By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
In the town of Santa María del Tule, just seven miles and no more than a 15-minute drive from the city of Oaxaca, stands the tree with the widest girth in the world. Both Guinness World Records and National Geographic acknowledge the stature of this 2,000-year-old Montezuma cypress (Taxodium mucronatum). Attracting more visitors every year than any other tourism site in the entire state, the tree means much more to the residents of the region than simply its record-breaking size. And no, despite the occasional suggestion to the contrary, it’s not the oldest or tallest tree, nor the one with the greatest volume. In Spanish this type of cypress is known as a sabino, in Nahuatl as an ahuehuete, and in Zapotec as yagaguichiciña.
Santa María del Tule derives its name from two sources:
1. Its 18th-century church, dubbed El Templo de Santa María de la Asunción (Temple of the Virgin Mary of the Assumption).
2. Tule, which comes from the Nahuatl word tulle or tullin which means bulrush; the municipality used to be a lake surrounded by marshes including cypress trees, and bulrushes.
Because of the tree’s economic importance to the town and municipality, and indeed for the state of Oaxaca, over the years all levels of government, even the feds, have taken steps to ensure its continued health and more importantly its haughty worldwide status. In fact, Mexico has recognized the tree as part of the country’s heritage (Patrimonio de México).
In addition to a large complement of employees, which of course includes security police, the tree employs two full-time arborists to keep it in good spirits. When the botanists became concerned about the likely adverse impact over time of vehicular gasoline and diesel fumes and the sheer weight of all that traffic, the main highway to and from the tree was actually moved a hundred yards or so away. The old road was converted into a pedestrian corridor.
Because of its size and the impact of climate change, a further concern became water shortage. Thus a well was dug, and an underground sprinkler system was installed, extending far out from the trunk so as to guarantee the root system did not shrivel and die of thirst.
This part of the town has about a dozen other large cypress trees, one of which is roughly 1,500 years old and in close proximity to its older sister. About a decade ago one of the trees was struck and damaged by lightning. As a consequence, the authorities decided that the lightning rod at the time was not close enough to most of the trees, and so a new one was erected to better ensure against lightning strikes.
Once its massive girth became acknowledged by pre-Hispanic populations such as the Mixe, Mixtec and Zapotec ethnic groups, the tree was worshipped and in fact became the subject of mythology. Both the town’s baroque church and the municipal offices were constructed right beside the tree, a recognition of its importance at least for indigenous groups, long before the tourism boom.
Tourists only began to flock in earnest in the 1940s with the arrival of the Pan American highway system. With the locals already converging at the tree for ritual, what better way to attempt to have them recognize the importance of modern government and Catholicism than to erect buildings right there, alongside and almost on top of the tree. Even today, when town gatherings are convened, two men stand atop the government offices and blow a conch as a reminder of an imminent meeting.
A gardener’s delight, the grounds are kept immaculate, in large part as a result of the irrigation system. Trees, bushes, flowering shrubs and topiaries abound. The grass puts to shame the greens of the golf course just outside the state capital. With the lovely natural environment in front of the church and tree, the town has become a favorite spot for Oaxacans to celebrate weddings and quinceañera parties (when a young girl turns 15), and it’s a photographer’s dream. And with the site’s increasing popularity for rites of passage festivities, numerous event halls have sprung up within walking distance of the tree and church, one of which is a restored hacienda.
Weekends, especially Sundays, have become customary days for Oaxacans to visit the tree for family outings. Accordingly, a plethora of restaurants, smaller eateries and stalls selling barbacoa and carnitas have become favorite brunch and comida spots for not only locals from Oaxaca, but also national and international tourists. The town marketplace now houses a large craft section where one can pick up all manner of Oaxacan crafts.
Regardless of your interest in visiting Oaxaca, the short drive to Santa María del Tule should be a must for everyone arriving in the city, or for that matter anywhere in the central valley districts. It’s along the highway that takes you to Teotitlán del Valle (rugs), Tlacochahuaya (16th century church with restored 17th century German organ), the Sunday market at Tlacolula, mezcal factories, the ruin at Mitla and Hierve el Agua (bubbling springs).
The Montezuma cypress at Santa María del Tule is still growing, and boasts roughly:
· Age of 2,000 years
· Height of 40 meters
· Weight of 630 tons
· Circumference of 40 meters
· Diameter of 12 meters
Alvin Starkman first visited Santa María del Tule in 1969. A permanent resident of Oaxaca, he operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com).