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Taking Gingers to Singapore

Port Douglas & Mossman Gazette 

By Lesley Watson

It’s a classic case of taking coals to Newcastle but in a clean, green guise. In fact, local horticulturist Alan Carle’s mission of taking gingers to Singapore could well replace the old fossil fuel adage as the new 21st-century saying for taking a sustainable product back to its roots.

2 Bot Ark Retreat media (9 of 15)Not only has Alan taken some rare and beautiful gingers from his own gardens in Whyanbeel Valley, 20km north of Mossman, back to the Malay peninsula, but his achievement is all the more outstanding as he has also taken his landscaping expertise to teach past masters of gardening how to create a world-class ginger garden in the Singapore Botanical Gardens.

As creator of the Botanical Ark, a 12ha Garden of Eden in the Whyanbeel Valley, Alan has a knowledge of plants that is respected the world over. In 1999, as then president, Alan was addressing a Heliconia Society International conference in Singapore when he was approached by the Singapore National Parks Department with a proposition to create the garden. 

“Basically, I was given a brief to transform an overgrown and neglected 1ha plot next to the famous orchid garden into the world’s best tropical ginger garden and ginger conservation centre.”

Alan has designed the garden around four main themes – beauty, ethnobotany, history and conservation – incorporating water features, courtyeards, a ginger-themed restaurant, Halia, and a gift shop within the complex.

“Even those who are casual visitors will be amazed by their beauty, diversity, and tropical nature as well as receive information on the importance of this group of plants within the order of the Zingiberales for culinary, medicinal, religious and other purposes,” Alan says.

As well as gingers from the Botanical Ark, Alan used plant stock from the Singapore Botanic Garden’s own nursery and other gingers he sourced from Thailand, Hawaii and Florida.

The garden was scheduled to open in May but the opening ceremony has been postponed until October 18 after the guest of honour returns from yet another mission to share his botanical knowledge with others.

Alan is currently in Fortaleza, Brazil, addressing the 49th conference of the Inter-American Society for Tropical Horticulture and sourcing plants for the Botanical Ark.

The Botanical Ark evolved from a dream of Alan and his wife Suzi to find a suitable block of land to raise a family – with clean air to breathe, pure fresh water to drink and suitable land to grow crops free from poison.

Originally from the Catskill mountains in New York State, Alan said he dreamed about Australia as a child and as soon as he turned 19 bought a one-way ticket to “Oz”, arriving in the country with 80c in his pocket.

He subsequently studied marine biology at James Cook University but was ultimately lured by the land instead of the sea – “I realised we had no chance of protecting the sea until we cleaned up the land.”

Suzi, a childhood friend from the US, visited him in 1975 and never went home. The couple decided to search the wet tropics for a suitable home.

In 1982, they bough the treeless cattle-grazed block of “grass, weeds and eroded gullies” and set about planting their orchard of tropical fruits, eventually raising their two daughters Heather and Cali there.

In a period of 25 years, the orchard has become a repository of over 400 species of the world’s tropical fruits, all sourced by the Carle’s on their regular overseas trips to collect seeds from the great rainforests of the world.

In fact, the garden contains some plants which are now extinct in the wild as the rainforests from whence they came have now disappeared.

Since 1992 the Botanical Ark has been a member of Botanic Gardens Conservation International. “We embrace their goals and aspirations and share a commitment to educate people about the importance of saving plants and ecosystems,” Alan says.

“But we want the garden to remain private while we are alive – after all, this is our home – so we only cater to groups by appointment.”

The Botanical Ark’s contribution to the environment has been recognised in the Slow Food International Award for Biodiversity in Food 2000, in Bologna, Italy, and the 2000 Jaguar/Australian Gourmet Traveller Awards for Innovation in Tourism.

 The Carle’s trials, tribulations, plant collecting adventures in pockets of rainforest throughout the world, and their achievements are contained in their book, The Botanical Ark, published in 2001. 

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