There is a garden in Oaxaca City that both gardeners and non-gardeners seem to fall for. It’s takes up most of the grounds of the Santo Domingo church and the beautifully restored Museum of Oaxacan Cultures that is attached to it. Both the museum and the garden have a story to tell about Oaxaca’s roots and it is intriguing.
When the Spanish conquered Mexico, one of the things they were hoping to find was the perfect red dye and there it was, in Oaxaca, painted on the cheeks of the women and on the walls of their houses. The dye came from tiny insects called the cochineal. The Spanish knew a good thing and they were soon shipping the dye to Spain and trading it with countries as far away as India. In the meantime, the Spaniards got the indigenous peoples in Oaxaca to build them a fine church and monastery.
Eventually, of course, the Spaniards were kicked out of the country but the Mexican military decided to occupy the church property the Spanish had left until finally, in 1994, the Oaxacan people said they had had enough and the soldiers left.
A decision had to be made about what to do with the property. The whole complex had been declared a historical monument in the 1930s, which meant it was a federal property and couldn’t be sold (although the state government was supposedly interested in turning part of the monastery into a convention centre and the land around it would be the parking lot). Instead, the complex became a museum and the land a garden. Not an ordinary garden, but one that reflects the great diversity that is Oaxaca.
The English-speaking guide that took my group around told us all this. A sculpture made from a massive piece of Montezuma cypress clad in mica stands at what was to be the garden’s entrance. They had hoped this would be a garden that could be enjoyed without a guide but that has not yet happened so the entrance has changed and the visits quite ‘managed’. The water flowing from the sculpture was to be red like the dye from the cochineal but it was regular water the day I was there.
Francisco Toledo was the artist who did the sculpture and he and another Oaxacan artist, Luis Zárate, were responsible for the design of the garden. So this is an artist’s garden and it certainly seemed to belong alongside the green stone of the Santo Domingo cathedral.
It was decided that the garden would be a reflection of Oaxaca and show the relationship between its ethnic groups and its vegetation. The State of Oaxaca is one of the most ethnically diverse regions of the county and there are more species of plants in this state than in other parts of the country too.
Planting began in 1998 and today there are over 7,000 specimens and almost 1000 species, all native to the State of Oaxaca. Many of the plants were rescued during road construction or donated from the various communities. The names of the plants are not marked so I am relying on what the guide said (along with my memory) in writing this article.
The first challenge was to improve the soil that had been heavily compacted and badly alkaline because of the accumulation of limestone mortar used in the construction of the monastery and church. Once that was done, they had to address the area’s severe water shortage because the garden could not draw on the town’s water reserves.
They decided to organize the garden in two zones: dry and wet. They started with plants that would survive in the dry zone and not require any watering at all. Then they slowly introduced plants from the rain forest.
They also planted trees that would grow quickly and provide shade such as the so-called “gringo sunburn tree” that was easy to move and readily adapted.
Today the garden has the largest rainwater collection system in the State of Oaxaca, flowing from the rain cistern through buried pipes.
The guide told us that some of the most interesting plants on the planet are found here.
Cactus is probably the plant that is most easy to recognize in the garden. These ones, called ‘organ pipes’, are easy to propagate. In the countryside they are often planted to be a living fence. The guide says the water of this cactus will turn your hair black.
Some cactuses grow like plates and the ones that have no thorns are a very popular food in Mexico.
This large barrel cactus weighs over 5 tons and has grown for several centuries. It is used for making candy, which is putting it in danger so my guide says he calls it the candy-killing species. It’s also called mother-in-law seat.
This pencil cactus is actually not a cactus but euphorbs. Their vernacular name in Spanish refers to candles because of the plant’s shape.
There are several cycads, which are ancient plants that have been on the earth since the dinosaur age. Oaxaca has more than 20 species of cycads. This one can have cones that look like pineapples—40-50 grams in weight that first appear after 50 years of growing. It is very poisonous.
This plant may look like a palm but it is not. It’s leaves look friendly but they are very sharp.
These are the most beautiful species of the agave plant, says the guide. It only blooms once—when it has completed its life cycle. The flower grows 7 to 9m in a month and then the plant dies.
This tropical fig tree was planted here to show how its roots can wrap over a stone surface. The tree’s bark is very soft and smooth.
This saber tree has thorns to stop animals from climbing it. It is also known as the ‘monkey-no-climb tree’.
The white flowers on this plant look a little like the Australian Bottlebrush tree. The guide calls it the ‘shaving brush tree’. Flowers can also be pink. It only flowers during winter.
This is an inspiring garden and Oaxaca an extraordinary city. Well worth a visit.
Much thanks to Dr. Alejandro de Ávila, Director of the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca, for correcting inaccuracies in the original article.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
© Riding the buses 2014