By Yusuf Martin
We trawled over the last remaining dredge, stepped out and up at Kellie’s Castle and climbed once more into our aging jeep heading down the road to an area rapidly becoming renowned for its tranquil lakes and lush parklands – Taman Herba.
The serene sanctuary of Perak’s Taman Herba (herb garden) washed over us as we stepped out of our aging 4X4, welcoming us to its floral paradise. Lakes and green vistas uninterrupted by calming trees led us to a secluded office building, where we were welcomed by enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff eager to greet its imposing visitors.
The 22 hectares of the Taman Herba (herb garden) was re-launched in June 2009, by the Sultan of Perak, and is nestled along the road to Batu Gajah for those coming from Gopeng, in Perak. Alternatively the gardens are easily accessible for people wanting to visit Kellie’s Castle, or perhaps meandering their way along the back road from Ipoh to Kampar. The turn off to the herb gardens is practically equidistant from the Simpang Pulai and Gopeng exits from the North/South Highway.
The radiantly beautiful (state run) herb garden is exactly what it says it is – a garden full of useful herbs but, more than that, it is also a plant research centre and a repository for Malaysian herb knowledge. Malaysian herbs, traditionally used in treating any number of complaints, including diabetes and high blood pressure, are investigated at the centre to determine the accuracy of ancient claims, which inevitably tend to be proven to be true.
We arrived at the herb garden in my aging Rocsta, about lunchtime. We thought that we may have to go elsewhere and return at a more appropriate time but, having disturbed the staff at their lunch, we were still met with smiles and gracious hospitality as the manager offered to take us on a guided tour of the magnificently delightful gardens. It was to be a veritable eye-opener for the three of us, as Puan Azizah explained the names and uses of some of the more exotic plants.
In those charmingly peaceful gardens there were plants to rub away the painful evils of the mosquito, plants for the specific ailments of women, and some – Tongkat Ali, also for men. There were plants with the sweetest of smells and others with the bitterest of tastes, plants which perfumed the air and stayed with us throughout the tour and one in particular which, indelicately, is called the ‘fart plant’ – how it got its name becomes clear the nearer you step towards the plant.
As bewitched and bewildered as we were by the sheer variety of the plants on display, the greatest surprise came when Puan Azizah asked us to taste a small, practically insignificant, yellow flower about the size of a small caper. She called it the flower of the Grandma’s earring plant because, I suppose, that is what the flower resembled – a small golden stud for a grandmother’s earlobe.
At first the tiny flower tasted as many small flowers would – green, a bit planty, nothing out of the ordinary – then the flavour burst onto our tongues and across our mouths in much the same way as Japanese Wasabi might. The taste was hot, a little sour, salty, peppery and astringent all at once and not at all unpleasant. It was a shock and none of us were expecting it except, of course, Puan Azizah – who laughed. All at once I was imagining pizza topped with grandmother’s earring, spaghetti fried with grandmother’s earring or grandmother’s earring sandwiches with sandwich spread. Good grief, I thought, this might just be the next hottest taste next to chilli and black pepper. There may be a thousand and one marketing opportunities for this extraordinary flower, awaiting the right culinary entrepreneur.
In one of the garden’s planted ‘greenhouses’, some green plant stems were called ‘bones’ because they resembled, well, err – bones I guess. Outside there were banana flowers which grew upward, for ornamental reasons, instead of hanging down and plants whose leaves you heat then wrap around aching joints – specifically knees. There were efficacious plants, relieving all kinds of ailments which I had considered weeds and, for the past five years, have been merrily pulling and discarding from our garden. And then there were rapturously fragrant trees, which I would dearly love to dig into our more than sun blessed garden.
Each of us was given a token gift – a small plastic bag containing seeds from the mahogany tree, known for reducing blood sugar and lowering cholesterol, and then it was time to depart. We left, driving slowly through an avenue of trees and looking at the lakes, vowing that we would return soon. Our Australian friend was intent upon capturing as much as he could, on his compact digital camera.