The Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca (Ethnobotanical Garden in English) is more than just a garden and is not just for plant enthusiasts. It was designed by a team including Luis Zárate, Alejandro de Ávila and artist Francisco Toledo, the living legend known locally as ‘El Maestro’, and the man behind many of the city’s most important cultural institutions. The purpose of the garden, and the definition of ‘ethnobotanical’, is the exploration of the relationship between plants and people. The garden tells a story about the cultural and artistic traditions of Oaxaca and its place in the natural history of Mexico, making it a must-visit for visitors and residents alike.
And it almost didn’t happen. Located behind Oaxaca’s most prominent landmark, the Santo Domingo Cultural Centre, the garden was originally part of the Santo Domingo monastery grounds until it was occupied by the Mexican army for over 120 years. When the garrison was relocated in 1994, the state government made a plan to develop the site as a luxury hotel and car park, but a Toledo-led group lobbied for the garden alternative and won. The garden was officially opened in 1998.
The result is a beautiful garden that showcases the diverse range of flora that is native to Oaxaca, the most biodiverse region in Mexico. All the trees and plants featured in the garden are from Oaxaca and were specially brought in from other sites around the state. Each one has a story. There is a rescue area where you can see agaves and cacti that have been saved from development projects in other parts of Oaxaca, a collection of medicinal plants, and a variety of traditional foods.
The garden’s lack of signage is intentional and creates a seamless aesthetic. As a result, in order to fully enjoy and understand the gardens, access is by guided tour only. Tours are one to two hours long (depending on the language) and are available in Spanish, English, French, and German (details in sidebar). Guides are passionate and knowledgeable. Visitors learn about the history and management of the garden, as well as the significance of, and some of the practical uses of, many of the plants held within it.
Medicinal and ceremonial plants include mesquite, copal used in incense and for carving alebrijes, and, of course, the beloved agave plants used to make mezcal. An entire section of the garden and tour is dedicated to traditional food crops including hierba de conejo, corn, beans, chepil (the herb used in tamal de chepil), jicama, amaranth, tomatoes, and chia.
The garden is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year and continues to expand with a new greenhouse recently installed featuring numerous plant groups from Oaxaca’s humid climates including orchids, cacao, and bromeliads. The garden also works to protect endangered plants and has a strong focus on sustainability. Plants are watered from a rain-fed cistern and the garden’s solar panels allow it to be completely self-sufficient in energy. The greenhouse uses geothermal cooling instead of air conditioning, furthering the garden’s commitment to sustainable practices. As Director Dr. Alejandro de Ávila says, “We look to the future, not just the past.”
In a rapidly developing world, the garden’s role as conservationist, historian and teacher of sustainable technologies has become even more critical making it, indeed, more than just a garden.
Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, 11am
Monday – Saturday, 10am, 12pm, 5pm
Stasia Garraway Photography: www.stasia-gphotography.com
* This article was originally published in February 2016 and has been updated