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of The Botanical Ark Retreat


How we came to grow tropical flowers

Heliconia at The Botanical Ark RetreatThis is a case of how first impressions can make lasting impressions. In 1970, when I (Alan) was 19-years-old, hopping his way across the Pacific Ocean, travelling to Australia, I stopped for two weeks in Western Samoa. On visiting Aggie Grey’s Hotel, I was confronted by a large waxy flower, shaped like a lobster claw, saturated in tropical reds and yellows and greens, hanging from a plant at eye level. It was a heliconia. I had never seen anything like it and, as it turned out, neither had Australia. 

Years later, with the help of those flowers, we won Australia’s Best Backyard and our prize included a week at the same Aggie Grey’s. Funny how things go round.

Anyway, while we were overseas collecting ethnobotanical plants, we also collected flowers. We collected lots of them.



Discovering “new” flowers

When people ask if we’ve discovered ‘new’ flowers, Alan says, “If its new to me, then I “discover’ it. If it’s new to science, then it’s quite special. Much of what I have found is either new to me or to horticulture. Most are known to science, although some are not”.

Alan has discovered a few new varieties of ginger in Asia and a couple in Africa. And he has had plants named after him. The Heliconia Hybrid (H. psittacorum x H. spathocircinata) is named ‘Alan Carle’, it’s a small flower with merging yellow and orange. 

Alan and Susan have named other cultivars, like the heliconia hybrid ‘Hot Rio Nights’ and ‘Fireflash’, and a couple of others have yet to be named by taxonomists.

Fireflash took about five years to multiply from a single plant to as many as one million. It’s now found in many tropical countries in all hemispheres. 


Growing heliconias commercially

Heliconia at The Botanical Ark RetreatMeanwhile, we realised that if we waited to sell our fruit from trees that could take years, sometimes decades, to start fruiting, we would go broke. So we started growing heliconia’s commercially as cut flowers. Some of the 150 species that can be grown as cut flowers can last up to five weeks in a vase. And so it came to pass that by 1985, we were Australia’s largest producers of heliconias.

We would get up at 2a.m., pick flowers until sunrise, when foliage and flowers would wilt with the heat, then pack them off to markets throughout Australia as well as Hong Kong and Japan. Everything was going well until 1989. 

In that year, Australia experienced a six-month-long nationwide pilot strike. It devastated many businesses, especially for rural markets. It made us think about our priorities. We concluded that we had drifted from our original emphasis on ethnobonical interests and we stopped growing flowers commercially. 

But we still grow many varieties of heliconia, punctuating our garden with shrieks of red and orange and yellow and green. Rather like a land version of the colourful Great Barrier Reef fish. Guests welcome the beautiful flower arrangements throughout The Botanical Ark Retreat


Further reading

This section also covers other attractions in our gardens, including fruit, birds, and wildlife.

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