Culture, Conservation and Cacti: the Incredible Story of Oaxaca’s Ethnobotanical Garden

Picture this: giant cacti that tower over untouched reflecting pools, neat rows of stubby agave shadowed by gnarled trees just starting to show their spring colors, mountains looming in the background and a 10-foot wall guarding the plants from busy city streets. Sounds like a kooky desert version of The Secret Garden, right? Well, it kind of is- but it’s also a real place.

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Nearly a month ago, I spent my spring break in Oaxaca, Mexico. Officially known as Oaxaca de Juarez, the city is the capital of the Mexican state of Oaxaca and home to about 300,000 people. A trip to Oaxaca truly offers travelers the best of both worlds: beautiful colonial architecture, plenty of art, music and nightlife, and delicious food in the city; incredible mountain scenery, archaeological sites, and plenty of hiking, biking and camping choices just outside. It’s the perfect destination for urbanites, history buffs, lovers of food (and drink), and outdoorsy folks alike.

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So where does this stunning hidden oasis come in? For me, it was on my last day in Oaxaca. After a whirlwind week of incredible sightseeing, bustling markets, broken Spanish (hey, I’m learning), and copious amounts of mole and mezcal, we decided to spend our final day exploring the city’s many museums, churches, and winding cobblestone streets. The Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca- or the Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca- is located in the center of the city, adjacent to the gorgeous Santo Domingo church and the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca (Museum of Oaxacan Cultures). Nearly 900 plant species, all native to the state of Oaxaca, are preserved in the garden. Desert plants such as agave and cacti bask in the sun alongside ancient cypress trees from the mountains. Many of these plants were “rescued” from construction projects around the state and all were chosen for their cultural significance. For example, a large number of these plants have been used for thousands of years by Oaxaca’s indigenous populations for food, medicine, and dyes. The garden is only accessible by guided tours (which are offered in several languages), creating a peaceful atmosphere and allowing the plants, many of which are threatened in the wild, to thrive without human disruption.

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To me, the most interesting part of Oaxaca’s Ethnobotanical Garden (aside from the breathtaking views from the Museo de las Culturas, as seen in these photos) is the garden’s history. The garden was brought to life through a unique collaboration between Oaxaca’s artists and scientists. It’s hard to believe, but what is now a dream-like collection of native plants and carefully designed pathways was once a military base (and once, long ago, part of a colonial monastery). When the base was closed in the early 1990’s, Oaxaca’s government planned to turn the area into a hotel and conference facility. But a coalition of local artists, along with scientists, gardeners and landscape architects with roots in Oaxaca, lobbied the government to turn the space into a botanical garden and educational space instead. In 1994, the state established a trust for the creation of the garden. Its artistic influence is evident in the garden’s thoughtful design, built around both the needs of its plants and the history of its site. The Ethnobotanical Garden of Oaxaca is as untamed as it is planned; as ancient as it is modern. It’s a stunning example of both the intersection of different disciplines- botany, anthropology, design, government- and the possibility of conservation in urban areas. The garden’s rich history and incredible views are sure to entice and educate visitors for decades to come. I know that I’ll be back as soon as I can.

– Lauren Hodges


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