Thursday, December 9, 2010

Puerto Vallarta Part 5: Vallarta Botanical Garden

Lily floats in a pond at the Vallarta Botanical Garden. This kind of lily is particularly enchanting as it gently opens to the morning sun. Carole has been an avid flower gardener for most of our 30 years together, so there was no way we were going to leave Puerto Vallarta without seeing its famous Vallarta Botanical Garden. The garden is not just an accumulation of pretty flowers. It is located deep in a beautiful, steep-walled canyon leading up from Bahia de Banderas a few miles south of the city. The 20-acre Garden is a tropical dry forest and is magical with meandering jungle paths, streams and waterfalls, and lots of tropical birds. The lovely flower above is of the genus Lilium which has 110 species. This wet-area plant grows from bulbs which in some species are edible.

The headquarters of the Botanical Garden is built around the lily pond. Above, Carole strolls along the edge of the pond. To the right is a restaurant and the other wing includes offices and a shop where you can buy plants. Hacienda de Oro, seen above, was opened in 2004. Next, the trails and gardens were laid out. The Botanical Garden is a non-profit institution dedicated to education and research but, in addition, weddings and other events are sometimes scheduled in this lovely facility. For a map and information about how to visit by car, taxi, or local bus, click here.

Closeup of the Hacienda de Oro lily pond. Small birds sometimes tred delicately across the lily pads, looking to lunch on insects. Lilies of a variety of colors silently open their petals to soak up the sun and provide pleasure to visitors like us.

Hacienda de Oro's restaurant overlooks the lily pond on one side and the canyon on the other. In addition to various Mexican specialities, the menu boasts a variety of pizzas cooked in their brick oven. The restaurant was designed by Anthony Sbragia, a native of San Jose, California.

Petraea volubilis. One of the few drawbacks of the Vallarta gardens is that there are not enough signs identifying the plants, so I got help on my flower experts, Ron Parsons and Joel Gomez. According to Joel, this plant is also called piedra (stone) from the harsh texture of the leaf. A climbing, twining plant, Petraea volubilis is found in Mexico and as far south as Central America. It was named after an 18th Century nobleman called Lord Petre who collected exotic plants. We found large bushes of these beautiful flowering plants not far from the Hacienda.

Ron supplied the genus name of Allamanda, while Joel gave its local name, Copa de Oro. I was a little puzzled at Joel's appellation until I realized that the Allamanda is often colored yellow, resulting in the names Yellow Bell, Golden Trumpet, or Buttercup Flower. For whatever reason, this one is red. Copa de Oro (Spanish for Cup of Gold) is native to South and Central America and grows as a shrub which can reach 2 meters (6 feet) or more. Generally they are found along the banks of rivers and in sunny areas. It naturalizes easily and simple cutting will actually increase its rate of growth. Allamanda also has medicinal properties as a cathartic, and its sap has antibacterial and anticancer properties. It was named for a Swiss botanist named Dr. Frederich Allamanda in the 18th Century.

This plant may be a form of maguey, but I am not absolutely sure. The long spiky leaves shooting out in a starburst pattern certainly look like a maguey. Agave, from which the Mexico's firey tequila is made, is a form of maguey. The maguey plant has been used for as much as 10,000 years for a variety of purposes. The heart of the plant was fermented into pulque, a mildly alcoholic drink, by ancient pre-hispanic people and is still enjoyed in many areas of Mexico today. Later, the Spanish took the process a step further to create mescal, a distilled liquor. In the State of Jalisco, where I live, the agave plant is harvested to make tequila, a name which can only be used for such liquor from this region. In addition to an alcoholic beverage, the fibers are used to make rope and sandals and other useful items, and the thorns have been used to make needles and fishhooks.

Pontaderia is an aquatic plant with a range from Canada to Argentina. Joel couldn't help with this one, but Ron correctly identified it as of the genus Pontederia. Linnaeus, the great Swedish scientist who created the whole system of Latin names for identifying the natural world, himself named this plant for Italian botanist Giulio Pontedera. While they are sometimes looked upon as an invasive species, Pontederia are also good at biologically filtering polluted water.

Tiny orchids reveal their beauty only to those who are paying attention. The Orchid family, called Orchidaceae, are the second largest of all plant families with between 21,950 and 26,049 generally accepted species, and 880 genera. There are twice as many orchid species as there are bird species, and four times as many as those of mammals. Charles Darwin wrote a whole book about orchid cross pollination in 1862. The name orchid comes from the Greek word meaning "testicle", referring to the appearance of the flower. They occur in almost every habitat except glaciers. Pollen from an orchid was found in an amber-encrusted bee 15-20 million years old, and there is evidence that they may date back as far as the Late Cretaceous period where they would have co-existed with the dinosaurs.

The Botanical Garden recycles plant waste into other useful products. This waste basket, which we found on a cobblestone trail, is made from branches and vines grown locally. Other uses included natural planters.

A swaying suspension bridge leads into the inner jungle canyons. The sign warns against playing on the bridge, which spans a fairly steep ravine. I was amused by the carved wooden piñas (pineapples) on top of the four posts supporting the bridge.

Punica granatum (Pomegranate) hangs from a branch. Joel calls this a Granada, no doubt after the Spanish city. The Spanish settlers in Mexico introduced the pomegranate into Mexico in 1769. The fruit has been cultivated over a wide area of the earth. It may have originated in the high plains of Iran and the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, but it was known from ancient times in China, Burma, Central Asian countries such as Pakistan and Afghanistan, through North Africa and the Middle East and Mediterranean Europe. The name Punica comes from the ancient Phoenicians who cultivated it broadly, partly for religious reasons. Remains of pomegranates have been found in Early Bronze Age Jericho in modern Israel, and Late Bronze Age Tiryns, also called Troy, in today's Turkey. The fruit was mentioned in the Homeric poetry of Iron Age Greece. In more recent times, after its introduction to the New World, Thomas Jefferson began raising pomegranates on his famous plantation of Monticello.

Ficus aurea (Strangler Fig). After we crossed the swinging bridge, we moved along winding trails into deep jungle. One of the most striking trees we encountered was this Ficus aurea, also known as the Strangler Fig. They are most common in dark forests with much competition for sunlight. The seeds germinate in the crevices of other trees, then grow roots down the sides of host tree. The host may actually die, leaving a hollow core surrounded by the coils of the Strangler. A bit eerie, I thought.

More of the thick jungle surrounded us as we walked. I was impressed by the deep reddish color of the wood, with its backdrop of even deeper green forest plants. In many places, the visibility was reduced to a few feet, but those few feet were packed with interesting things to discover.

The ground on either side of the trail was covered by lush ferns of various species. Ferns are even more ancient than orchids, getting their start 360 million years ago in the Mesozoic era. They were in existence before there were land animals, and even before there were flowering plants. Talk about survivors! Ferns reproduce by spores rather than seeds. They need shady, cool, moist areas to grow. They also need water as a medium to transmit their spores so they can reproduce.

The ferns grew along the banks of a small stream meandering down the canyon. The various ravines and canyons contribute to a considerable stream which we will see later in this posting.

Bringing it all together. I thought this shot captured the lush, thick, mysterious jungle we were walking through.

Fruits of Prosthechea grow on the trunk of a tree leaning across the trail. Prosthechea is part of the orchid family. They grow from Florida to Mexico and throughout the tropical parts of the Americas. People have been known to eat the bulbs of the Prosthechea.

Anthurium andreanum. The Anthurium genus may have as many as 1000 species. They are also called Flamingo Flower, or the Boy Flower. They are generally found in wet tropical mountain forest in Central and South America, but are sometimes found, as in this case, in drier areas. These plants are hermaphrodites, meaning they contain both male and female flowers. The different scents given off by various types of Anthurium attract specific types of pollinators.

Eroded roots show the sculpting power of water. These roots caught my eye as I walked along the trail. The water pouring down the slope has neatly carved the soil away from both sides of the roots as if with a sharp knife.

Vanilla vine climbs a handy tree. Vanilla is another form of orchid. The name comes from the Spanish vainilla (little pod). Vanilla was cultivated by pre-hispanic Meso-American people, and was brought to Europe in the 1520s by Hernán Cortés, along with chocolate. Numerous attempts were made to cultivate vanilla outside the area of Mexico and Central America, but the plant was symbiotically dependent upon a particular kind of local bee for pollination and so the effort was unsuccessful for a long time. Finally, a Belgian botanist named Charles Francois Antoine Morren figured all this out in 1837. a However, it wasn't until a French-owned slave named Edmond Albius discovered a way to hand-pollinate the plants in 1841 that the effort was finally successful. However, after saffron, vanilla remains the second most expensive spice, due to the labor involved. No word on whether Albius ever profited from the fruits of his labor.

Myrmecophila tibicinis (Cowhorn orchid). This member of the orchid family has a symbiotic relationship with ants. They tunnel into the banana-like pseudobulbs to harvest the nectar inside. In turn they leave various debris in kind of a garbage dump inside the pseudobulbs on which the plant then feeds. The Cowhorn orchid can be found in tropical areas of southern Mexico and Central America.

Heliconia are related to bananas. Until 1998, Heliconia were included in the family Musaceae, but then were recognized as having their own family. In fact Heliconia is the only genus in that family. Common names include lobster claws, wild plantains, or false bird-of-paradise.

Yellow stalks of Aloe rose from the jungle floor around us. There are about 400 species of Aloe, but the most common is Aloe vera (true aloe). The plant is native to Africa, particularly the Cape area of South Africa, but it now grows in many other areas of the world. As well as serving as an ornamental plant, aloe has for centuries been used medicinally. Some of its medicinal properties include uses as a laxative, purgative, relief from skin irritation, and for digestive problems, burns, and minor wounds.

In the canyon below the Hacienda de Oro, a rushing stream. Rivulets from the numerous ravines and gullies of the Botanical Garden's 20 acres form together into a cold, clear stream that rushes down the canyon, ultimately emptying into the Bahia de Banderas. A long, winding set of steps leads down from the Hacienda to a trail along the stream.

An inviting sight on a hot and sultry afternoon. Swimming is allowed, at your own risk, in this apparently pristine swimming hole on the river. We didn't bring swim suits so we didn't partake, but it was certainly tempting. One thing we strongly recommend is bug repellent. Carole got eaten alive at the tiny beach next to the swimming hole.

This concludes Part 5 of my series on Puerto Vallarta and also concludes the series itself. We hope you enjoyed learning about this beautiful Pacific Coast community and can visit some time. As I said at the beginning, I came with some misgivings about its reputation of an overdeveloped resort, but I was charmed in the end. If you would like to leave a comment, you can do so in the Comments section below, or email me directly. If you leave a question in the Comments section, PLEASE leave your email address so I can respond.

Hasta luego, Jim


  1. This botanical garden is an incredible attraction which no one visiting the area should miss. You're right about the bugs, though. I recommend wearing long pants and a long-sleeved shirt even if it's hot out.

  2. We love botanical gardens and this one sounds, and looks, fantastic. Thanks, Jim.


If your comment involves a question, please leave your email address so I can answer you. Thanks, Jim