Four climates and 500 species
By John Pint
Head north out of Guadalajara too rapidly and you will find yourself flying through the air and falling for 500 meters: welcome to la Barranca de Huentitán!
Most people, of course, prefer to view this majestic canyon from the mirador (Lookout Point) of la Capilla de la Barranca de Huentitán, and then there are a handful of sports enthusiasts who actually run down (and back up!) the Huentitán Trail which goes down 530 meters, right to the shore of the Santiago River at the bottom of the canyon. You can read all about it in Chapter 10 of Outdoors in Western Mexico.
For years, I heard rumors that there was a botanical garden somewhere near that trail and recently I discovered that the rumors were true. This I learned straight from the lips of Sofía Hernández Morales, who manages the site for the Jalisco Water Commission.
“This project,” she told me, “goes back to 2003 when Mexico’s Environmental Secretariat asked the Water Commission to create a botanical garden where all the biodiversity of the Barranca de Huentitán could be represented and where the most important species of its trees could be reproduced for the purpose of reforestation, which is one of the Commission’s responsibilities when it carries out its projects.”
Ms. Hernández kindly gave me permission to visit the Huentitán Garden even though it’s still in the developmental stage and not open to the general public.
The garden is located a mere two kilometers north of the ever-busy Periférico, just below the Guadalajara Zoo. After a wild, kilometer-long ride along a rough and rocky track, we arrived at the entrance to the Botanical Garden where we met several people who have been working on this project for years. I asked one of them, agronomist Roy Alberto Cañeda, why he chose his profession.
“Why did I get into agronomy?” Well, I’ve always loved nature. I love the stars, I love the earth, 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, I decided to go study agronomy at CUCBA and there I had the pleasure of knowing Luz María Villareal de Puga, who is considered the Mother of Botany in Western Mexico. She instilled in me a love for this science and these species. And I consider myself lucky for having ended up working in this beautiful place.”
We began our walk at 1500 meters altitude in a pine forest, where we learned that Mexico has more species of pine than any other country in the world. After only a few minutes walking downhill, we left that cooler climate and found ourselves among “Tourist Trees,” (Bursera simaruba ) which appear red and peeling like many a tourist. 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 here,” our guide told us, “and we have created special areas where you can see many members of this and other tree families, for example the Moraceae or fig family. This could be very useful to researchers.”
As we were walking along, 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, it sounds like a gunshot, and shoots its seeds many meters in every direction. The Maya-Ethnobotany page on the internet comments, “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 pod with a machete, and there was, indeed, a loud explosion.
“You know,” said Roy, “that we are only required to maintain the native species here, but now we have 400 other species as well. 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 now have a good representation of trees and plants not only of the Huentitán Canyon, but of the state of Jalisco, all of Mexico and in fact, of the world. 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. Here he or she 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. Sofía Hernández hopes the day will come when her organization may see 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 Huentitán Canyon. Far below us we could clearly 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 where thousands of potted trees are stored, ready for the Water Commission to plant in areas requiring reforestation with endemic species.
Sofía Hernández says the Huentitán Garden is unique in all Mexico because it can grow plants accustomed to four different climates. I wonder if any other arboretum around the world can do better.
Susy Pint and Sofía Hernández at Huentitán Botanical Garden, Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico