Tag Archives: nature

The Ahuehuete, Mexico’s National Tree

By Julie Etra

Designated the National Tree of Mexico in 1921, officially confirmed in 1924, the evergreen ahuehuete tree has a complex linguistic background. Taxodium mucronatum, the ahuehuete tree or Montezuma bald cypress, is called ahuehetl in náhuatl, which means “water drum” or “old water” (atl = “water” and hueheutl = “old”). The “old” part refers to the epiphytes that festoon the ahuehuete tree; these are lichens or bromeliads often attached to and hanging from the branches.

The ahuehuete also has numerous common names associated with the indigenous language of the particular area where it is growing; for example, in Oaxaca it is known as tnuyucu or t-nuyucul in Mixteca and yagaguichiciña in Zapotec. It is related to the giant sequoias of northern California as well as the bald cypress found in the southeastern United States. The Spaniards named the tree sabino as it resembled a pine from their mother country.

The ahuehuete grows throughout Mexico, but its complete range runs from southern Texas to Guatemala; it is found in a wide range of climates, from the semi-hot to temperate to cold. It is associated with water – riparian (riverbank) areas, springs, or high groundwater, and is remarkably fast growing. Rate of growth can be up to six feet per year on good soils, but will grow fast even under drought conditions. It has an unusually thick trunk toward the base, even on young trees. In maturity, it has a broad-topped, spreading shape.

Perhaps some readers of The Eye have had the opportunity to visit the Tule Tree (El Árbol del Tule), the enormous specimen of Mexico’s national tree in Santa María del Tule on the outskirts of Oaxaca City (see Alvin Starkman’s article elsewhere in this issue). At 48 meters (over 157 feet) in circumference, its trunk is the largest of any known tree in the world, although the tree is only 43 meters (about 141 feet) in height. It is also one of the oldest trees on the planet, at about 2000 years old according to carbon dating.

But where is the water it’s supposed to need? Like the ancient Lago del México, the location of modern CDMX (and ancient Tenochtitlan), there used to be a lake at Santa María del Tule; it was surrounded by marshes, supporting lush growth of bulrushes and cypresses. Hence the name “Tule,” the common Mexican name for the long-gone bulrush. In recent archaeological excavations at Tlapacoya II, in the state of México, an ahuehuete trunk was located in a layer carbon-dated as being 23,150 +/- 950 years old, indicating ancient riparian forests that no longer exist.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards and the subsequent conquest, the Mexica group of Aztecs cultivated the trees as ornamental and shade plantings in the center of their chinampas (floating agricultural systems) and along pathways throughout the Basin of Mexico, which included six lakes.

Designated the National Tree of Mexico in 1921, officially confirmed in 1924, the evergreen ahuehuete tree has a complex linguistic background. Taxodium mucronatum, the ahuehuete tree or Montezuma bald cypress, is called ahuehetl in náhuatl, which means “water drum” or “old water” (atl = “water” and hueheutl = “old”). The “old” part refers to the epiphytes that festoon the ahuehuete tree; these are lichens or bromeliads often attached to and hanging from the branches.

The ahuehuete also has numerous common names associated with the indigenous language of the particular area where it is growing; for example, in Oaxaca it is known as tnuyucu or t-nuyucul in Mixteca and yagaguichiciña in Zapotec. It is related to the giant sequoias of northern California as well as the bald cypress found in the southeastern United States. The Spaniards named the tree sabino as it resembled a pine from their mother country.

The ahuehuete grows throughout Mexico, but its complete range runs from southern Texas to Guatemala; it is found in a wide range of climates, from the semi-hot to temperate to cold. It is associated with water – riparian (riverbank) areas, springs, or high groundwater, and is remarkably fast growing. Rate of growth can be up to six feet per year on good soils, but will grow fast even under drought conditions. It has an unusually thick trunk toward the base, even on young trees. In maturity, it has a broad-topped, spreading shape.

Perhaps some readers of The Eye have had the opportunity to visit the Tule Tree (El Árbol del Tule), the enormous specimen of Mexico’s national tree in Santa María del Tule on the outskirts of Oaxaca City (see Alvin Starkman’s article elsewhere in this issue). At 48 meters (over 157 feet) in circumference, its trunk is the largest of any known tree in the world, although the tree is only 43 meters (about 141 feet) in height. It is also one of the oldest trees on the planet, at about 2000 years old according to carbon dating.

But where is the water it’s supposed to need? Like the ancient Lago del México, the location of modern CDMX (and ancient Tenochtitlan), there used to be a lake at Santa María del Tule; it was surrounded by marshes, supporting lush growth of bulrushes and cypresses. Hence the name “Tule,” the common Mexican name for the long-gone bulrush. In recent archaeological excavations at Tlapacoya II, in the state of México, an ahuehuete trunk was located in a layer carbon-dated as being 23,150 +/- 950 years old, indicating ancient riparian forests that no longer exist.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards and the subsequent conquest, the Mexica group of Aztecs cultivated the trees as ornamental and shade plantings in the center of their chinampas (floating agricultural systems) and along pathways throughout the Basin of Mexico, which included six lakes.

The trees lined the canals and were planted in the pre-Hispanic parks and gardens, which were abundant – Mexico has had a long and storied love affair with gardens, and particularly trees.

Ahuehuetes were a major feature of the gardens of Moctezuma, and before him Nezahualcoyotl (see the 100-peso bill). And it undoubtedly sheltered Hernan Cortés on the Noche Triste, the Night of Sorrows, where he supposedly wept as his invading army of Spanish conquistadors and their native allies were driven out of the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan (not for long). As the lakes have been drained and paved, many of these trees have succumbed to loss of habitat and altered hydrology.

Pre-Hispanic Mexicans prepared various parts of the tree for medicinal purposes. They burned the bark for an astringent, to heal burns, scars, and skin ulcers. Other medicinal ailments were treated through the preparation of resin, leaves, buds, stems, fruit, and bark included edema, heart conditions, diarrhea, and hemorrhoids. The wood was used for furniture and beam construction, and burned as fuel. Ahuehuete trunks, due to their hardness and resistance to rot, were used to make canoes.

Ahuehuetes also had spiritual and mythic significance, and were considered ancestors, brothers and/or gods associated with creation stories. The Mixteco chiefs of Apoala (northwest of Oaxaca City) believed that the gods and the first chiefs originated from the branches of majestic trees growing adjacent to rivers. The “broken tree” (arbol quebrado) myth of the Mexica, which is portayed in the Codice Boturini, represents the birth of the Mexica people as an independent nation. In general, pre-Hispanic texts reference the religious, magic, and cosmic properties of trees, particularly those species that grow close to rivers and springs.

Another legend about the ahuehuete is related to its use as temporary housing. By divine mandate a husband and wife took shelter in the hollow trunk of an ahuehuete in anticipation of a flood. The gods drained the land and the couple survived. Currently, among the people of the Huasteca (a geographical and cultural region of the Meso-American Huastec people – it runs along the Gulf coast and inland to include parts of five states in central Mexico) – the tree plays a role in the holiday celebration of the initiation of planting, in accordance with the agriculture calendar. Other current religious rites consist of petitioning the gods for rain by wrapping a statue of San Antonio de Padua in braided roots of the ahuehuete, then burying the statue in a well dug near the river. Archaeobotanical studies have revealed that branches of the ahuehuete were used as offerings in a variety of religious ceremonies, particularly in the Basin of Mexico.

Through its continued traditional and religious uses, therapeutic qualities, versatility in construction, and use as a fuel, the ahuehuete maintains is its place in contemporary Mexican culture.

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).

How the Jacaranda and Blue Hanami Came to Mexico – and the Japanese Paisajista Who Made It Happen

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.”

Jacarandas Needed

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.

 

Even Guinness Acknowledges Oaxaca’s Famous Tree

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).

Editor’s Letter

By Jane Bauer

“Live your life, do your work,  then take your hat.”
Henry David Thoreau

What does our collective reaction to COVID-19 say about our values? I am home, of course, with lots of time to ponder this question. I have friends who are reposting conspiracy theory videos and interviews with doctors on how best to proceed. There is a ton of information – much of it scientific and hypotheses abound on where we are going with this.

What are we protecting when we stay home? Is it our intense value for human life? I don’t think so. As I write this there have been 212,000 deaths (www.worldometers.info) related to COVID-19 in total. In contrast, this year there have been 270,923 deaths caused by water-related diseases and there are 802 million people with no access to a safe drinking water source. In this one day – today – 14,789 people will die of hunger.

As a species, we have very little value for human life as a whole. We regularly enter into wars that have mass casualties and the majority of us only ‘help’ others to the point that it will not affect our own quality of life. Staying home protects you from the contagion of the outside world. Nothing illustrates the inequality in our economic system than the ability for some of us to stay home in comfort, while others will be devastated economically by this reaction. Putting the world economy on hold is having a debilitating effect on food supply chains, social services that protect women and children, those who live in some sort of limbo and who may in fact not have even have had a home before all this madness. Time will tell how we look back on this world crisis and the long term effects of our actions.

There are currently 70.8 million people who have been forcibly displaced worldwide, and 37000 people are forced to flee their homes every day due to conflict or persecution (www.reliefweb.int). Due to conflict or persecution – it is helpful to note that this conflict and persecution comes from other humans. How have we responded to this? Visit any chat group and you will feel the hatred people have for other people – immigrants and refugees are turned away at borders, branded freeloaders and lazy. As a collective there is nothing humane about humanity.

As a species our most comfortable members have an overblown sense of importance. We prize our individual existence above all else. We just had a disgusting display of survival mode on a global scale as people rushed to stock up on toilet paper and dry goods. I understand. Death can be terrifying since we do not know what awaits us on the other side. Of course religions offer some solace but most of us view death as something to fight against rather than what it is, which is the inevitable for each of us. You will die. I will die. Is it noble to fight so hard?

Buddhism teaches its followers to accept the inevitability of death: “We fail to see and accept reality as it is- with life in death and death in life. In addition the habits of self-obsession, the attitude of self-importance and the insistence on a distinct self-identity separates us from the whole of which we are an inalienable part.” (Buddhist monk Geshe Dabul Namgyal, quoted in The New York Times, Feb. 26, 2020.)

One of the aspects I love so much about Mexican culture is its attitude towards death. I lived beside a small town cemetery for eight years and I learned how to celebrate life and mourn joyfully for those who have departed. Modern day culture has an unhealthy fear of death.

So why is this happening? Culturally we think we are above the connectivity of ourselves with nature. If you don’t believe me just watch some of the protests resisting climate change. Just look at your own life choices; how often do you fly? How much do you pollute? How much do you waste? Nature is smart. We love to post and share feel-good quotes about our connectivity with the universe, but how many of us really live it? We are intricately connected to the natural world around us and you must know in your heart that we are the parasites. The definition of a parasite is an organism that lives in or on another organism (its host) and benefits by deriving nutrients at the hosts expense. Sound familiar?

More people died today from human related traumas- hunger, displacement, murder – than from COVID-19. And yet we are completely focused on our individual protection. The human population grew from 1 billion in 1800 to 7.774 billion in 2020. Moreover, each person now consumes in a way that couldn’t even have been imagined fifty years ago. Even with the small (compared to other causes) number of deaths related to COVID-19 we are still putting 100,000 new people on the planet every day!

Nature is always finding balance.

See you in July,

Jane

 

Editorial April 2020

“We found that trees could communicate, over the air and through their roots. Common sense hooted us down. We found that trees take care of each other. Collective science dismissed the idea. Outsiders discovered how seeds remember the seasons of their childhood and set buds accordingly. Outsiders discovered that trees sense the presence of other nearby life. That a tree learns to save water. That trees feed their young and synchronize their masts and bank resources and warn kin and send out signals to wasps to come and save them from attacks.”
― Richard Powers, The Overstory

We are facing harrowing times. Looking at the news each morning we wonder what devastation today will bring. The number of cases and deaths is mounting as coronavirus sweeps across the globe – affecting each country in turn, in a domino effect.

In Huatulco, tourists rushed to head home as governments issued travel warnings and encouraged people to stay inside. Businesses are heeding the call and temporarily closing their doors to protect employees and customers. The streets around the world are quiet. Each of us is glued to various screens for updates and connection.

We don’t know how long this will last or what the long-term effects will be as we realize just how fragile our normalcy is. There have been glimmers of hope, however, and testaments to the strength of the human spirit. The day Italians sang from their balconies filling the streets with joyful song, the number of videos being uploaded offering free classes, concerts and museum tours, shows just how important creativity is to the human experience.

There has also been a shift in our thinking, a need to think of the collective rather than the individual. The idea of working on preventing the spread by staying indoors – not to protect yourself but those around you. If there are repercussions to this world crisis, let this way of thinking remain. Let us carry it over into times of peace. Let us understand the limits of the boundaries we have created: race, class, status. The borders and boundaries we have erected in our desire to claim our identity. These are human-made divisions and if there is something we are learning from this crisis, it is that nature doesn’t care.

Nature will not be stopped by a wall or by how much money you have. As individuals, we are small and made smaller by thinking we stand alone – we are all in this together.

Until next month, stay safe.

Jane