Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 28, 2021

© Cleo Paskal

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The garden at the end of the world

Tropical Tonga is home to one man's encyclopedic passion for plants

You don’t mess with gardeners. They have patience, persistence and, er, petunias (hey, alliteration isn’t as easy as it looks).

A case in point is Haniteli Fa’anunu. When he was eight, Fa’anunu was given land near his village on the lush island of Vava’u, in the Kingdom of Tonga, in the South Pacific, about an hour's flight east of Fiji. The land was mostly being used for growing crops. But Fa’anunu wanted to do something different. He wanted a garden.

Fa’anunu went off to school, followed by further studies in agriculture in Fiji and then Hawaii. And all the while he thought about his land. When he came back to Vava’u in 1971, he started planting.

Fa’anunu’s garden is a reflection of his life. Even when he became Director of Agriculture and Forestry for the government of Tonga, the garden was never far from his thoughts. For decades, he used half his salary, and all his heart to keep it growing. And his equally accomplished wife, Lucy, did more than her share to keep the garden, and Fa’anunu, on track.

Today, Fa’anunu has retired from government and devotes himself fulltime to his Eden where he also gives tours. The organic garden is nine hectares of verdant passion — one of the most exceptional private gardens in the Pacific, if not the world.

Opened to the public since 2006, it has almost every species of plant in Tonga, alongside hundreds of other species, including tamarind, star fruit, jasmine, mahogany, almond trees, lemon grass, cashew, sisal, vanilla, kauri, hibiscus, pine, orchids, coconut, ginger and more, lot and lots more.

This oasis has become a de facto bird sanctuary, adding a constant song to the beauty of the garden.

Capitalism and coconuts

Here in Tonga, where most people know a farmer, a traditional medicine person as well as their folklore, plants still mean something. There are medicinal plants. Culturally important plants. And, in Fa’anunu’s garden, even a stolen plant (more on that one later).

Every plant has a story. And many are tied to entire economies that went boom and bust. Copra, dried coconut meat from which coconut oil is extracted, used to be an economic mainstay of Tonga. Then questions were raised (some say by manufacturers of competing oils), about its cholesterol content. And the price crashed, taking the economy with it.

Other crops were tried in order to replace it. Fa’anunu tells me that vanilla came to Tonga with French priests in the 1880s. When high-ranking officials brought back cuttings in the 1950s, and suggested growing it as a cash crop, locals in Vava’u told them it already grew wild. In recent years, attempts were made to grow it as a cash crop, but again prices crashed, and vanilla pods rotted on the vines.

Kava was doing well for a while on the international market, and then it was banned from several countries, Fa’anunu thinks perhaps because it competed too successfully with pharmaceutical antidepressants.

A current hope is noni, from which the foul-tasting but currently globally trendy health drink is made. Some think that, should it prove effective, it too may be banned – unless actively defended internationally by producers and government.

Pride of place

But regardless of international markets, they will all still thrive in Fa’anunu’s garden. And traditional plants, like kava and noni, have a special pride of place.

Sometimes, Fa’anunu says, you can tell how deep the plants' Tongan roots are by its name. Relatively recent arrivals have Tongan names that sound more than vaguely familiar. Teak for example is tiiki in Tongan. Ones that have been here longer, have distinctly Tongan names, like mei puou (breadfruit).

Fa’anunu’s garden is very Tongan. And the Tongans are known for being great navigators and for conquering other nations — the Vikings of the Pacific. Fa’anunu has incorporated those traditions into the garden as well. As he travelled the world for conferences and meetings, he visited botanical gardens for inspiration and brought back ideas, and sometimes more, to plant in Vava’u.

“I was in India with the Prime Minister on an agricultural trip,” he told me, standing in the shade of a teak tree, in the heart of his garden. “The Indian Prime Minister asked us how many varieties of mangoes we had. I proudly told him ‘over 20’. He told me India has over 1000. And that night, he sent over a box of mangoes to our hotel. We spent the night cutting away the flesh of the mangoes and packing the seeds to take home.”

Pointing to a young mango tree, Fa’anunu says: “And that is the result. The tree is about seven years old, and has yet to bear fruit.”

But Fa’anunu is patient. He can wait for it. He is a gardener.

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