The Ethnobotanical Gardens of Santo Domingo

By Julie Etra

The Convent
The gardens are located behind the Church and Convent of Santo Domingo de Guzmán (the Spanish monk who founded the Dominican order) in Oaxaca City at the end of the Calle Macedonio Alcalá. This church and convent, now also a museum, was originally built as a convent beginning in 1551; the Dominicans’ finances and two earthquakes in the early 1600s that destroyed the city’s other Dominican convent (Templo de San Pablo) delayed completion until 1666, and resulted in the Santo Domingo complex housing both monks and nuns. The last addition to Santo Domingo was the chapel of the Virgin of Rosario, built between 1724 and 1731. Visitors can still observe the ovens where limestone was processed for the mortar / cement used in construction of the buildings, as well as a ceramic kiln, baths, a laundry, irrigation and drainage ditches, cobbled paths, food and fuel storage facilities, the former orchard (now the Ethnobotanical Garden) and other vestiges of daily life for the nuns occupying and operating in a 17th-century Dominican religious complex.

The destruction of the Santo Domingo, including the cathedral, began in the 19th century, when the complex was occupied by the factions that would bring on the War of Independence (1810-21). In 1859, the “Iglesias Law” reserved Santo Domingo for use by the Mexican army; in 1866, the Mexican government suspended Catholicism in the country. In 1902, the complex was returned to the Catholic church by Mexican President Porfirio Díaz. The former nun’s rooms most likely remained dormitories; and the grounds and buildings were converted into stables, munitions storage and other military facilities. The conversion of the area surrounding the main cloister to a museum began in 1962, and concluded with the restoration of the main atrium in 1974.

Botanical Gardens
Various dictionaries define a botanical garden as “a place where collections of plants and trees are kept for scientific study and exhibition, [Collins];” also “a garden for the exhibition and scientific study of collected, growing plants, usually in association with greenhouses, herbariums, laboratories, etc. [Penguin Random House].”

Plants can be grouped by climate, color, growth form, and taxonomy. They are typically identified by their scientific and common names. An ethnobotanical garden features native plants in relation to the culture of the region, such as food, textiles, and structures. Whenever my husband and I travel, we try to visit local botanical gardens. Some are better than others; usually my complaints concern the lack of identification.

Uniqueness of the Ethnobotanical Garden
What struck me immediately in 2007 during the first of many visits to this garden was precisely that, the lack of scientific information. What, no plant names? The docent explained to us that the signs and labels would detract from the beauty of the garden, which had been designed and laid out primarily by the Oaxacan artists Francisco Toledo (see The Eye, November 2019) and Luis Zárate, a well-known Oaxacan painter from Santa Catarina Cuanana, although the roles of Zárate and others were disputed by the garden’s director, Alejandro de Ávila. What also struck me then, and continues to do so, are all the textures; the forms of plants in relationship to the setting; the use of different grades and colors of rocks, sand, and gravel; the specific layout of the water features; placement of art; and the special attention to light and shadows created by masonry and plants. Spectacular.

The Plant Collection
Planning for the garden began in 1993, and planting in 1998. The garden represents the diversity of climates, geological formations, and types of vegetation that characterize Oaxaca, which has the greatest biological and cultural diversity of all of Mexico. The hundreds of plants in the garden represent arid and humid climates, lowland tropics, and temperate and cold mountainous areas.

To date 950 species (10% of the flora of the state of Oaxaca) have been planted, representing 118 families, 472 genera, and 7,500 individuals. The garden features a large collection of agaves (there are 157 species in Mexico, of which 71% are endemic), grouped in various locations.

Criteria for species selection included the origin of agriculture (see teosinte, below); traditional orchards; indigenous medicine; plants that are part of the artistic tradition of Oaxaca, such as fibers for textiles, dyes (cochineal), natural soaps, and resins used in metallurgy, silk production, and adhesives. From my perspective highlights include Matrimonio (Pereskia lychnidiflora) the only tree-like and leaf-producing species of cactus, various endemic species of Bursera (we have five species on the coast), and teosinte (the perennial ancestor of modern annual corn).

Teosinte, whose origin goes back an estimated 8,000 years, is part of a special section of the garden dedicated to species found in the Guilá Naquitz, a cave east of the archeological site of Mitla, where 6,000-year-old squash seeds were also found. Near the beginning of the garden tour is a section dedicated to cycads. Cycads are living fossils, and date back 230 million years to the Jurassic age of the dinosaurs. Oaxaca has more than 20 species of cycads, most of which are endemic. One particularly special cycad, Dioon purpusii, an endemic with a very limited range, was collected in the wild by Cassiano Conzatti, a botanist, who transplanted it to his home. Fifty years later his grandchildren donated it to the garden. Although of Italian origin Conzatti lived and worked in Mexico for most of his life and was an early authority on the flora of Oaxaca, especially ferns.

Landscape Architecture and Art
Strikingly beautiful is the Espejo de Cuanana (mirror of Cuanana) designed by Luis Zárate. This is a fountain/canal lined on either side with the órgano cactus (Pachycereus marginatus), reflected in the water of the canal. The name of this landscape feature recalls Zárate’s original home.

The Patio del Huaje (the patio of the huaje tree, for which Oaxaca was named) and the fountain La Sangre de Mitla (the blood of Mitla) were designed by Toledo. The garden also features sculptures in wood and stone by the French/Mexican sculptor and architect Jorge DuBon, Oaxacan abstract plastic artist José Villalobos, and the Mexican sculptor Jorge Yázpik.

Tours are conducted in Spanish, English, French, and German. For some reason the Spanish version is one hour long versus the two-hour English tour (we took the Spanish tour several times; it is also easier to get tickets). If you want to take the tour in English, get there early! For frustrated botanists like me, the director, still Alejandro de Ávila, has pointed out that the garden also includes a reference library, which was closed the last time I was there (January 2023). Next time! ¡Proxima vez!

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