Ethnobotanical Garden in Cuernavaca
by Blanca Robleda de Buckley

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Morelos -- One of the gardens listed on the Mexican Botanical Gardens Association (AMJB) webpage is INAH's Ethnobotanical Garden in Cuernavaca, Morelos. Renowned for its temperate climate and seasonal showers -- Cuernavaca's motto is "City of Eternal Spring" -- the city is perennially flush with colorful flowers.

The Cuernavaca garden features the Museum of Traditional Medicine and Herbolarium, dedicated since its foundation (in 1976) to the preservation of and study of plants native to the state of Morelos (Cuernavaca is the state capital) and in Mexico in general. The museum offers well-presented displays dedicated to regional plants and flora -- with considerable emphasis on medicinal, nutritional, decorative and traditional properties and usages.

The garden grounds are of historical interest as well. The property -- then known as "El Olvido" -- was owned by Emperor Maximilian in the 1860s. There he kept an Indian mistress whom he would visit when staying in Cuernavaca, usually at "El Jardin Borda" (the Borda Gardens). The house which today houses the museum is fondly known as "La Casa de la India Bonita" (the house of the pretty Indian girl).

Pic The simply stated goal of the Ethnobotanical Garden is to preserve, study and cultivate a comprehensive selection of plants and flowers native to the valley of Morelos, as well as other parts of Mexico. This includes some non-indigenous plants now popular in the country.

The spacious garden is entered through a small grove of trees beyond the museum. A color-coded map made of painted tiles offers useful information; the groupings of the various specimens are identified, including medicinal, decorative, xerophytes, and a section solely devoted to orchids.

Strolling through the garden need not be just a visual and aromatic experience. Most of the plants are accompanied by small signs indicating common name, indigenous (Nahuatl) name -- where applicable -- its scientific name, its botanical family, its species and some of its properties and usages.

The garden's collection of medicinal plants is regarded as the most important section. The garden directors made a commitment to the Mexican Botanical Gardens Association, agreeing to permanently preserve a comprehensive collection of the nation's medicinal flora.

Featured here is the ocotillo (chapulistle, in Nahuatl), a native shrub whose wood is used as a combustible and in the elaboration of tools. Its traditional medicinal usage was to treat circulatory and muscular problems, as well as to control fever. The Guamuchil (huamuchitl, in Nahuatl), also known as the Camachile tree is a tall, native tree which produces edible fruit. Its bark is used in traditional medicine to cleanse external wounds or ulcers.

Also here is the Ginkgo tree -- native to China and Japan -- that is cultivated in Mexico mostly for ornamental purposes, though traditional Oriental medicine makes use of its leaves.

The orchid section is also quite important and boasts an impressive array of wild Mexican orchids. Since many Mexican orchids are considered endangered species, this collection -- featuring orchids from Veracruz, Guerrero, Michoacán, the State of Mexico, as well as Morelos -- is of special significance. Each orchid is carefully cared for and monitored by the expert staff on hand. Each plant is identified only by number, instead of species, but the garden has specimens of Encyclia, Lycaste and Epidendrum cilare.

Another notable section is the xerophyte -- plants adapted for growth with limited water, such as cactus -- section. Mexico's wide variety of species (quantification necessary, i.e. world ranking or a number) include several suffering from excessive harvesting, both legal and illegal, in their natural environments. Mexico's cacti are noted for their medicinal, nutritional, decorative and industrial purposes, though information markers were lacking in this section.

Pic The edible plant section -- the largest in the garden -- includes familiar vegetables, tropical food plants and other species cultivated as condiments. Here again, information markers -- names, properties and traditional uses, et al -- were provided. Non-native edible plants now cultivated in Mexico were also on display: i.e. the macadamia tree (Australia), the pistachio tree (Europe). Indigenous plants include the Xocoxochitl tree (native to Mesoamerica) from which black pepper is derived and whose traditional usage ranged from use in childbirth to facilitating digestion; the jicama plant (native to Mexico and Central America, too) whose root is quite delicious when eaten with lime and chile powder and was used by pre-Conquest Morelos natives to treat kidney problems and as a contraceptive.

Distributed throughout the garden and as borders to the several sections are ornamental plants, trees and shrubs. Featured are the Flor de Mayo (cacaloxochitl, in Nahuatl), a wild shrub domesticated for decorative purposes; the bird of paradise, poinsettias and a variety of lilies.



The Cuernavaca Ethnobotanical Garden -- at Matamoros 14, Col. Acapantzingo -- is open 7 days a week from 9 am to 5 pm and is free of charge. Guided tours are available upon request and other activities -- such as horticulture classes for kids -- are organized by the staff.

By car from downtown Cuernavaca, drive south on Humboldt Street toward Col. Acapantzingo past Rufino Tamayo St. and two blocks further south is Matamoros Street

Or catch the Ruta #6 microbus bound for Acapantzingo in downtown Cuernavaca on Degollado Street and get off at the 16 de septiembre intersection, just a block away from the gated entrance of "El Olvido." Ask the driver or a passenger where to get off for "La Casa de la India Bonita" or "el jardin botanico."


Blanca Robleda de Buckley is a health and culture reporter based in Mexico City.


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