kerala is intensely green – densely populated with houses set amongst what looks like a very efficient agriculture: small plots of coconut and betel nut palm with bananas and coffee underneath, pepper on vines climbing up the palms, a few open areas with rice paddy or cassava/manioc – so small-scale and intensely managed it’s almost farming as much as gardening. Odd mango, papaya, jackfruit. This kind of layered planting system is the inspiration behind permaculture and forest gardening, which although it clearly works beautifully in the tropics I have never agreed that it can be meaningfully translated to temperate climates where light levels beneath trees preclude much productivity.


With scenes like those in the picture above (the yellow is garland-strings of chrysanthemums) it is obvious that flowers play an important role in Indian life. But I have always found this a deeply disappointing country for gardens. Whereas the cultivation of plants in pots on any little scrap of available concrete seems second nature in Thailand and China, it is here much less common. India’s Hindu-based culture is immensely deep and varied but there appears to be no tradition of ornamental gardening – which I find very puzzling. Indian gardens are either Islamic in their cultural origin or British – neither struck deep roots here, and neither Islam nor the ‘former colonial masters’ (as we Britishers are so touchingly known) are politically flavour of the month here. Never mind that north Indian Mughal Imperial gardens are the absolute high point of the Islamic garden tradition. I remember Pakistan (on a trip five years ago) as being somewhere where the idea of making a little garden in odd public spots (freeway restaurant facilities, a regional airport) seemed somehow to come to people much more naturally, and always recognizably Islamic in inspiration (roses, clipped cypresses,a particular geometry).

hotel garden in Mysore…clip,clip,clip… little to inspire the gardener

The British input in gardening lives on in the charming form of what I suppose should be called ‘heirloom’ annuals – marigolds, phlox, cockscomb etc, but much more expansive, looser, and less intensively-bred than the ones we are used to. I love these, so much freer in feel than the compact varieties we tend to have. Seeds are readily available in markets.

annual phlox


seed stall in market

Market stalls selling flower and vegetable seed are frequent, with packets and cans of vegetable seed available, and some real basics loose in bins (see bottom picture) – seeds always used to be sold like this, to be poured into a handy container, until the American Shakers in the 19th century invented the seed packet (and apparently also launched the modern seed catalogue). But I was surprised at how minimal the varietal naming was on the packets – only ‘radish’, ‘carrot’ etc, especially given how sophisticated the Indian seed market is for farmers (caterpillar-resistant GM cotton has been a roaring success). But things will change – this is a country in the grip of incredible economic growth; wait til all those Bangalore IT folk get into gardening, which I think they inevitably will.

Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury

Noel Kingsbury is a gardener and writer based in the west of England. Author of over 20 books, including four collaborations with Dutch designer Piet Oudolf, he is passionate about wild-style planting and bringing nature into the garden.

Noel Kingsbury

Latest posts by Noel Kingsbury (see all)

8 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

Town Mouse February 25, 2011, 11:07 pm

Noel, I agree that it’s sad that gardening does not seem to be on the map for most Indians. And I’ve also found a sad disregard for nature, a friend explained to me that Indians are very clean, and that means they throw all trash outside the door or window, never mind how that looks. But I’m unconvinced that a great gardening renaissance is soon to come. I traveled in northern India last year, and even the smallest plot of land was either occupied by housing or used by small farmers. Maybe it’s different further south. I did wonder at the time.

Tyra February 26, 2011, 10:06 am

Lovely post, I wish I could be there as well. I visited the lovely Kerala a few yars ago and I really liked it.

Take care/ Love Tyra

Marie February 26, 2011, 11:16 am

I’m curious about where the mounds and mounds of chrysanthemums are grown…

David Feix February 26, 2011, 4:13 pm

I haven’t actually stepped foot on Indian soil, but have done a bit of traveling in Sri Lanka, and they have some really beautiful gardens and interesting garden culture on the island. Parts of Sri Lanka have similar habitat to the Western Ghats, and I found the higher elevation areas above Kandy to be full of potential plants that might do equally well in northern California. The higher elevation botanic garden extension to Paradeniya was a wealth of coastal California natives and South African plants, and the local Strobilanthes gossypinus was one plant that I ended up bringing home with me to try in Berkeley. Such an attractive plant, and strange that it has never really crossed over into general horticulture, although I know people garden with it in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

Landscapelover February 28, 2011, 8:53 am

What an interesting post. As a landscape historian about to spend three years in New Delhi, I am looking forward to exploring the gardening traditions of Northern India – or perhaps, as you fear, the lack of such traditions…

Noel Kingsbury March 1, 2011, 12:46 pm

Hi David – good to hear from you! Interesting to hear about the Strobilanthes – the Western Ghats flora is very rich in herbaceous species, espeically Acanthaceae and a lot would do well in California or other frost-free areas, so definitely worth a visit, access to undamaged habitat is difficult, but roadsides are very species rich.

Noel Kingsbury March 1, 2011, 12:49 pm

Total disregard for environment, or indeed for anyone outside your family – to put in bluntly! Maybe I am more optimistic than you but I do seen an increase in interest in some form of gardening – flower shows with nursery stands are taking off in India, and middle-class Indians are now beginning to travel – Singapore Bot Gardens had several groups going round last week, so the example of the stronger gardening cultures in SE Asia will eventually rub off I think (and hope!).

Barry Parker March 1, 2011, 3:07 pm

Noel, I’m afraid I haven’t yet read your book on hybridization, and I wonder if it touches on the fact that India also has very few varieties of food ( except perhaps for Mango). For instance, I found in northern India only one type of tomato , and a rather poor quality one at that, the same for garlic. Surprising, since both these are staples of Indian cuisine.

[shareaholic app=”recommendations” id=”13070491″]