Moseying: Living La Vida Llanero
Spanish introductions to horticulture of the Southwest
April 27, 2005
William Dunmire, former superintendent of the Guadalupe National Park, recently published a book entitled Gardens of New Spain. In the book he discusses the many species of plants that are utilized in our gardens here in Midland that were first introduced to the Americas by Spanish settlers. His other books have been studies of the plants used by the native Americans and early Spanish settlers of Northern New Mexico.
I ordered the book, and armed with knowledge gleaned from it, my wife Deborah and I took a daytrip around town. Deborah and I go cruising in town at least once a month to view our fellow Midlanders gardens, anyway, so this added a new twist to our fun. Talk about an eye-opening experience the information made us see our town from a new perspective!
Behind the yellow house at the Scharborough-Linebery House grew pomegranates. Mentioned in the Bible, and utilized by cultures on both sides of the Mediterranean, Spanish settlers in the New World found that pomegranates thrive in the drought and heat of what is now Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
Around the corner and down the street, we found a Rue plant in a front yard. Long used by Hispanic curanderos in herbal medicine for female problems, it is another plant that can be found in gardens in every town of the region. (It is also a food plant for one of the swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, so gardeners wanting to attract flutterbys have taken to planting it.) Spanish settlers also brought many medicinal and culinary herbs besides rue borage, chives, coriander, lavender, oregano, rosemary, anise, castor bean, caraway, and others. We saw all but the borage, coriander, anise, and caraway as I drove.
What does pomegranate have in common with spinach, celery, carrot, eggplant, apricot, watermelon, dill, licorice, and mulberry? The Moors that invaded the country in 711 A.D introduced all these familiar taste sensations to Spain. The Arabic peoples had been introduced to them by traders from the Far East (China) long before, as well as farmers from south of the Sahara desert.
Arabic gardens are designed with courtyard spaces and garden water features, protected from hot desert winds and the sun. Much of Spain is dry and hot, so Spanish horticulture became strongly influenced by the long-tested methods of the Arabs. When the Spanish came to the New World their form of horticulture merged with that of the Aztecs who had their own sophisticated and verdant gardens. The familiar Marigold began its career as an ornamental plant in the Aztec gardens. Russell Johnson of Alldredge Gardens told me that garden ornamentation is a fast increasing part of their inventory mix, and the most popular are of Spanish style.
Northern New Mexico was the first place that Europeans colonized in what is now the United States a decade before the English settlement of Jamestown and twenty years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth. Juan de Onate stopped at what is now the San Juan Pueblo near Espanola in 1598. Where the Rio Grande meets the Rio Chama, Pueblo farmers had long farmed corn, beans, squash, and melons. The Puebloans volunteered to vacate their pueblo so the settlers would have a place to live. Amazingly, the Puebloans were already growing watermelons, transported to the region from Mexico by Indian trade networks hundreds of years old.
Onate also brought peaches, apples, chili peppers, lettuce, cabbage, cucumber, wheat, garlic, beets, oats, quince, grapes, radish, turnip, and much more, along with the plants mentioned above. Within thirty years forty six Franciscan missionaries supervised twenty-five missions in the area. As we drove around town we spotted peach and apricot trees, grape vines, and garlic plants in many gardens in Midland and even a few quince bushes.
At each mission the Franciscans taught the Puebloans European methods of agriiculture. The friars also established cloister floral gardens, important in their routines for times of meditation. Stone paths, benches, fountains, wrought iron fencing and balustrades (another Moorish influence) were also part of the mission garden design style. Restaurants featuring Mexican food often are landscaped in the style, as well as many homes in Midland. Dahlias, roses, carnations, amaryllis, lilies, and zinnias could be found there.
As I cruised the streets of Midland, we saw other ornamental plants that also came with Spanish settlers. Oleander, bird of paradise, and turks cap, were growing in the region before American independence from England. I had always thought that Turks cap, which hummingbirds love, was a native plant but no, it is from Mexico! It has gone native in east Texas woodlands as far west as Austin.
Horticulture is one of the best ways to learn about human cultures and their history. Everybody eats, and everybody likes pretty flowers in their yard. Every ornamental and food plant, with a little bit of research, will reveal a fascinating story of its domestication. When a person grows any of the plants in the lists above, they connect to this wonderful cultural heritage.
Modern day Llaneros (citizens of the Llano Estacado) reap the benefits of Spanish horticulture and agriculture with almost every meal. Our regional horticulture is deeply enriched by Spanish influences. It is high time that influence is honored in our educational system and popular media. Salud, companeros!