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.