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UNAM Gardens
by Blanca Robleda


Mexico City - Mexico's geographic location and its topographical features has allowed a wide variety of plants and flowers to thrive. The botanical garden at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) is the showpiece of this diversity.


Aware of the nation's rich vegetation and flora, botanists at the Biology Institute of the strive to preserve living collections of native species from across the country.

The Botanical Garden is located in Mexico City's Pedregal in San Angel behind the Olympic Stadium. One of the garden's most appealing attractions is its setting among lava outcroppings, the uneven, volcanic ground resulting from the volcano Xitle's eruption some 2500 years ago. It is a haven some 2,320 meters above sea level, sheltered and isolated from Mexico City's busy streets and urban surroundings. The Pedregal features mild weather and ample showers in the summer season.

The collections of plants and flowers are divided into sections based on regions and the indigenous species found therein. There are detailed markers found throughout the garden with data such as scientific and common name, botanical family, where the species is found and its usages.

As nearly 70 percent of Mexico's territory is covered by arid and semi-arid vegetation -- where weather is highly variable and rain is scarce -- the garden boasts a marvelous collection of plants from arid zones, including a variety of yuccas and agaves. This particular section also includes the Helia Bravo Desert Garden -- Helia Bravo was one of the garden's founding members -- which features an exceptional collection of cactus species.

In the garden's "temperate zone", the arboretum stands out. This collection of living trees was created to display together samples from the temperate zones across the nation, found mostly in mountainous areas where pine trees and encinos prevail. The most important group of trees in this collection is precisely the pine tree family, characterized by their needle-like leaves. The timber is usually used to produce paper, wood products and charcoal. Also in the arboretum is a small collection of Liquidambar trees which grow in humid, cloud forests (i.e. Chiapas, Hidalgo and Oaxaca). As fall approaches, their usually light-green leaves change different shades of yellow and red. Firs, Mexican hawthorn trees and loquats are among the trees in the arboretum.

In the tropical areas of the country, vegetation is exuberant with an enormous variety of species. The Manuel Ruiz Oronoz Greenhouse was built at the garden to showcase a variety of plants from these areas. Both the warm temperatures and humidity prevailing in Mexico's far-flung jungles are recreated in the greenhouse. Visitors sometimes are treated to a small waterfall, when it is operational. Among the species here is the pochote with its conic thorns (its trunk provides wood commonly used in the construction industry). Also found here are samples of barbasco -- or "cabeza de negro" -- used in the production of steroids, as well as the fat pepper tree, cherished for its scented seeds used as seasoning in traditional medicine.

One section is devoted to plants traditionally used for ornamental purposes and another to medicinal plants, many of which are used in some traditional Mexican dishes. A pond marks the entrance to the ornamental and medicinal sections, which features the carob (an edible bush used to treat the cough), the hoja santa (used as a seasoning and in treating digestive complications), the lemon balm (used to treat nervousness), rosemary (used as a condiment and in treating hair-loss) and borage (an indigenous plant used to lower fever plus treat cough and rheumatism).

Another attractive feature of the garden is the series of tiles depicting the many different butterfly types that frequent the area at different times of the year. For instance, visitors discover that the Danaus plexippus -- better known as the Monarch butterfly -- flits through the Valley of Mexico from June through December and its familiar image is colorfully portrayed on the white tile. Most of the tiles refer to the butterflies by their scientific names exclusively, such as the Nymphalis antiopa -- an insect that boasts purple wings with a yellow stripe along the fringes -- that is found throughout Mexico and can be seen in the Valley of Mexico year-round. Then there is the so-called "cara de perro", or dog face, which migrates annually from the United States to Guatemala and abounds in Mexico during the summer rainy season.

Courses, workshops and presentations on various topics related to plants are held at the garden occasionally.


Visitors are welcome -- from 9 am to 4:30 pm -- all week, except for holidays and during University vacation times. There is no entrance fee. The nearest Metro station is Universidad, line #3.
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Blanca Robleda is a reporter based in Mexico City.



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