Currently, Mexico is recognized as the fifth-richest country in plant and animal species, but expanding human population and legal and illegal logging are taking their toll.
Less than one-fifth of the country remains forested. Species are disappearing at an alarming rate, with 815,000 acres (330,000 hectares) of forest cut each year.
According to a government report published in 2016, Mexico now has the second-fastest rate of forest depletion in the world, second only to Brazil.
Many important plants are disappearing, lost forever. The country has about 1,150 identified species of orchids. All are under threat. A concerted effort is being undertaken by staff at the Vallarta Botanic Garden to conserve as many orchids as possible, and these efforts are central to their overall mission. If it is true that we are facing another great planetary extinction of biodiversity, then even modest efforts in conservation become enormously important.
There is something both comfortable and radical about the Vallarta Botanical Garden. The warm, domestic-feeling buildings, with their welcoming furniture and shelves of books, belie an underlying seriousness of directive.
Located on the Pacific Ocean’s Bahía de Banderas, the Vallarta Botanical Garden is 14 miles (23 kilometers) south of the resort city of Puerto Vallarta, in a tropical dry forest. It sits on the side of a hill above the Río Horcones.
Robert Price, its creator, founder, and visionary, describes himself as an accidental tourist. He had always visited botanical gardens in his travels around the world, and, when visiting Puerto Vallarta, asked himself, “Why isn’t there a botanical garden here?” His question was followed with the eureka moment when he realized he could start one himself.
He and his mother, Betty, had been successful restaurant owners in Florida before exploring and then moving to Mexico. On their early trips, they became fascinated with Mexican orchids and began to collect them. Together, they decided to build a botanical garden to display plants, educate locals and the thousands of tourists who come for the beaches, and explain regional ecological systems such as the dry forest, the river valley, and orchid habitats.
Price purchased a piece of sloping, partly forested land in 2004 and began gardening in earnest in January 2005. He hasn’t stopped since.
Now, the garden is well on its way to becoming one of the most important, interesting, and beautiful in Mexico. It is a place for plants as well as a place that celebrates the richness of Mexican culture. Mexican crafts are on display and are for sale. Herbs, both culinary and medicinal, are also available. Significant moments in Mexican culture are celebrated, such as the Day of the Dead, an important time for Mexicans to reflect on their families and their ancestry. The weaving of biodiversity and cultural diversity creates a contemporary and vibrant story.
In December 2014, the Orchid Conservatory opened to the public. The rare and endangered Govenia jouyana is grown here, protected from the depredations of logging. Mexican vanilla (Vanilla planifolia), itself an orchid, is beginning to climb to the roof. Its soft yellow, tubular flowers will turn to dark brown vanilla bean pods. Only two of the 100 Vanilla species produce commercial vanilla, and they both grow in the conservatory. Another offers a second culinary scent: honey. A small orchid, just 12 inches (30.5 cm) high, Prosthechea fragrans has flowers so sweet-smelling their fragrance fills the large, cathedral-like space.
The newly discovered Magnolia vallartensis is already protected—a triumph of botanical exploration and plant conservation—and is on display here too with its other rare friends. To add texture to the displays, the spiny dwarf palm (Cryosophila nana) is dotted throughout the exhibit space. Overall, the conservatory is light and spacious, a palace of plants topped proudly with the Mexican flag.
The Dick and Dee Daneri Vireya Rhododendron House is a shade pavilion for vireya rhododendrons, species native to the Malay Peninsula, New Guinea, and Papua New Guinea—a gift to the garden from benefactors from the United States. It may seem incongruous that rhododendrons are grown here at all, but they are thriving and add an additional exotic. They are welcome because they are also highly endangered in the wild.
Wandering is encouraged and rewarded here. Side paths lead to a forest of large jaguey blanco trees (Ficus trigonata) dripping with orchids and ferns. The air plant (Tillandsia jalisco-monticola), an endemic bromeliad and a symbol of the garden, is plentiful as well.
Another path, edged with gumbo limbos (Bursera simaruba), tall trees with cinnamon-colored, papery bark—also referred to as the “tourist tree” for its peeling red skin—leads down to a small beach and a swimming hole on the Rio Horcones. The river bottom is bright with skipper butterflies and raucous with the sound of the San Blas jay, a blue-and-black member of the crow family.
The Hacienda de Oro, architecturally reminiscent of an eighteenth-century plantation house, is the busy hub of the garden. The two-story building with open, shaded verandahs contains a large restaurant, gift shop, meeting space, and offices. It feels convivial, more like a large home ready for a party than a business.
Perhaps this is because of the sofas and comfy chairs that are scattered throughout the building, the colorful cut-out paper flags that hang from the ceiling, and the glass hearts decorating the glassless windows. It is a place to sit and take in the view of the river and the mountains, and enjoy the hummingbirds and the Inca doves looking for crumbs.
Vines are favored here. Arguably the most beautiful is the jade vine (Strongylodon macrobotrys). Its competitor for the title may be the blue trumpet vine (Thunbergia laurifolia), with its pale blue, trumpet-shaped flowers. It, too, can grow long and large. In these conditions, it covers much of one building.
The central courtyard offers another place to sit, relax, and watch the bustle of birds, insects, and humans as they flit about the garden. An ornamental pool clad in Mexican tile is filled with serene blue and white tropical water lilies.
This garden continues to be created piece by piece. Recent additions of an international peace garden and a cactus house continue to strengthen the social/land/botanical mission of the garden. With Puerto Vallarta experiencing greater numbers of tourists as well as a burgeoning expat population, the garden will become a major destination, gathering momentum. It has a bright future.
Vallarta Botanical Garden, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
19 acres (7.7 hectares)
This is an excerpt from Gardenlust by Christopher Woods, available from all good book shops.