Tag Archives: flowers

Immigrants: Alcatraz, Agapanthus, and Sugarcane

By Julie Etra

Did you know that the calla lilies and agapanthus, common flowers found in many Mexican markets (and a mainstay at our own Mercado Orgánico Huatulco [aka MOH]) are originally from South Africa? Well, neither did I. In Mexico, they grow in the Sierra Madre del Sur and other temperate climates. Sugarcane, also commonly cultivated in multiple regions of Mexico, is also an immigrant, but with a much longer and more complex history.

The Calla Lily

Calla and arum lilies are both scientifically identified as Zantedeschia aethiopica – arum lilies are larger, calla lilies boast multiple colors. In Nahuatl, they are called huacalxochitl, while the Spanish name is alcatraz, a word derived from the Arabic Spanish used in southern Spain (the Moors ruled Spain in progressively smaller areas, ending up with only the southern part known as Al-Andalus, now Andalusia, from 711 to 1492).

How the word alcatraz came to name the calla lily is debatable; apparently when an 18th-century Spanish explorer sailing up the Pacific to what is now California reached San Francisco Bay, he found callas growing on one of the islands in the bay – and the bay was full of pelicans (alcatraz also means “pelican”). Through a series of cartographic mishaps, the originally unnamed island came to be named La isla de los alcatraces, which transferred to the calla lilies. Callas can be spread by bird-dropped seeds, which is most likely how they got to both San Francisco and Mexico. On the other hand, explorers who had reached South Africa had brought them back to Europe a couple of centuries earlier, so they could have been introduced to Mexico by the Spanish. The trail went cold as I tried to figure out the route of the alcatraz through Europe, and ultimately Spain, for its eventual export to Mexico. Who was responsible for its spread? Was it the Portuguese? The Dutch? Other European traders? Was it ever cultivated in Spain, and if so, where?

In Mexico it grows prolifically in temperate climates on the periphery of oak pine woodlands. In Oaxaca it is commonly cultivated around San José del Pacifico. The white, trumpet-shaped “petal” of the flower is actually a “spathe,” or bract (modified leaf); the flower is the central yellow “spadix,” or phallic-appearing spike covered with tiny flowers.

Diego Rivera, the famous Mexican muralist, had a particular fascination with white calla and arum lilies. He included them in both paintings and murals as a symbol of both purity and sensuality. Some critics believe he used callas to represent the “abundance of life and death” in indigenous life. However, the calla also appears in pre-Hispanic art. Given that it is not native to Mexico, how do we explain that? There are 700+ members of the Araceae family, all displaying the same spathe-and-spadix form; Mexico has 41 species, 26 of them native. Most probably the “flowers” portrayed in ceramics, sculptures, and other works of early art are the calla’s native relatives.

Agapanthus

Agapanthus, called agapando in Spanish, is derived from the Greek – agape meaning “love,” and anthos meaning “flower.” The purple flowers are clustered in an umbel-like form at the end of the stem, accompanied with fleshy leaves.

Like the alcatraz, it most likely followed a similar route from Africa to Europe, first arriving there at the end of the 17th century, possibly returning with Dutch traders. Europeans – in this case the Portuguese – first happened on the Capetown area in 1488, while searching for a sea route to the Orient in lieu of the dangerous and costly overland Silk Road. The Dutch, renowned flower breeders, settled Capetown in 1652, but numerous European traders followed. By 1679, the agapando had reached Europe by a returning trading ship; it loves to grow around the Mediterranean Sea (some countries have declared it an invasive species), so it made its way to Spain and thence to Mexico.

The cut flower trade is a multibillion-dollar industry; Mexican “ornamental plants and flowers” – also the name of Mexico’s overall trade association – were valued at $1.8 billion USD in 2021. The majority of production is located in the states of México, Puebla, Morelos, and Veracruz. There are about 25,500 producers of ornamental plants and flowers, providing 188,000 permanent and about 50,000 permanent jobs. More than a million jobs are indirectly related to the ornamental sector of Mexico’s economy.

Mexico is unique in that it produces cut flowers under natural conditions in open fields, as well as under controlled – usually in greenhouses – conditions. Both agapanthus and calla lilies are field-grown, which may be why they are not in the top 10 flowers produced for export (in 2007, they were about 13th and 14th on the list).
The Ornamental Plants and Flowers association will be hosting its international exposition, La Feria Especializada en Horti-Floricultura, Viverismo, Paisajismo, y Diseño Floral, September 13-15, 2022, in Mexico City at the Centro Citibanamex.

Sugarcane

Sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum) is in the grass family. It arrived in Veracruz, Mexico, in 1522, brought from Cuba by Hernán Cortés. By 1524, there were already sugarcane plantations along the shores of the Tepengo River in Santiago Tuxtla, Veracruz. Although the origins remain unclear, it most likely is a native of New Guinea. It arrived in Persia (Iran) around 500 CE, spread throughout North Asia, traveled to Egypt and North Africa, and from there on to southern Europe. In around 755 CE, it arrived in southern Spain and the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. From Spain (or the Canary Islands) it migrated to Cuba in 1493. Its cultivation continued expanding into Central and South America. In Mexico, Veracruz was the ideal environment for sugarcane cultivation, given its soils, hydrology, and climate. Sugarcane spread rapidly throughout Mexico from 1550 to 1600, particularly in the states of Michoacán and Jalisco, around Puebla, and Cuernavaca and Cuautla in the state of México.

It rapidly became an important export, along with gold, silver, chocolate, and cochineal (the red dye created from insects that cluster on cactus), almost entirely to the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal). Early production was very labor intensive using basically slave labor, indentured servitude known as the encomienda system (explicit slavery was outlawed by the Catholic church). Production evolved into haciendas or large plantations, and production surpassed that of cotton, a Mexican native. By the 18th century over 300 sugarcane farms were supplying the sugar mills and factories.

According to the Secretaría de Agricultura y Desarrollo Rural (Secretariat of Agriculture and Rural Development), as of August 31, 2021, there were 49 sugarcane processing facilities in Mexico, producing over 5.7 million tons of refined sugar, an increase of over 8% percent from previous years. Approximately 738,146 tons were exported to the United States in 2021.

The state of Veracruz leads national production at 35% of the total, followed by 14% in Jalisco and 8% in San Luis Potosí. More than 826,000 hectares are under cultivation. Refined sugar is produced by crushing the sugarcane stems, heating the juice, filtering and crystalizing the juices, and finally centrifuging the liquid to further the purification process.

In addition to refined sugar, Mexico produces a type of unrefined sugar called piloncillo, which is also found elsewhere in Latin America under different names including panela, panocha, chancaca, and rapadura. Cone shaped, piloncillo is a solid form of sucrose derived from boiling and evaporating sugarcane juice. It is available in virtually every Mexican food market. Moscabado or mascobo is a type of Mexican sugar that resembles the brown sugar sold in the U.S. and Canada. It is a partially refined sugar with a strong molasses content and flavor, and dark brown in color. It used to be hard to find in Huatulco, but is consistently stocked at the Colorín market located on the south side of Calle Colorín between Rosa Laurel on the west and Chacah on the east.

Five Fabulous Flowering Trees in Huatulco

By Brooke Gazer

It was the end of May when we drove into Huatulco for the first time. I recall being struck by the magnificent trees lining the green boulevards, especially those flaunting a riot of color. Who wouldn’t be impressed seeing them in all their glory? It is unfortunate that many visitors to our town miss this beautiful season, when the trees are most striking. Here is a list of my five favorites, accompanied by a bit of trivia on each.

The first three require a lot of space and may be too large for most home gardens, but they can be readily admired while walking along the wide median on Chahue Boulevard. The last two are certainly no less impressive and are more suitable for domestic gardens.

Flamboyant (flamboyán) … When in bloom, you can’t miss them. From April through June, clusters of delicate, bright scarlet flowers bunch together, forming enormous crimson bouquets that cover the entire tree. When this occurs, the tree appears to be on fire, which is where it derives the name. Flamboyant is from the French flambé, meaning “in flames,” as in baked Alaska flambé.

These broad shade trees can go dormant in the dry season, but with year-round watering, they keep some of their delicate fernlike leaves. When the blossoms disappear, they are replaced by flat, leathery pods, up to 60 cm (about 2 feet) long. Dozens of mature pods hang from the branches like skinny bats, giving the flamboyant tree an eerie appearance when denuded of foliage.

There are several varieties of flamboyant trees, but the species found in Mexico is Delonix Regia, which originated in Madagascar. If you have the space for a shade tree, and seek (almost) instant gratification, this one can shoot up by over a meter per year, reaching a height of 10-12 meters (up to 40 feet), with an even greater spread. But take care, invasive roots can interfere with building foundations and sidewalks, something you may have noticed stumbling over uneven pavements around town.

Golden Shower Tree (lluvia de oro) … While not seen as frequently in Huatulco as the flamboyant, these marvelous ornamentals grace many of Huatulco’s streets. From April to September, long sprays of bright yellow flowers droop in clusters from its branches, like rain falling from the clouds. A mature 15-meter (almost 50 feet) tree can spread up to 12 meters (40 feet) across. This deciduous tree loses its long, glossy leaves during the dry season, but with regular irrigation, it retains some foliage. Even as the tree is in full flower, seed pods appear as dark brown cylinders, about 2 cm (about ¾”) in diameter and can be up to 90 cm (almost a yard) long, hanging from its branches.

Cassia Fistula is native to southern India and has spread to southeast Asia; it is both the national tree and the national flower of Thailand. Aside from its beauty, this ornamental also bears the name Aragvadha, meaning “disease killer” in Ayurvedic medicine. Ayurveda, or “science of life” in Sanskrit, is a natural healing practice, originating over 3,000 years ago in India. It is believed that various parts of the Golden Shower Tree provide remedies for practically every infirmity from constipation to cancer.

African Tulip Tree (tulipán) … Not only is this tree green year-round, it produces masses of enormous, red-orange flowers throughout the year. Large clusters of buds appear at the end of the branches, and each bud opens to form a five-petal bloom of 8-15 cm (3-6″). The flowers are trumpet shaped, with ruffled edges; hence the name “tulip tree.”

Native to tropical Africa, Spathodea campanulata is part of the bignonia or trumpet vine family. This tropical evergreen can reach up to 25 meters (over 80 feet), with abundant, dark green foliage. Its leaves have a matte finish and are slightly rough to the touch.

When the showy blossoms fade, long boat shaped capsules stuffed with seeds appear, and as they open, copious quantities of seeds are released. Even if space allows, you might think twice before introducing the “King of Flowering Trees” into your garden. Those seeds form roots rapidly, and are hard to control, which is why this species is listed among the world’s top 100 most invasive. I can only assume it is through the diligence of Huatulco’s ninety some workers who diligently care for our parks and boulevards, that we do not see an overabundance of African tulip trees in Huatulco.

Bougainvillea (bugambilia) … Native to South America, this ornamental may technically be a shrub, but is easily trained as tree. Several roots planted in unison form a single trunk, allowing the thorny branches to make a canopy of colorful blossoms all around it.

The botanist Jeanne Baret was the first woman to circumvent the globe, and it has been speculated that she was the first European to observe this delicate flower. In 1776, women were forbidden to sail, so, on the four-year voyage headed by Admiral Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, she disguised herself as her lover’s valet. The lover, Philibert Commerson, took credit for the discovery and named it after Admiral de Bougainville.

With over 300 varieties of bougainvillea worldwide, the range of colors and hues is endless. Bunches of delicate white, yellow. purple, pink, or red “flowers” – the colorful parts are actually bracts – appear all along its thorny branches. The actual flowers are tiny and waxy, white or pale yellow, in the center of the bracts. At times, bougainvillea blooms can be so profuse, they render the small, green leaves practically invisible.

With water, this hearty species stays green and produces blossoms year-round. Depending on the variety, mature bougainvillea can reach between 6-12 meters (20-40 feet) high. Branches might spread an equal distance but require careful pruning to enhance flowering. Under optimal conditions, bougainvillea can achieve about one meter (just over three feet) per year.

Whether as a tree, bush or vine, this ornamental will provide a rewarding burst of color to any garden in Huatulco. Bougainvillea are so common here, it hardly warrants mentioning a location where one might see them.

Plumeria (plumeria, flor de mayo) … Endemic to Mexico, Central and South America, there are 11 sub-species of this tropical flowering tree, each with a multitude of varieties, offering a diverse range of colors or combination of colors, including creamy white, yellow, pale pink and fuchsia. In Mexico, these exotic blossoms were used in rituals by pre-Hispanic Mayans and Aztecs. In Hawaii and parts of Asia, the flowers are strung into “leis,” garlands to adorn women’s hair or wear around the neck.

Also called “frangipani,” the various species of plumeria produce a prolific display of blossoms with a delicate waxy texture and an intoxicating scent. The name frangipani originates with a 16th-century Italian marquis of the family Frangipani. The marquis created a perfume used to scent ladies’ fine leather gloves. The fragrance from this New World flower reminded people of the scented European accessory.

With shiny, dark green, elongated leaves, 20-30 cm long, most varieties reach a height of 4-6 meters (12-20 feet), but some might attain a height of 12 meters (40 feet). Plumeria blooms in the spring, but with sufficient water, a second season is possible after a dormant period. In its leafless dormant stage, this is not an attractive plant. Most trees limbs branch off into progressively finer branches; plumeria boughs simply reach an award stubby conclusion. However, the exotic blossoms that spring extravagantly from these boughs will compensate for what it lacks part of the year.

Plumeria are part of a larger family called Apocynaceae, also known as the dogbane family, because some were used as dog poison. A cut plumeria branch emits a milky substance that can irritate the eyes and skin.

This striking flowering tree can be seen in many locations around town, but on Boulevard Benito Juárez, as it passes by the Hotel Binniguenda in Santa Cruz, you will see several along the median next to the canal.

I understand that for many visitors to Huatulco, the draw is mainly to escape their freezing inhospitable winter climate. But for those who visit only October through March … you might be missing a major attraction!

Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la villa, an ocean view Bed and Breakfast in Huatulco (www.bbaguaazul.com).