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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 25 March 2016 by Tim Ingram

'People and Plants of Oaxaca' - Ruth Calder

'People and Plants of Oaxaca' - talk to the East Kent Group of the AGS, 11th March 2016.


The motivation behind Ruth Calder's visit to Oaxaca in Mexico was the relationship between the very rich flora of the region and its long cultural history and habitation. Oaxaca, for its size, has an extraordinary variety of habitats varying from mangrove and moist sub-tropical forest, to high altitude cloud forest and arid semi-desert. Over 9000 species of higher plants (and 700 ferns) have been recorded in the region, 40% of the entire Mexican flora. The highest mountains reach 12 300 feet and create geographical barriers to both plants and people, and extensive speciation. Inevitably these habitats are vulnerable to exploitation for resources and a strong aspect of Ruth's talk to us was the study of the close and long relationship between indigenous peoples and plants: ethnobotany. 

This equates in many ways to the deep interest that many of us in a more highly developed and prosperous country such as the UK have in our local environments and flora and fauna. The ways we value plants and their ecology to greater or lesser extent - and the detail of this - is well presented by Robert Amos in his recent article, 'Just how do we assess the true value of alpines?', in the Journal of the Alpine Garden Society, (Vol. 84, p. 112, March 2016).

The state of Oaxaca is named after the tree Leuceana leucocephala - 'Huaje' - and in a study of the Chinantla people, Frank J. Lipp described how their culture has centred around a respect for plants and a close relationship with them, which can so easily be lost. Oaxaca has been settled for an extraordinary length of time and is considered the birthplace of agriculture in the Americas with the domestication of corn. Evidence of early selections of maize date back 10 000 years. Very many other plants have valuable uses too from the distillation of Tequila from Agave, to Kapok derived from Ceiba pentandra, to the spicy flowers of Quaribea funebris used to flavour the traditional chocolate-maize drink, Tejate.

'It was the chance of proposing a dream' (de Ávila)

This knowledge of the local flora has been consolidated by the establishment of the Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca in a sixteenth century monastery complex in Oaxaca City, previously used as a military base. This resulted from the drive and vision of local activists from art and cultural backgrounds, led by Francisco Toledo, one of Mexico's best known living artists, and the anthropologist and biologist Alejandro de Ávila. A good description of the garden is given by Jeff Spurrier in the 'Garden Design Magazine', see:

Ruth showed us a variety of plant habitats varying from pine-oak forest - very reminiscent of the moist temperate woodlands of Wales and the west country - to arid scrub and, in huge contrast, remnants of cloud forest that have retreated to the highest mountains, where the trees are festooned with lichens and epiphytic bromeliads. Many familiar garden plants grow in the region such as penstemon, cosmos, lupins and salvias. She finished her talk with a picture that sums up the richness of the flora of the region, a simple tree trunk with six categories of plants growing closely together on its bark.  

We are most grateful for a talk which only makes you want to learn so much more about this unique place - a fine story of the combination of art and culture, plants and botanical science - and wish Ruth well in the new position she will shortly be taking up at the Botanic Garden in Oxford.

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