For those wanting to know more about succulent plants — and I am one of them — consider visiting El Charco del Ingenio, a botanical garden where many of the plants are labeled in English. The garden is just outside the colonial town San Miguel de Allende, a place that attracts American and Canadian artists and active retirees. Having recently visited two outstanding Mexican gardens, one in Oaxaca and the other in Mexico City, and not knowing what I looking at, this labelling effort was much appreciated.
The El Charco collection is made up primarily of Mexican succulent plant families that have been gathered over the years from all parts of the country and carefully identified, protected and exhibited. The best represented famiies are cactaceae (think cactus), agavaceae (more about that family later), crassulaceae (the sedum is probably most familiar), and bromeliaceae (hechtia is but one genus).
Succulents are plants that store water in their leaves so that they can withstand long periods of drought. Sometimes they are called ‘fat plants’ because their leaves tend to be thick and fleshy. However, there are very different looking succulents. Some are compact like a cushion. Some are tall and skinny. Others have a waxy, hairy or spiny surfaces.
Almost all cacti are succulents and many of them are grown at El Charco because Mexico has the richest variety of cacti in the world and the garden’s first curator, Charles Glass, was a cacti expert. Best known is perhaps the prickly pear, called nopale in Mexico. It sort of looks like a tree and the edible pads are sold in markets everywhere.
The garambullo cactus points upward like a candelabra and the ‘old man cactus’ has stems covered with long white hair. You have to be careful around the cholla cactus because the spines break off easily and could pierce your skin. The Golden Barrel, round and with ribs, was once almost extinct and today is the most commercialized cactus in the world.
Many plants from the agavaceae family are found here, particularly agaves and yuccas, well-known desert and dry zone groupings. All agaves are succulents. The sap from some agave plants is used in such alcoholic drinks as tequila and mescal; the sisal fiber from others has long been used for rope and twine because it is strong and able to stretch. It can take years for the stock of the large agave plant to grow and finally burst into bloom. You will find a large collection of agave plants next to the Conservatory.
Yuccas tend to be identified by their rough, sword-shaped leaves and spikes of white flowers (I had a blooming yucca in my Canadian garden; spectacular). Not all yuccas are succulents though.
There are many species of the stonecrop family including trailing sedums, which I am familiar with. There are also ferns, which sort of surprised me, but ferns can grow in both wet and dry places, they just have to adapt. There are grasses, particularly the invasive Natal Grass.
This 170-acre garden opened its doors in 1991. As you walk along the garden paths, guided by some interesting signage, you’ll come upon three distinct ecosystems: dry scrubland, canyon, and wetlands. Common plants in the scrubland are mesquites, acacias and prickly pears. 110 varieties of butterflies and 156 species of birds have been sighted.
The Conservatory provides an excellent opportunity to have a close-up look at some of the smaller specimens. There is also a Rescued Plants Area dedicated to rare and endangered species.
There is a place for traditional religious offerings; a pollinator’s garden filled with colourful and perfumed flowering plants; a touching garden; a sculpture garden; and a very moving memorial for the 43 students who were kidnapped and disappeared during a demonstration in Guerrero.
Further information can be found on El Charco’s website and in books that can be purchased in its store, such as “Wild and Wonderful: Nature up close in the Botanical Garden ‘El Charco del Ingenio’, San Miguel de Allende” by Walter L. Meagher & Wayne Colony.
By Sylvia Fanjoy
Photo credits Sylvia Fanjoy
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