By Deborah Van Hoewyk
It was an accident, my obsession with the oh-so-blue jacaranda (pronounced hah-kah-RAHN-dah) tree. In February 1997, on a trip to Oaxaca City to run a session for a university conference, I thought, “I got this far, why don’t I just stay and go to the beach? I see this place called ‘Huatulco’ that’s only half an inch away on the Lonely Planet map.” Fortunately, others offered up Monte Alban as an after-conference activity (little did I know how very l-o-o-o-ng and difficult that half an inch would be – Huatulco had to wait until 2004).
So off we went to Monte Alban, which is probably the last time I climbed to the top of an ancient Mexican pyramid. And from there, I saw them. I saw blue-blossomed trees.
There are a few other trees with blue blossoms, and there are supposed to be about fifty kinds of jacarandas, but there is nothing like Jacaranda mimosifolia. They are native to a belt across South America that includes Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, and Brazil (jacaranda means “fragrant” in the region’s indigenous guarani language).
In Mexico City, the jacarandas transform many streets into allées of soothing lavender-blue. While jacarandas are beloved by aphids, whose sticky poop turns fallen blossoms into a major nuisance, they also give the Easter season bloom time hanami, literally translated from the Japanese as “flower-viewing,” the ephemeral experience of enjoying the clouds of blossoms that cover trees before they get on to the business of being green.
The jacarandas seem other-worldly, reminding me of the cherry blossoms at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in New York City; at cherry-blossom time, Japanese families picnic on the petal-strewn lawn, transporting the casual observer to a state of hanami in some quiet Tokyo park. Oddly enough, it was the cherry blossoms that led to the installation of huge numbers of jacaranda trees in Mexico City.
Mexico’s president from 1930-32, Pascual Ortiz Rubio, wanted to symbolize the friendship between Mexico and Japan – with thousands of cherry trees. Considering the complex history of Mexico as a conquered, then independent, then revolutionary country, and the history of Japan as an imperial, then military, then functioning imperial country, it’s remarkable that the two countries have a relationship that goes back over four centuries.
Mexico and Japan – Way Back When
In 1598, the usefulness of a relationship between Mexico and Japan occurred to Tokugawa (Minamoto) Iyeyasu, the first shōgun (military dictator) of the Tokugawa Shogunate. In Yedo, now, centuries later, Tokyo, the shogun observed that the Philippines did a brisk trade with Mexico, and sought out a relationship with the Philippines that would allow their trans-Pacific shipping vessels to stop in Japan before reaching their destination in the Philippines.
Establishing said relationship was a rocky affair, since the Philippines were actually a Spanish colony from 1521 to 1898, and – based on experience – Spain didn’t think Japan had good intentions toward its merchant ships. It wasn’t until 1608, when a new Spanish governor, Don Rodrigo de Vivero, arrived in the Philippines, that negotiations got serious – but not for long. Recall that every European country with a navy was trying to get into Japan, and that the customs of courtesy in Japan were opaque to the Spaniards, which seemed to lead to offense at every turn. By 1636, the Spanish were excluded from Japan (as were the Portuguese, the first European country to trade with Japan). The Dutch, although confined to a small area of Japan, locked up trade with Japan until the mid-19th century.
In 1853, the role of the Japanese emperor was restored to primacy – no more military dictatorships with shoguns. Under Emperor Meiji, Japan began re-initiating diplomatic relations with other countries; the United States brought a great deal of pressure to bear, resulting in an 1858 treaty that basically forced Japan to begin trading with the West.
Mexico, independent from Spain since 1821, sent an expedition to Japan in 1874. The expedition was led by a scientist, Francisco Díaz Covarrubias, ostensibly to see a rare astrological phenomenon, the transit of Venus across the face of the sun. There’s little evidence that the scientific part of the expedition succeeded, but formal relations between the two countries resumed. In 1888, Matías Romero and Munemitsu Mutsu, the foreign ministers of Mexico and Japan, respectively, signed Japan’s first “equal” treaty with another country.
Back to the Cherry Trees . . . Not!
Remember President Ortiz Rubio’s request to the Japanese government to donate the thousands of cherry trees? Japan’s gift to the United States of over 3,000 cherries in 1912 had not been without botanical troubles of its own, so Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs contacted a Japanese horticulturalist/ landscape architect, who had been working for “all the right people” in Mexico for decades. Would the cherry trees be right for Mexico City?
Nope, the horticulturalist replied. To flower, the cherry tree would need a much sharper temperature change between winter and spring. The cherries were abandoned. But Tatsugoro Matsumoto (1861-1955) was not without a replacement suggestion – one he had been working on for quite a while.
Tatsugoro had studied to become an ueki-shi, or landscape architect, in Tokyo, and was so good that he never worked anywhere except in the imperial gardens. Japanese gardeners were sought after around the world. In 1888, at the age of 24, he was sent by the Japanese government to Peru to install a garden at a private residence called Quinta Heeren in Lima. Its owner, Óscar Agusto Heeren, the former Peruvian ambassador to Japan, had returned to Lima to work on enhancing relations between Peru and Japan.
En route to Peru, Tatsuguro visited Mexico, and was apparently impressed with the climate, growing conditions, and the national love of flowers and gardening. While working on his commission in Peru, he met José Landero y Coss, a wealthy rancher and mine owner from Mexico. Landero owned a hacienda, San Juan Hueyapan, in Pachuca, Hidalgo, that dated back to 1535 (built by one of the sons of Hernan Cortés); impressed with Tatsugoro’s work, Landero asked him to come to establish gardens at the hacienda.
The story gets a little hazy here, but Landero was influential in seeing to it that Tatsugoro went on to work in Mexico City, mostly for wealthy families. Tatsuguro decided to emigrate permanently to Mexico, although he returned briefly to Japan to say farewell to his family. Sending a shipment of Japanese plant materials from Yokohama to San Francisco to help with establishing himself in the nursery business, Tatsugoro decamped for California. His plants arrived after three months, dead as doornails, but in the meantime, he had received a commission for a Japanese tea garden in Golden Gate Park for a world’s fair in 1894.
The tea garden was so popular, it was almost immediately converted to a permanent garden – but by another Japanese landscape artist, not Tatsugoro, who had moved on in his plan to emigrate to Mexico. His certificate of immigration as a legal resident is a little loose with a few facts and illegible in spots. It is dated August of 1896, and reports that Tatsugoro was a widowed (really?) gardener; the birth date and age suffer from too much ink in the typewriter ribbon, but he would have been about 35. He is described as thin, a little over 5 feet tall, with black hair and eyebrows, brown skin and eyes, and a beard with grande moustache. He was of the “yellow” race and Buddhist religion.
From 1896 on, Tatsugoro worked in the most posh colonias (Roma and Condesa were developed right after the turn of the 20th century). A year after he had arrived in Mexico, Tatsugoro bought a house and set up a flower shop in La Romita, already being gentrified into Colonia Roma. While his immigration papers say Tatsugoro was a viudo (widower), there is other information to indicate that Tatasugoro’s wife had emigrated to join him and was running the flower shop. (Florería Matsumoto is still alive and well at Colima 92 in Col. Roma Norte, and is run by Tatsugoro’s great-granddaughter, Marie Furakaki Matsumoto – arrangements go from $700 to $1,000 mxn.)
The influential Landero may have provided Tatsugoro with a contact to introduce him to President Porfirio Díaz; in any event, by 1900, Díaz and his wife had taken note. Tatsugoro designed and maintained the gardens at the presidential residence, Chapultepec Castle, not to mention all the floral arrangements for inside the castle.
Life was definitely good – according to Tatsugoro’s grandson Ernesto, Díaz paid his grandfather 12 pesos a day, 240 times the minimum wage of 5 centavos. Ernesto says Díaz told Tatsugoro the salary was to enable him “to have a nursery to plant seeds and plants because in Mexico City there are prickly pear cactus and there are no trees.”
Trees there would be – blue-blossomed jacaranda trees. Tatsugoro certainly had obtained seeds and cuttings from South America well before the cherry-blossom consultation, but his role in introducing new species of flowering trees and shrubs got a big boost when his son showed up in 1910. Although Sanshiro Matsumoto, only about 15 or 16 when he reached Mexico, may never have actually seen his father, and no one has anything to say about why, if she actually did, his mother would hie off to Mexico leaving him behind, son and dad combined forces in the business.
Together, the Matsumotos enlarged the business from flower-shop to nursery, and undertook to import the plant materials needed to establish not just the jacaranda trees, but bougainvillea, camelias, hydrangeas, roses, and azaleas, along with bulbs (narcissus, tulips, gladioli) and chrysanthemums. Not to mention that they hybridized the poinsettia (noche buena) to the short, bushy Christmas-season form and installed the palm trees (not native to Mexico) that line Avenida Paseo de las Palmas in Lomas de Chapultepec. Sanshiro undertook to organize the business administratively, apparently not Tatsugoro’s strong suit, and they were able to buy fields and ranches for nursery properties. They grew on their trees, shrubs, bulbs, and flowers at Rancho El Batán, Hacienda de Temixco, and greenhouses in Tacubaya and San Pedro de Los Pinos.
Not only did Senshiro Matsumoto arrive in 1910, the centennial of the Mexican War of Independence, but Díaz decided to celebrate the centennial by inviting other countries to participate. Japan’s delegation, led by Baron Yasuya Uchida and his wife, coordinated their visit with a major exhibition of Japanese Arte Industrial at the Crystal Palace; beside the Palace (now the Museo Universitario del Chopo), Díaz had Tatsugoro create a small lake surrounded by a Japanese garden, which he himself, along with the Japanese delegation, inaugurated.
For the Matsumotos, 1910 was a good year; not so for Porfirio Díaz. The Porfiriato, while it modernized Mexico, was dictatorially oppressive and had lasted, with one interruption, since 1877. Having declared at one point that he would not run for President again, he reneged. Thus began the Mexican Revolution, which would last eleven years. The Matsumotos, however, were very astute at maintaining their connections with high society and ruling powers, and rode out the Revolution quite handily.
By the end of the conflict, and now amply supplied with jacarandas, Tatsugoro approached President Álvaro Obregón (term 1920-24) about the possiblity of lining important avenues and boulevards with the trees. The idea didn’t really take hold until President Rubio wanted the cherry trees, so the spring hanami in Mexico City and Oaxaca de Juárez turned out to be blue, not pink!
Beyond the Jacarandas
Later in the 20th century, the Matsumoto family, through their connections with Mexican presidents, along with their land holdings, would provide an important, unrelated service to Japanese immigrants during World War II. The United States pressured Mexico to follow its lead in creating concentration centers; Mexico decided that Japanese residents of Mexico City and Guadalajara should be interned. The Matsumotos served as go-betweens between the Mutual Aid Committee of the Japanese and the government of President Manuel Ávila Camacho. They offered up both the Rancho El Batán and Hacienda de Temixco as places for Japanese to live and grow their own food until the end of the war. One presumes the Matsumotos themselves stayed home in Colonia Roma.
Later on, Senshiro was approached by President Adolfo López Mateos (term 1958-64), who was looking for space for a housing complex. Where Rancho El Batán once grew jacarandas, now sits Unidad Independencia with 65 single-family residences, 35 multi-family buildings with 1500 apartments, three towers with 100 luxury apartments, social and educational services, a sports center, a supermarket, a medical clinic, an open air theater, and more. Senshiro’s only request was that no trees be cut down.