White Flowers with Margareth Barwick inset
A view of the J.R. O'Neal Botanic Gardens and the 1986 dedication plaque
Above: a view of the J.R. O'Neal Botanic Gardens and the 1986 dedication plaque

Most often identified as the wife of BVI Governor David Barwick, from 1982 to 1986, she was born in New Zealand, but brought with her more than 30 years of hands-on experience as an artist, gardener and landscape designer from such far-flung locations as the Solomon Islands and Malawi, as well as the UK and the US, when she and her husband landed in Tortola.

As he took responsibility for governing, she took on the gardening, both at their official residence, now the Old Government House Museum, and for what would become BVI's Botanic Gardens. At home, she planted the slopes of the governor's garden, which then included the site of the current Government House, with shade trees, palms, cacti and exotic florals. Some came from the Botanic Gardens, but she was also known, on occasion, to persuade friends and acquaintances to contribute to the governor's garden, as well. Today her contribution is best viewed from the patio east of the museum, where paths and paved stairways take visitors to its several levels, enclosed under a cool, green canopy of towering shade trees, punctuated here and there with tropical blooms.

Inside the residence, she took on challenges beyond gardening as well. When she saw that the governor's dining room had no sea view, she researched the history of Road Town and painted four frescoes on the walls depicting how the harbour might have looked 200 years before. These trompe-l'oeil images appear as windows facing the sea, in arched frames draped in bougainvillea with window ledges on which some recent passerby placed tropical blooms and seashells, and remain on view to the public today in the restored dining room.

But Margaret Barwick is most affectionately remembered here for her contribution to BVI's Botanic Garden. Working with Joseph Reynold O'Neal, the pioneering BVI conservationist and first chair of its National Parks Trust, she helped transform the old Agricultural Experiment Station, where food plants had been grown experimentally since 1900, into a tropical, horticultural showcase. One of 20 parks in the BVI National Park system, the Botanic Gardens provide the serious gardener with a living catalogue of exotic and native flora, representing the diversity of BVI, from mangrove to sandy shoreline, dry forest to rainforest. Flowers range from cacti to mountain orchid, with shade trees, fruit trees, water lilies, flowering vines, and a staggering 62 varieties of palms – who knew they came in such a range of sizes, shapes and colors?

Margaret Barwick and J.R. O'Neal at the Botanic Gardens

Above: Margaret Barwick and J.R. O'Neal at the Botanic Gardens

Unfortunately, the garden was badly damaged by severe weather in late 2009 – a stark reminder that even the most established gardens are subject to the whims of nature. When it reopened in December, most of its structures and exhibits were restored, though work continued in others.

A broad expanse of green lawn opens up to the right just beyond the entrance, surrounded by deep, high borders of flowering shrubs and perennials, the perfect backdrop for the wedding photos often taken here. The promenade of Royal Palms directs visitors to a Victorian fountain overflowing with water lilies and offering a choice of directions to continue exploring. A left under the cool shade of the pergola leads to the Orchid House, the Fern House and the Turtle Pond, fringed with water lilies and other aquatics.

After passing under a towering Neem tree, a twisted gray wall of intertwined trunks looms out of the dark shade. This is the banyan, or bearded fig, whose aerial roots can penetrate the ground to establish new trees, enabling it to expand and spread infinitely across the landscape. Given that one located in the Indian Botanical Gardens is reputed to cover four acres, the roots of the example in the BVI Botanical Gardens are wisely bunched and tied to keep it from spreading.

Beyond lies the miniature rainforest exhibit, a tiny atmospheric replica of Sage Mountain National Park, complete, with a vivid collection of gingers, heliconias, and anthuriums. Turning back through the cactus and palm gardens, I happened upon a calabash tree, another of nature's curiosities, burdened like a pregnancy with a shiny green globe the size of a watermelon. Back under the pergolaed walkway, I took a closer look at the periwinkle blue blossoms of the sandpaper vine and the dozens of strings of rare pure white thunbergia grandiflora alba blossoms hanging from above.

Tropical & Subtropical Trees book coverThe garden also has a nursery which sells seeds, seedlings and mature plants representing many of its specimens, for tropical gardeners to take home. The nursery also provides plants for distribution during Tortola's Arbour Day week. For more serious research and study, the herbarium houses a collection of living plants, seeds, and dried specimens unique to Anegada, BVI's farthest flung island. This collection resulted from a project with the UK's Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, completed in 2006, and included a mature example of Pokemeboy (Acacia anegadensis), a species of legume found in subtropical or tropical dry forests, and sandy shores, but now declared critically endangered due to habitat loss.

All of these resources exist in Road Town today as a result of the momentum Margaret Barwick brought to establishing the Botanic Gardens in 1985. While she returned to her previous home in the Cayman Islands when her husband's tenure as governor in BVI ended in 1987, her contributions to tropical gardening continued. In 2003, she published Tropical & Subtropical Trees: a worldwide encyclopaedic guide, an invaluable resource for the tropical gardener. In 2008 her life-long interest in tropical plants and painting was on display again at the National Gallery of the Cayman Islands in Screens, Greens and Washing Machines: The Life and Work of Margaret Barwick.

Now in her late 70s, her skill as a landscape designer was put to work again earlier this year on the grounds of a new restaurant, where she designed a compact but productive kitchen garden. Using every bit of available land on the property, the garden now keeps the chef well stocked with everything from tomatoes to sweet potatoes, scotch bonnets to lemon grass, and callaloo to passion fruit. Back in Road Town, maintaining a garden of the range, resources and proportions of the Joseph Reynold O'Neal Botanic Garden is a substantial undertaking for a community its size. All revenues from fees, purchases and any additional donations contribute to keeping it alive and appealing as an educational destination for school children and tourists, as a quiet respite for casual visitors and as a valuable resource center for serious gardeners, wherever they call home.