Thursday, November 28, 2013

Grapes in the Falklands? At Government House Gardens

From the mid-19th century, it was customary for every arriving Falklands visitor to call at Government House, the imposing building on Stanley’s Ross Road West, and sign the register. By the time I first arrived in the Islands, in early 1986, that custom had disappeared in the aftermath of 1982's South Atlantic war, as increased political and economic activity brought many more new people here, and the practice became impractical. Succeeding governors, also, were publicly less gregarious than their predecessor Rex Hunt, who genuinely enjoyed socializing with the Islands’ population.
One Government House feature that always fascinated me was the large conservatory (greenhouse) that stretches across two-third of the building’s northern exposure. It includes one of the world’s southernmost grapevines, a “Black Hamburg” variety that, I am told, produces abundant fruit. It is certainly one of the world’s southernmost grapevines; to the best of my knowledge, the only more southerly one sprawls through the conservatory restaurant at the Hotel José Nogueira in the Chilean city of Punta Arenas. Nobody, though, has ever been able to identify the variety to me.

Yesterday, though, I finally got a chance to visit Government House – or at least the conservatory - in the company of head gardener Jeremy Poncet. I had previously met Jeremy in Stanley Harbour when he was an infant aboard the Damien II, a research yacht that his father Jerome and mother Sally regularly sailed to South Georgia and Antarctica (Jeremy’s brother Dion was born in South Georgia, aboard the vessel).
This is a seafaring family, but Sally put me in contact land-based Jeremy, who oversees ornamental plants, fruit trees and vegetable gardens both outdoors and in greenhouses. As the photograph above shows, this season’s tomato plants are flourishing, though he wonders whether ultraviolet radiation through the Ozone Hole over southernmost South America might be causing mutations in the foliage.
In reality, the Government House gardens produce more fruit and vegetables than the governor and his staff can officially consume, with the surplus going to island schools and for charity purposes. That includes the fruit of the prodigiously productively grapevine, seen here from inside the conservatory in the early stages of its springtime growth. Jeremy has pruned it and other exotic plants judiciously.

While Government House and its gardens are not a tourist sight as such, Jeremy is willing to conduct tours for visitors with an interest in cultivated plants in this challenging environment (today, even as summer approaches, we saw a hailstorm and even a few snowflakes). He can’t handle cruise ship crowds, but is happy to accommodate individuals and very small groups, his other duties permitting.

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