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Last updateFri, 18 Jan 2019 11am

Huentitán’s Botanical Garden: Four climates & 500 species

Head north out of Guadalajara too rapidly and you might find yourself flying through the air and falling 500 meters into La Barranca de Huentitán!

Most people, of course, prefer to view this majestic canyon from the Capilla de la Barranca mirador (lookout point), while a handful of fit sports enthusiasts like to take advantage of the trail that descends 530 meters down to the Santiago River.

For years, I had heard rumors that a botanical garden was located somewhere near this trail, and I recently discovered that this story was indeed true.

According to project manager Sofía Hernández Morales, the jardin dates back to 2003 when Mexico’s Environmental Secretariat asked the State Water Commission (CEA) to create a space where the biodiversity of the Barranca de Huentitán could be represented and the most important species of its trees reproduced for the purpose of reforestation.

Hernández recently gave me permission to visit the Huentitán Garden, even though after more than a decade it’s still in the developmental stage and not yet open to the general 

public.

The botanical garden is located a mere two kilometers north of the traffic-heavy Periférico (city beltway), a stone’s throw from the Guadalajara Zoo. After a wild, kilometer-long ride along a rough and rocky track, we were greeted at the jardin entrance by several people who have been working on the project for years.

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“I consider myself lucky for having ended up working in this beautiful place,” agronomist Roy Alberto Cañeda enthused. “I love getting all muddy, breathing in the smells of plants, and I’m fascinated by their colors. For me, this is what life is all about and because plants also feed us, give us life.”

Invigorated by the warm reception, we began our walk in a pine forest, where our guide told us that Mexico has more species of pine than any other country in the world.

After only a few minutes walking downhill, we had soon left the cooler climate and found ourselves among “Tourist Trees” (Bursera simaruba), which – rather like some tourists to hot climates – appear red and peeling. These are commonly called papelillos in Spanish, so named for their paper-like bark which peels off in small strips.

“We have 15 species of Burseraceae,” one of our guides informed us. “And we’ve created special areas where you can see many members of this and other tree families.”

As we walked, our guides occasionally pointed out some really weird trees. One was called Habillo (Hura poliandra) or Sandbox Tree in English, which exudes a highly toxic white latex, famous for “inflaming testicles.”

The seed pod of this hard-to-find tree, they told us, also has an extraordinary reputation. When it reaches maturity it explodes so noisily that it sounds like a gunshot, and shoots its seeds many meters in every direction. Notes the Maya-Ethnobotany website: “There are no photos or videos of Hura exploding; such a video should win an award if it existed, and if the video photographer lived to send in the clip.” Actually, I did find a video of someone breaking a Hura seed with a machete, and there was, indeed, a loud explosion. Google “Hura polyandra explosive seed pod.”

pg8Cañeda explained that the garden is only required to maintain species native to the Huentitán Canyon, but actually has 400 other species. “We started out preserving the typical trees of the barranca, but the project took on a life of its own and on these 26 hectares we also have a good representation of trees and plants from Jalisco, the rest of Mexico, and other parts of the world,” he said.

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“So a researcher who needs to collect seeds of some tree in the desert, or one that grows on top of the Nevado de Toluca, can come here to do it. They will find all kinds of species right at hand.”

From an Alpine climate, we made our way to the equivalent of a tropical coast, where we crossed a nice-looking but bad smelling river, along which we found reeds, bamboos and orchids. Hernández said she hopes the day will come when her organization sees the end of the river pollution and the transformation of this part of the Jardín Botánico into something truly spectacular.

Our downward journey ended at a mirador offering us a magnificent panoramic view of the Huentitán Canyon. Far below us we could see the famous Puente de Arcediano, Mexico’s first hanging bridge and the second built on the American continent (after New York’s Brooklyn Bridge). Sadly, the venerable bridge was dismantled in 2005 in preparation for the creation of a huge dam (which never materialized) and rebuilt at its present site, a kilometer downstream.

After viewing the canyon, our guides took us to several greenhouses to view thousands of potted trees, ready for the CEA to plant in areas requiring reforestation.

After Hernández pointed out that the Huentitán Garden is unique in Mexico because it can grow plants that are accustomed to four different climates, I began to wonder if any other arboretum around the world could do better.

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