Thursday, September 8, 2016

Jardin Etnobotánico de Oaxaca

Agave guiengola plants bloom in the Jardin Ethnobotanico de Oaxaca
Oaxaca is one of the most historic and beautiful cities in Mexico.  I hadn't been there for 30 years was amazed by how much it has grown in the last 3 decades.  Sprawl has connected many of the towns that used to be located outside the city and traffic is terrible.  But the city center has maintained much of its beauty and charm and remains one of the most popular cultural destinations in the country.

Late afternoon promenade along Avenida Constitucion
Oaxaca has a strong identity, enriched by its diverse population and vibrant indigenous cultures.  It is a center for artisan crafts dating back many hundreds of years.  The valley has been occupied for thousands more.  Seeds from squash dated to over 10,000 years in age are some of the oldest known evidence of agriculture in the Western Hemisphere.

Oaxaca's colonial center is a gathering place for people from all over the valley and afar.  Architecturally well preserved, many of the old buildings now house museums, art galleries, thriving markets, and fine restaurants serving variations on the distinctive cuisine of the region.

La Biznaga, named for the Spanish name for Barrel Cactus, serves wonderful food a block from Plaza de Santo Domingo
Galleries abound displaying works by a large variety of talented artisans and artists and I spent a lot of the two weeks I was there being inspired by what I saw.  There are a number of architecturally beautiful museums blending old and new structures, displaying amazing works with a high regard for design and innovation.

Colonial and modern architecture connect as part of the Centro Academico y Cultural San Pablo with a gallery, cafe, and library
The primary reason that the Spanish took interest in the Oaxaca region was because of an insect called Cochineal that feeds on Nopal Prickly Pear Cactus.  This female insect sucks juices from the plant and contains a red pigment called Carminic Acid that departs a rich series of colors depending on how they are treated.  The Zapotecs, Aztecs and Mayans began dying fabrics with it in the 14th Century, and Europe became obsessed with the fabulous reds and purples that could be obtained using Cochineal.  Its value by weight was greater than gold and for a time it became the second most important export from colonial Mexico after Silver.  Cochineal thrives in the climate of the Oaxaca Valley but failed to survive when cultivated in other countries.

Nopal Prickly Pear Cacti in the Jardin Ethnobotanico, Oaxaca

Cochineal insects on a Nopal leaf

Cochineal pigment used to dye yarn for carpet weaving in Teotitlan, Oaxaca State
The wealth created by the Cochineal industry made Oaxaca the most important town in the region, and great churches and monasteries were built for powerful Spanish religious sects.  The most incredible of Oaxaca's cultural institutions is located in the confines of the Templo de Santo Domingo located 5 blocks north of the city's main square, the Zocalo.  Construction of the complex began in 1570 and took over 200 years to complete.

Templo de Santo Domingo de Guzman
When you approach the elegant golden stone structure, one of the most striking features are the unusual plantings in the plaza.  Large squared graveled beds contain straight rows of a native species of bromeliad from the genus Hechtia.  The tall slender dried brown flower stalks silhouetted dramatically against the lighter stone of the church at the time I was there.

The dry flower stalks of native Hechtia bromeliads silhouetted against the golden sandstone of the Templo de Santo Domingo
Hechtia bromeliads
Oaxaca State is the home of 21 known species of the genus Hechtia, the greatest concentration of this genus of bromeliad.  Many have reddish stripes or blood red spots giving them great ornamental potential, although they are not commonly seen in gardens.  I assume that the spacing and straight rows of the plants mimics that of the many Mezcal Agave plantations in the region, the roasted hearts of which are used to make tequila like liquors.

Grid pattern planting of Hechtia bromeliads in the Plaza de Santo Domingo de Guzman
Paving detail in the plaza
Another species of Hechtia is planted on stone terraces leading to a pedestrianized street
Equally dramatic are the spires of blooming pale blue Agave guiengola, sometimes called the Dolphin Agave because of its smooth wide blue leaves.  The margins are guarded by a row of tiny dark barbs giving the plant a refined look.  They are planted in masses along one side of the plaza.  The flower spikes soar to 12 feet.  Many were in bloom when I was there, which signals the end of life for the plant.  I was told that a probable cause is climate change and unseasonably warm temperatures that stress the plants triggering them to bloom.

Beautiful bluish leaves of Agave guiengola, native to Mount Guiengola near Tehuantepec in Oaxaca State
The plaza is a popular gathering place and the site of many festivities.  Vendors sell crafts to tourists while others visit with friends.

A vendor sells handwoven hats and bags in the Plaza de Santo Domingo
The interior of the church is the most resplendent in the city, lavishly decorated in three dimensional plaster and carved relief.  During the years of revolution in Mexico the church and monastery became a military barracks.  It was reverted to use as a church in 1938, and in 1972 the monastery was converted in to the Museum of Oaxacan Culture.

An incredible family tree of the founder of the Dominican order, Santo Domingo de Guzmán, sculpted on the ceiling inside the entrance to Templo de Santo Domingo
The adjacent Dominican Monastery is equally lavish, and has been converted in to one of Mexico's finest regional museums, the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca.

A ceiling in the Monastery

The vast complex and its miriad of spaces, workshops, chapels, and dormitory cells are now galleries displaying artifacts from the diverse history of the Oaxaca valley.

The monastery encloses some beautiful courtyards with fine cobbled pavements.  The main central courtyard is surrounded by cloisters with a fountain flanked by columns at the center.  The fountain would have originally been used as a water source for the complex.

The main courtyard in the Monastery of Santo Domingo de Guzman
Smaller courtyards were once used as utilitarian spaces.  This one has been planted with native Plumeria trees with a square paving pattern set with three shapes of cut stone.

Native Plumeria rubra planted in a smaller courtyard in the monastery
The bold sculptural form of the trees contrasts nicely with the squareness of the space and the pattern of the paving.

Looking down in to the courtyard 
Walking down the long hallways of the upper floors of the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca, you come upon large open windows with fantastic views looking out over the courtyards and surrounding landscapes.  Many of these windows don't have glass because of the benign climate of the region, and act like balconies.

A family takes in the view from an open window
The most wonderful views take in the lush and beautifully composed Jardin Ethnobotánico.  This garden didn't exist when I was here 30 years ago.  The project commenced in 1993 under the direction of the reknowned Mexican artist Francisco Toledo, who is also a strong advocate for the preservation of Oaxacan culture.

A panoramic view of the Jardin Ethnobotanico from the Monastery of Santo Domingo
The expansive walled grounds of the monastery complex originally had workshops and orchards.  These were destroyed when the army occupied the complex during the revolution.  For many years the property was used for storage and exersize yards and parking and garbage dumps when it was an army barracks.  After the army vacated the monastery it was slated to become a convention center with parking lots occupying much of what are now gardens.  Fortunately the concept of building a garden showcasing native and culturally significant plants took precident and construction began on the Jardin Ethnobotanico in 1994.

Looking down in to a large cobbled courtyard

To reach the Oaxaca valley, the roads crossing the state pass through rugged and diverse landscapes.  I came from the market town of Tehuacan in Puebla State to the east through the spectacular Tehaucan-Cuicatlan Biosphere reserve.  These mountains and valleys contain the world's largest concentration of columnar cacti.  The state of Oaxaca contains the highest diversity of plant life in Mexico, as well as the largest diversity of ethnic groups.

Columnar cacti cover the slopes of mountains in the Tehuacan-Cuicatlan Biosphere Reserve
On one of the highways heading to the coast to the west the high mountain forests are lush with jungle.  Like the state of Oaxaca, the Jardin Ethnobotanico has a dry side and a more moist side representing the climactic differences of various regions.

Clouds form over the dense evergreen forests of Oaxaca's coastal mountains
Magnificent mountain vistas from Hierva del Agua, Oaxaca State
In 1993 Francisco Toledo approached a man named Alejandro de Ávila, a man with great knowledge of the region.  He proposed the idea of creating a botanical garden that is intrinsicly linked to the culture of the region, an Ethnobotanical Garden.  With the backing of other members of organization Pro-Oax, which supports the preservation and enhancement of Oaxacan culture, the concept of a garden received the blessing of the government over other proposals.

Plan of the Jardin Ethnobotanico
The walled 2.3 hectare enclosure in which the garden was planted was in a state of great neglect.  As excavations began, the remainders of centuries old facilities related to the monastery emerged.
These spaces were incorporated in to the design as terraces and pools, including plantings that corelate to the original purpose of the spaces.

The remains of a 16th Century laundry area with a Soapberry Tree, Sapindus saponaria growing against the wall.  

The Soapberry Fig is a tree native to India that was brought to Oaxaca to make soap and is one of the few non native plants in the garden
4 meter deep below ground lime kilns built in 1575 were used for the calcination of limestone by using coal or wood fire to heat the stone in a processs that took about a week to complete.  The lime was used to make mortar for masonry in the construction of the church, monastery, walls, and outbuildings.

A path crosses and steps down in to an old Lime Kiln, used to make lime for mortar

The different areas are connected by a series of colored decomposed stone paths that zigzag through the
plantings.  The forms of the paths were inspired by the the cut stone mosaic facades of buildings at the Zapotec ruins at Mitla, 46 kilometers to the southeast of Oaxaca City.  Mitla was an important ceremonial center when the Spanish arrived over 500 years ago and the decorative patterns are unique to it's tombs, palaces, and ceremonial spaces.

Grupo de las Columnas, Mitla
A variety of cut stone mosaics decorate the walls of the structures at Mitla
Detail of a wall at Mitla displaying energetic shapes and traces of pigment from when the structures were painted
The zigzag paths look dramatic and modern set against the artful arrangement of the plant material, while summoning conciousness of ancient Zapotec designs.  A Mexican painter named Luis Zárate had significant influence on the design in consort with Toledo and Ávila.  The result is an extraordinary garden composed with an artist's, anthropologist's, and botanist's sensibilities blended in to a series of sublime compositions.

A green decomposed stone path, edged in steel forms a path through useful native trees in the garden
A steel basin and rill modeled on a design from Zapotec design from Mitla designed by Luis Zarate
Interior wall in the Grupo de las Columnas, Mitla
The garden was originally designed to be entered from a courtyard on the church's plaza, where a thick rectangular plinth fountain designed by Francisco Toledo is made of native Montezuma Cypress clad in mica, a thin, shiny mineral.  The fountain has a Mitla inspired "step fret" design cut out of it, and water died red with Cochineal drips over it.  This entrance was closed and moved to a back street corner after several rare plants and cuttings were stolen from the garden.  Visiting the garden can only be done on a tour now in order to prevent that from happening again.  There are tours in Spanish and less frequently in English, which are very comprehensive and well guided.

Sangre de Mitla Fountain by Francisco Toledo  Photo by Dana Gallagher
There is an interesting library with a focus on botany, agriculture, and art near the entrance where you can do research or linger while you wait for the tour to depart.

A book on the garden designs of artist Luis Zárate in the library
When the tour of the garden finally begins, two of the first trees you encounter are an Amate Fig, Ficus tecolutensis, who's bark was used for making paper before the Spanish arrived (extensive information at, and a Montezuma Cypress, Taxodium mucronatum.  These magestic trees, related to the Bald Cypress of the swampy South Eastern United States can grow to great age and size.

An Amate Tree and Montezuma Cypress and a bed of prehistoric Horsetails, Equisetum myriochaetum
In fact the tree said to have the widest trunk in the world is a famous Montezuma Cypress growing in the town of El Tule, southeast of Oaxaca on the road to Mitla.  I remember getting off the bus here 30 years ago and being astounded by the fantastic sight of this 1,500 year old tree, that is 11 meters across (35 feet) at the base at its widest point.  A well watered park now surrounds the tree and supports its need for moisture as the water table of the area drops because of extraction from wells.

The massive trunk of El Arbol del Tule

El Arbol del Tule
Back in Oaxaca, a path below the imposing walls of the monastery leads to an innovative arrangement of yellow and red stones interplanted in small agaves, cacti, and recumbent desert plants.  The stones are separated by a linear gap that mimicks the irrigation rills that have been excavated around the site.

Yellow and red stones are arranged to create a dramatic pallet studded with small desert plants

Further along the path are native Plumeria trees underplanted with beautiful Vriesia bromeliads surrounded by rough stones that set off the plants and create an ecosystem similar to their native habitat.  The largest possible trees were transplanted in to the garden when it was built to give it a more mature character.  A lot of experimentation was required as they didn't have much previous experience moving large trees in the region.  Many of the plants have been rescued from road building and construction projects.

Plumerias and Vriesia Bromeliads
Oaxaca state has the largest number of Plumeria species in the world.  These trees are popular ornamentals throughout the tropical and sub tropical world, prized for their fragrant flowers, sometimes called Frangipani.  The fragrance, most powerful at night, lures Sphinx moths as pollinators, even though they contain no nectar.

The bare branches of Plumeria trees in winter contrast dramatically with Yuccas, Agaves and Cacti in the garden
Plants in the garden were arranged to recreate bioregions and to convey cultural uses.  Local farmers and healers were enlisted to locate and collect specimens for the project.  There is a vegetable garden featuring plants that have been cultivated for hundreds of years, including squash grown in a raised bed oriented in the direction of the site near Mitla where the ancient seeds were found.

Cultivated squash seeds found near Mitla date back to 10,000 years ago
It is possible that the Oaxaca Valley was the first place where corn was cultivated as a crop, over time becoming a primary staple food for indigenous people over much of the Western Hemisphere.

Stepped walls and river stone pavement frames beds of corn
Useful plants grown in this part of the garden include Hierba de Conejo (Rabbit Herb) Cynoglossum officinale, a medicinal and culinary herb.   Marigolds have been cultivated for centuries to use as a dye, an insect repellent, and for ceremonial decorations.  The odor of corpses is masked by the sweet fragrance of Tuberoses.  Chia, from the Salvia family is used to make a gelatinous drink.  The name of the state of Chiapas in southern Mexico is derived from the Chia plant.  56 varieties of Chili are grown in Mexico.
Plants historically used in agriculture in the Oaxaca region, including chiles and marigolds

Introducing new plants to the garden
Some of the most striking plantings in the garden are the rows of Organ Pipe Cacti.  Traditionally used as a living fence, the cacti are planted close together in lines, which when grown in create an impenetrable wall.  Over a period of 2,000 years, forms of the cacti were selected to domesticate the thornless plants seen today.  In the garden they have been used to great affect to create alleys and a dramatic backdrop to a reflecting pool.  A black hair dye is made by boiling pieces of these cacti.

Organ Pipe Cacti   Stenocereus thurberi  reflecting in a pool
Rows of Organ Pipe Cacti frame the foundation of a ruined structure

The cacti also make an interesting punctuational contrast to the shapes of less linear plants and relate in a vertical way to the linear paths.

Plumerias, Prickly Pear Cactus, Yuccas and Agaves contrast with walls of Organ Pipe Cacti
Organ Pipe Cacti form a narrow alley framing a Bignonia tree

Organ Pipe Cacti and two species of Prickly Pear against the backdrop of the Monastery

Detail of a Prickly Pear Cactus Pad
Turning past the corner of the Monastery is a square bed planted with native Cycads.  There are some 20 known species of Cycads native to the state.  These prehistoric plants that date from the early Permian era 820 million years ago are gymnosperms, meaning that they have seeds that do not have shells or skins, and are open to the air for pollination.  The primitive flowers are usually pollinated by beetles.

A bed of Cycads mulched in pink stones simulates the environment that they are proned to grow in
Unopened Cycad cones
A silvery blue species of Cycad
Looking back to the Monastery, is a beautiful cluster of native palms and Beaucarnea Pony tail Palms.  The arrangement of plants takes advantage of their sculptural character, texture and color to make for handsome compositions in harmony with rough stones and ground covering plants.

Beucarnia Pony Tail Palms and Fan Palms in a corner of the garden
Water is distributed throughout the garden using traditional rills.  These add an architectural element to the garden similar to the way they are used in Spain and North Africa, but here they contrast with the sculptural forms of native Oaxacan plants.

A row of small Agave species line a rill.  Oaxaca has more species of Agaves and Cycads than any other region of the planet.
Tall Yuccas and masses of Agaves create dramatic compositions in the desert garden
For me the desert areas of the garden are the most dramatic.  The striking forms of the plants, spiky, linear, and sculptural are arranged to great affect.  On the tour I was always lagging behind in order to take photos without a cluster of people in the shots.  The guide told a number of stories relating to the various plants and their cultural uses.  The desert plants receive no irrigation once they are established.  The stone and gravel mulches help provide the drainage and warmth the plants are accustomed to.

The architectural forms of a variety desert plants
Agaves, Hechtia Bromeliads, and Cacti

Beautifully composed groupings of cacti and desert plants contrast with the straight lines of the fretwork paths

A Biznaga, or Barrel Cactus estimated to be over 600 years old was rescued from a road construction site and moved to the garden
A close up of the spined ridges of the Barrel Cactus, Biznaga

More species of Agaves are found in Oaxaca State than any other region on Earth
The sculptural form of desert plants is used to great effect in the garden, arranged in staggered rows or massed together, Agaves are very dramatic in form, as are yuccas, cacti and palms, and can be arranged to make for wonderful compositions.  Added meaning is implied in compositions reminiscent of how these plants would appear in a cultivated setting.

Clumps of Agave stricta contrasting the stepped line of the green rock dust path
Beautiful clump of Agave stricta
A fantastic array of plant forms arranged in a painterly manner

The view of the desert garden from an opening on the upper floor of the Monastery
Blue green paddles of Prickly Pear contrast with Organ Pipe Cacti
Mezcal is an alcoholic drink made from the roasted hearts of Maguey.  Many types of Agave are grown extensively in the Oaxaca Valley.  The most common species used for Mezcal in the Oaxaca region is Agave angustifolia, the Small Sword Agave.

Maguey Agaves 

The outer leaves are cut off and the heart of the plant, called a Piña, is cooked in a stone lined and covered cooking pit.  They become juicy and can then be pressed.  The liquid is distilled, producing a smoky spirit that comes in a broad range of variety and quality.

The hearts, or Piña of the Agave before pit roasting at a distillery in Santiago Matatlán
Large flat stones in the garden may have been intended for seating as well as their sculptural form
The center of the garden features a rectangular reflecting pool.  I don't know if this is a water reservoir used to irrigate the garden or if its purpose is purely ornamental.

Organ Pipe Cacti frame a reflecting pool
The gardens are a popular place to host high profile weddings for families from the capitol, who like to incorporate colorful ceremonies popular in Oaxaca.

A beautiful setting for the rehearsal for a lavish wedding
Late afternoon February light in the garden
A forest of Organ Pipe Cacti
A prostrate cactus
If you know how to identify any unlabeled cacti in these photos please make a comment

The zig zag of the fret stepped paths, edged with steel strips, and a variety of stone mulches 

Late afternoon light illuminating the garden
Stone gutter spouts spill water from the building on to loose stone mosaic panels along the high walls of the monastery

Yuccas, Agave stricta, and Agave guingola
A dramatic South American tree distinctive for its spiny bulbous trunk, Cieba speciosa, the Silk Floss Tree has showy pink flowers in March followed by large seed pods filled with a cotton like floss that was used for stuffing in life jackets and as insulation in aircraft during World War II.  Another spiny trunked tree from Cental America is Bomacopsis quinata, the Pochote Tree.  It produces a fine grained wood used in furniture and cabinet making and in stringed musical instruments like guitars.

The spiny trunk of a Pochote Tree surrounded by masses of Agaves

Tall Yuccas and low Agaves with the beautiful tan stone backdrop of the monastery
Leaving the desert area the garden becomes more wooded with trees and large shrubs from regions of Oaxaca with higher rainfall.

The garden transitions from desert on the west side to forested ecosystems to the east
Transitioning between the two ecosystems are Palo Verde Cercidium spp. paint the ground with yellow flowers and tiny fallen leaves.  Palo Verde is Spanish for Green Stick, referring to the green bark that dominates the trees.  The trees have edible flowers and pods.

Palo Verde trees dust the ground with a tinge of yellow at the back of the garden
Palo Mullato, or Black Stick, Bursera tomentosa, produces a fragrant resin called Copal, which is burned in purification rituals.

A Palo Mullato tree to the left of the path
A tree with showy red papery bark, Bursera simaruba, or Gumbo Limbo, is also called the Tourist Tree for its resemblence to the sunburnt peeling skin of tourists.  The fast growing trees are often planted as windbreaks simply by rooting cuttings in the soil.  The wood is used for firewood and in light construction, and the tree's resin is used to make glue, varnish, and incense.

The red papery bark of Bursera simaruba, The Tourist Tree

Agaves planted amongst a grove of trees, including Ochroma pyramidale, the source of lightweight Balsa Wood
Terrestrial Bromiliads along the edge of a path
Bromeliads and Agaves in the understory
An epiphytic Bromeliad growing in the crotch of a tree

Masses of spiny foliaged plants with contrasting colors planted in masses along an irrigation rill

Another Mitla inspired sculpture by Luis Zarate
An irrigation rill creates a slender linear axis through the garden
Green rock dust and white gravel make a soft deliniation of a fret stepped path in to the woods
In a back corner of the garden, in line with the walls is a modern geothermically heated glass house was recently built to house orchids and other tropical plants that grow in the warmer, wetter coastal mountain slopes of Oaxaca State.

The Glass House
A metal staircase leads up to a walkway around the perimeter, from which on clear days you can see the mountaintop ruins of Monte Alban.

The roof of the Glass House with a yellow flowered Tababuia chrysantha in the background

A winter evening sky with the silhouette of Santo Domingo from the roof of the Glass House
In the shade of the trees, are nursery areas holding groupings of cultivated plants, many of them rare.  The unfortunate theft of valuable plants from the garden prompted the need to only allow visits by guided tour.

A bed of young cacti
The propagation of rare and endangered species of plants in the garden will help preserve them for future generations.

The Monastery towers over the garden offering splendid views
The Jardin Ethnobotánico de Oaxaca, in the span of only 20 years, has grown in to one of the finest gardens in Mexico, if not the World.  While many botanical gardens end up looking like giant plant collections, this jewel in the city shows how an artist's eye blended with the skills developed over centuries by farmers working the land, can create something extraordinary and inspiring.  Sitting on a stone windowsill high up in the Monastery, gazing out over the textural landscape of these gardens, with the mountains beyond is time well spent.

An overview of the garden from the Monastery 
Thanks for reading, Jeffrey

Handsome old buildings from the Colonial era line a street across from the entrance to the Jardin Ethnobotanico
All photos but one by Jeffrey Bale