Tag Archives: flowers

We Are, Indeed, Stardust

By Julie Etra

We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion-year-old carbon
And we got to get ourselves
Back to the garden.
― Joni Mitchell, chorus to the song “Woodstock” (1969)

We are stardust brought to life, then empowered by the universe
to figure itself out—and we have only just begun.”
― Neil deGrasse Tyson, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry (2017)

It is totally 100% true: nearly all the elements in the human body
were made in a star and many have come through several supernovas.
― Ashley J. King, Ph.D., planetary scientist at the Museum of Natural History, London

Most of the elements of our bodies were formed in stars over the course of billions of years and multiple star lifetimes. It’s even possible that some of our hydrogen (which makes up roughly 9.5% of our bodies) and lithium, which our body contains in very tiny trace amounts (sorry, Elon, not cost effective), originated from the Big Bang. All this may be hard for some people to accept, the fact that we consist of elements of recycled stars. As visitors to or residents of Mexico, how do Mexicans think of this?

What did pre-Hispanic cultures think about the stars?

Numerous ancient (and not so ancient) cultures looked to the sky with wonder and perhaps puzzlement; the sky of course was the source of many origin stories: gods, goddesses, legends about the stars, what or who they were, and what they represented. In many ancient cultures, people believed that gods dwelt outside the realm of human experience, and that temples bridged the gap between the human and the divine, expediting access to their deities. This was true in Mexico, particularly among the Aztecs. In their architectural design, they mimicked what happened during the creation of the world as they knew it.

The Mayans had a sophisticated sacred calendar based on the stars. Days and months were represented by small glyphs (“the specific shape, design, or representation of a character”) and drawings. Chichen Itza, one of the most famous Mayan communities, included an observatory perfectly oriented towards the stars, the planets, and the cosmos. They believed that the history of their people was cyclical and was repeated according to the position of the stars in the sky. The 260-day calendar sacred to the Maya was governed by the path of Venus.

In the Aztec civilization, centered around the capital of Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City), three basic types of pyramids existed: the Twin Stair Pyramid, the Single Stair Pyramid, and the Round Pyramid. Twin and Single Stair Pyramids were four-sided constructions with a single or double staircase on one side. This staircase always faced west, which the Aztecs believed was the place where the sun descended into the underworld. These pyramids comprised four main platforms and a final fifth level containing one or two temples.

The temples were set back from the stairs and impossible to see from ground level, creating an illusion that the temples resided in the heavens. They were enormous in order to be as close as possible to the gods residing in the heavens. The Nahua people, who included the Aztecs, Chichimecas, and Toltecs, believed that the heavens had13 levels, usually called topan (“above us” or “the beyond”), with one to many gods living on any given level.

Closer to home (Huatulco)

The Zapotec culture’s preeminent population, agricultural, and religious center, Monte Alban, located in the Central Valleys on the outskirts of present-day Oaxaca City, was inhabited between 500 B.C.E. and approximately 900 C.E., when it was abandoned. At an elevation of 1940 m (6400 ft) above mean sea level, Monte Alban rises 400 m (1300 ft) from the valley floor. It was one of the first urban centers established in Mesoamerica. In the pre-Hispanic era, the three valleys were settled due to the rich soil and numerous productive rivers and intermittent drainages descending from the mountains. The valleys and eventually the flanks of the man-made plateau of Monte Alban were cultivated to support the growing population. Eventually, an estimated peak population of 35,000 resided among the temples, residences, and ballcourts.

Last winter, we learned from our elderly and sage local guide, Nezahualcóyotl (named after the scholar/poet/engineer who appears on the 100-peso bill), there was also a medical facility. Nezahualcóyotl referred me to some supporting documentation that postulated that the figures known as the danzantes (dancers) were in fact patients at a clinic, and their antic postures represented various maladies.

The ancient city was built on a site conducive to observing the celestial heavens, innately tied to the culture, since agriculture and other activities of daily life depended on the study and understanding of the stars. In Oani Báa, (Zapotec for Monte Alban), one of the first buildings to be built in the main square was Building I, a Mesoamerican observatory, erected to follow the movement of the stars, the moon, and the sun. The majority of the temples faced east or west, aligning with the sun’s path. The entire city was itself a great astronomical observatory, and for about1400 years the population observed the constellations and planets and perfected their calendars.

The Zapotecs, particularly the priests or shamans, were aware of alternative “realities,” discovered through the consumption of hallucinogenic drugs, particularly mushrooms, that allowed for communication with the gods. They were purported to practice “astral travel” and to be able to predict the future. The first time my husband and I visited the ruins in 2007, our guide explained (or hypothesized?) that priests would demonstrate their superhuman powers to the masses by disappearing through one of the underground tunnels and emerging on the opposite side of the temple. This would support the Zapotec belief that the sun, after hiding in the west, passed through the interior of the Earth and came out in the east, and thus the priests were able to follow or accompany the sun. (I have read several references to this “spectacle,” and if true it would have helped ensure the commoner’s awe of, and respect for, the ruling religious class.)

Around 1325 CE, the Mixtecs, coming from the north, invaded the valley of Oaxaca and re-occupied the site, along with the city of Mitla to the east.

Off topic, but interesting, the current conditions in the Central Valleys do not even vaguely resemble what it looked like in pre-Hispanic or post-Conquest/colonial time. Today the valley is somewhat denuded, and prominently marked by erosion; there are large stands of agave (mezcal or tequila, anyone?) and numerous large greenhouses.

When the Zapotec civilization emerged, although the climate was semi-arid as it is today, oak and pine woodlands covered the surrounding mountains (now decimated by logging). During the dry season from November until May, cultivation continued along the rivers, employing sophisticated systems of irrigation canals. It was through these systems, connecting to small streams, that water was provided to Monte Alban; archaeologists have found remains of a small irrigation system consisting of a dam and a canal on the south-eastern flank of the mountain. As there were no domesticated beasts of burden at that time, water and other supplies were most likely carried on the backs of peasants from the flanks of the mountain up to the city.

A little about the Zapotec inframundo (underworld)
A recent archaeological discovery about the underworld has been made in Mitla, a Zapotec religious center located east and south of present-day Oaxaca City (see Brooke O’Connor’s article elsewhere in this issue). A consortium of researchers discovered an extensive labyrinth beneath a colonial Catholic church – the temple of Lyobaa (Zapotec for “place of rest”). This ancient underground site is thought to be what the Zapotecs knew as the entrance to the underworld.

The ARX Project, a member of the research consortium, issued a report on the first year of investigation (2022); the report contains a description written by Francisco de Burgoa, a Dominican historian, at the time the church was built atop the Mitla ruins, noting that the site was

a vast subterranean temple consisting of four interconnected chambers, containing the tombs of the high priests and the kings of Teozapotlán. From the last subterranean chamber, a stone door led into a deep cavern extending thirty leagues below ground. This cavern was intersected by other passages like streets, its roof supported by pillars.

Although it was sealed off by Spanish missionaries centuries ago as part of the conquest and efforts to eliminate perceived pagan practices, rumors of its existence persisted for centuries. Recent high-tech methods were used to re-discover this archaeologically significant site.

An ancient legend of the stars

Finally, as a bittersweet ending, I have translated a Zapotec legend about the stars and cosmos, El Principe y la Estrella (The Prince and the Star). The original appears on the website Mexican Myths and Legends maintained by anthropologist Sonia Iglesias of the Mexican government’s General Directorate of Popular, Indigenous, and Urban Cultures (https://www.mitos-mexicanos.com/tag/xtagabne).

In the pre-Hispanic times of the Zapotec kingdom, there lived a warrior prince who was known for being very handsome and brave. His fame was not only known on Earth but also in Heaven. Alba (Dawn) learned of the extraordinary princely feats and related them to the daughters of the Lord of Heaven, who were actually stars.

The most beautiful of the goddess-daughter-stars fell madly in love with the warrior prince and descended to Earth, sitting patiently next to the river that flowed through Juchitán, waiting for the handsome young man to pass by. He arrived at the place where the star was waiting, and captivated by her beauty, immediately fell in love with her. Without thinking twice, he took her into his arms and swept her away to the royal residence.

Upon realizing the absence of one of his daughters, Heaven became very sad, the sky darkened, and the gray clouds rained tears. The divinities of Heaven, the stars, wanted at all costs to prevent their sister-star from marrying a mere mortal, no matter how brave he was, and they met to develop a plan to prevent the perceived disastrous romance. And so continues the story of the origin of the beautiful xtaga be’nye, the water lily.

The wedding between the goddess-star and the prince was held with many accompanying grand celebrations. One of the stars transformed herself into a breeze, descending to the earth and attending one of the celebrations. Stealthily, she entered the bedroom intended for the newlyweds. Once inside, she abandoned her disguise and turned to the now-married goddess-star to relay to her what her father, the Lord of Heaven, had decided: Sister Star, because of what you have done, our father, Heaven, has decided that you will remain forever on Earth and become a flower that will float on the waters of the lagoon. Your petals will remain closed during the day so that humans cannot see you, but at night they will open so that you can receive a visit from your sisters, the stars!

The star goddess then disappeared with her sister star, and no one would see her again. Moments later, a blackish green flower with a beautiful, slender stem appeared in the Chivele lagoon, which people began to call mudubina (Zapotec for water lily).

The prince, upon realizing the disappearance of his wife, began going crazy with grief. His father, seeing him so desperate, summoned his vinnigenda, travelers from all the winds, to go look for the missing goddess-star. Despite the Zapotec Lord being extremely powerful, he could do nothing against the power of the Lord of Heaven. One of the oldest vinnigendas told the Zapotec Lord that it was not possible to defeat Heaven. Then the old vinnigenda, seeing the suffering of the young warrior, turned him into a flower as well. This new flower was named xtaga be’nye, the water lily (nenúfar in Spanish).

Thus, the two lovers were able to meet. The mudubina with its beautiful petals open only at night and with a red heart from the fire of her love, and the xtaga be’nye that lives by day and shows its yellow heart full of melancholy. They could never see each other, but perhaps one day, the Lord of Heaven will take pity on the lovers so that they can love each other again face to face, forever and ever.

Postscript for the botanically inclined. The plants have male and female parts making them “perfect.” When the flowers first open, the female parts dominate, and nectar pools in their centers. On the second and third day, the flowers produce pollen, the male parts. The Zapotecs gave the flower two different names depending on the flowering stage.

For an interesting read, check out this link:

¡Adiós! ¡Padiuxhi!

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, 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 (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).