Oaxaca’s Ethnobotanical Garden: 10,000 years of history in the middle of the city
I first became interested in Ethnobotany in University when I read Nancy Turner’s The Earth’s Blanket – a book about the relationship between British Columbia’s indigenous peoples and the plants of this land. Having focused a lot of my Agricultural Science degree on the food and culture of Mexico, I was very excited to visit this garden and to learn about how the plants of Oaxaca have been used by indigenous peoples and have shaped culture and history.
Historical and anthropological significance
Edward Rothstein writes for the New York Times:
“This is not a garden in the European sense, presenting an idealized landscape. At first, it can even seem untamed. The Oaxaca region…has been home to more ethnic groups, more indigenous languages and more species of plants than any other region in Mexico, and indeed, more than most regions of the world.”
“While sections of the garden, with its five acres of planting, are organized by climatic zones, it is also organized to shape a kind of history, beginning with plants grown from “the oldest cultivated seeds known”: 10,000-year-old squash seeds found in a cave about 25 miles from the city.”
The cave that the article refers to is called Guilá Naquitz, and it is located near the town and archaeological site of Mitla. Domesticated seeds of teosinte (an early ancestor of maize or corn), gourds, squash and beans were found in this cave in the 1960’s and are believed to be from 10,750 years before present time. Living examples of these same plants that are so integral to Mesoamerican culture can be found in Oaxaca’s Ethnobotanical Garden.
The garden occupies the land that used to contain gardens for the Church and former monastery of Santo Domingo. The church’s architecture dates back to the late 16th century and it was an active monastery from 1608 to 1857. During the late 19th and early 20th century the church was used by the military and it is my understanding the the garden area was used as a stable for the military horses. The 20th Century saw many changes for the Church – it was again used for religious purposes and restorations in addition to the museum and the Ethnobotanical Garden made it a world-class cultural centre and a must-see for any visitors to Oaxaca.
Photos of favourite plants at the Ethnobotanical Garden
Biznaga – a cactus that is used to make a delicious candy called acitrón.
The pochote tree has spikes on it’s trunk and a fibrous fluff that protects its seeds.
Planning your visit
In order to enter the garden you have to go with a tour guide. The schedule for tours in Spanish and English is posted at the entrance and on the garden’s website. Bring lots of water and a hat, it tends to be quite warm and sunny almost every day.