More than meets the eye: El Charco del Ingenio
By Honey Sharp
While strolling along a botanical garden path, you are invariably greeted by a panoply of sensory experiences. A rich variety of trees, grasses, flowers, ferns, butterflies and birds welcome, entice and invite you in.
Not so apparent however, is what lies behind the scenes. Like a theatrical production, there’s more than meets the eye. And I’m not referring to staff, including directors, horticultural curators, educational staff, board members and, of course, hardworking gardeners. It is about the focus and long-term mission of a botanical garden.
For El Charco del Ingenio, situated on 67 hectares in San Miguel de Allende, one of its raisons d’être extends beyond an esthetic presentation of flora and a welcoming habitat for fauna, in particular, migrating and yearround birds. And, while we can appreciate species primarily native to the Sierra Madre, providing educational value to visitors and students alike, fascinating stories are to be told in how the plants were acquired: either rescued in the wild such as at a site for a hydroelectric dam, propagated and perhaps most rewarding of all, offered a chance to “simply” reappear on formerly overgrazed and neglected land.
“Yes, we are a botanical garden but our focus is to cultivate, maintain and preserve our plants. This is particularly crucial in a world that is rapidly undergoing transformation. As the climate changes—for example, 2011 broke records in heat and low rainfall, we must think long term,” explains Mario Hernández, its director.
Recently, I had the good fortune to see firsthand how it is implementing its vision. Members of the prestigious organization, Botanic Gardens Conservation International or BGCI, founded in part by Prince Charles, were visiting, having attended an international conference in DF, Mexico. Hosting a Greek educational researcher, based at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London, I met others from China, Australia, Norway, Peru and, of course Mexico. As a member of BGCI, El Charco played a role in organizing the conference.
During our extensive tour of El Charco, we learned about the recent rescued plant garden which, as Mario enthusiastically pointed out, had been created in large part by the Charco’s own gardeners, many from the campo, bringing an in-depth understanding of local plants and the challenges of a high desert environment. Another highlight was an in-depth private visit to the plant propagation nurseries. Under the experienced and loving care of Martina García Granados, we walked amidst endless rows of tiny cacti and other succulents, some of which are on the endangered list, aka “Red List.”
For botanical gardens with a keen focus on the environment, plant conservation via propagation including seed banks, forms a central, crucial backbone. As flora species continue to disappear—estimated to be up to 50 percent in a few decades, such dedicated and painstaking work is not only essential but socially responsible. For example, many plants have medicinal properties not yet known. As such, more and more public gardens are playing a significant role in protecting plants rapidly vanishing in the wild.
“Botanical gardens are moving very quickly towards becoming important regional and local focal points for conservation-orientated plant research. They are visited by several hundred million people each year making them the principal public interface for connecting with plant conservation and for environmental education.” Dr. Javier Caballero, director of UNAM Botanical Garden. In this respect, from its very inception in 1990, El Charco has been ahead of the curve. To learn more: http://www.bgci.org/, http://www.elcharco.org.mx/
Part 2 El Charco del Ingenio: Water Conservation and a New Plant Science Research Center