Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Gardens

sights / Parks & gardens

Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Gardens information

admission Rs200; guide per person from Rs 40
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Don't be put off if you've never been particularly interested in botany – after London's Kew Gardens the SSR Botanical Gardens is one of the world's best botanical gardens. It's also one of the most popular tourist attractions in Mauritius and is easily reached from almost anywhere on the island.

Labelling of the plants is a work in progress and they don't have maps, so we strongly recommend that you hire one of the knowledgeable guides who wait just inside the gardens' entrance; golf buggy tours are also available upon request for those with limited mobility. If you don't take a guide and go it alone you'll miss many of the most interesting species.

The gardens, named after Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, the first prime minister of independent Mauritius, were started by Mahé de Labourdonnais in 1735 as a vegetable plot for his Mon Plaisir Château (which now contains a small exhibition of photographs). The landscape came into its own in 1768 under the auspices of the French horticulturalist Pierre Poivre. Like Kew Gardens, the gardens played a significant role in the horticultural espionage of the day. Poivre imported seeds from around the world in a bid to end France's dependence on Asian spices. The gardens were neglected between 1810 and 1849 until British horticulturalist James Duncan transformed them into an arboretum for palms and other tropical trees.

Palms still constitute the most important part of the horticultural display, and they come in an astonishing variety of shapes and forms. Some of the more prominent are the stubby bottle palms, the tall royal palms and the talipot palms, which flower once after about 40 years and then die. Other varieties include the raffia, sugar, toddy, fever, fan and even sealing-wax palms. There are many other curious tree species on display, including the marmalade box tree, the fish poison tree and the sausage tree.

The centrepiece of the gardens is a pond filled with giant Victoria amazonica water lilies, native to South America. Young leaves emerge as wrinkled balls and unfold into the classic tea-tray shape up to 2m across in a matter of hours. The flowers in the centre of the huge leaves open white one day and close red the next. The lilies are at their biggest and best in the warm summer months, notably January.

Another highlight is the abundant birdlife – watch for the crimson hues of the Madagascar fody – while there are captive populations of deer and around a dozen giant aldabra tortoises near the park's northern exit, close to the chateau. Also nearby is the funerary platform where Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam was cremated (his ashes were scattered on the Ganges in India) while various international dignitaries have planted trees in the surrounding gardens, including Nelson Mandela, Indira Gandhi and a host of British royals.