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Mexican flower close-up

Aztec pleasure gardens

Tenochtitlan was a garden city, and the Aztecs/Mexica, in Jacques Soustelle’s words ‘had a positive passion for flowers’. This may hardly be surprising given that 1 in 10 of all the 250,000 species of plants in the world are found in Mexico - and half of these are ‘endemic’ to the country (only to be found in Mexico). (Written/compiled by Ian Mursell/Mexicolore)

Pic 1: Ancient stone flowers may well have ornamented temples or the homes of nobles
Pic 1: Ancient stone flowers may well have ornamented temples or the homes of nobles (Click on image to enlarge)

Doris Heyden, a renowned expert who died in 2005, spells out in the opening to her classic book Mythology and Symbolism of Flora in Pre-Hispanic Mexico the importance of flowers in ancient Mexico, representing as they did life, death, gods, creation, humans, language, song and art, friendship, stateliness, warrior captives, war itself, sky, earth... and an important calendar sign. Flowers accompanied humans from conception and birth to death and burial: clearly the flower was ‘one of the basic elements in the art of pre-Hispanic language - like the quetzal feather and the jade bead, it was the essence of something “precious”’.

Pic 2: Moctezuma bears (and smells!) a bouquet of flowers in one hand, and a smoking tube in the other, Codex Vaticanus 3738 folio 60r
Pic 2: Moctezuma bears (and smells!) a bouquet of flowers in one hand, and a smoking tube in the other, Codex Vaticanus 3738 folio 60r (Click on image to enlarge)

Stone carved flower/plant/food symbols (Pic 1) were common decorative motifs on temples and palaces, and ambassadors carried bouquets of flowers as a symbol of mutual respect and admiration (Pic 2). Mexica poets constantly wrote of the unending search for beautiful, fragrant flowers and of delighting and crowning nobles with them.
One of the Florentine Codex scribes wrote:-
I offer flowers. I sow flower [seeds]. I plant flowers.... I pick different flowers... I seek flowers... I arrange flowers. I thread a flower. I string flowers. I make flowers. I form... round bouquets of flowers. I make a flower necklace, a flower garland, a paper of flowers, a bouquet, a flower shield, hand flowers. I thread them. I string them... I make a pendant of them... I offer flowers to one... I provide him a flower necklace. I place a garland on one... I cover him in flowers.

Pic 3: Men chase a butterfly in Tlalocan, earthly paradise, painting by Miguel Covarrubias of a Teotihuacan palace mural
Pic 3: Men chase a butterfly in Tlalocan, earthly paradise, painting by Miguel Covarrubias of a Teotihuacan palace mural (Click on image to enlarge)

As metaphors, flowers become both verb and adjective, filling Aztec time and space. Flowers were often used to evoke the power of gods to ‘paint [sacred books], to grant colour and life to those that have to inhabit the earth’. ‘Flower and song’ were, in the words of a celebrated poet azo tle nelli in tlalticpac - ‘perhaps the only true things on Earth’. One of many Aztec paradises - Tlalocan - consisted, in Soustelle’s words, of ‘an idealised vision of the eastern tropics, a green country of flowers and warm rain; it was a garden of repose and plenty, where the blessed lived for ever in peaceful happiness’ (Pic 3).

Pic 4: Aztec poetry was one big ‘hymn to flowers’, which ‘intoxicate’ by their loveliness and their scent...
Pic 4: Aztec poetry was one big ‘hymn to flowers’, which ‘intoxicate’ by their loveliness and their scent... (Click on image to enlarge)

When the Spanish reached Mexico, the Aztecs were cultivating double-flowering marigolds and dahlias, showing that by using scientific techniques, flower varieties were being developed by what Phil Clark calls a ‘horticulturally sophisticated people’. As well as flowers, fruits and vegetables, the Mexica were also familiar with some 3,000 medicinal herbs.

The ancient Mexicans, rich or poor, for millennia enjoyed and shared a love of gardens, growing flowers in courtyards and on roofs, as well as in the famous ‘places of fields of flowers’ (Xochimilco) on the outskirts of Tenochtitlan. Pioneering late 19th. century US archaeologist and plant-lover Zelia Nuttall deduced from a study of Classical Náhuatl terms for different types of gardens just how deep-rooted Aztec knowledge of horticulture was:-
’The name for garden in general was xochitla, literally flower place; a variant being xoxochitla, a place of many flowers. A walled garden was xochitepanyo. The pleasure garden of the ruling class was designated as xochitecpancalli, the palace of flowers. The humble garden of the Indian was and is a xochichinancalli, flower place enclosed by a fence made of cane or reeds.’

Pic 5: Chicomecóatl, goddess of maize and fertility alongside extensive chinampa ‘floating gardens’ - part of a mural by Diego Rivera, National Palace, Mexico City, 1945
Pic 5: Chicomecóatl, goddess of maize and fertility alongside extensive chinampa ‘floating gardens’ - part of a mural by Diego Rivera, National Palace, Mexico City, 1945 (Click on image to enlarge)

Creating and developing a garden was a well respected pastime for the Aztec/Mexica élite, highly organised with teams of professional gardeners - who linked their expert knowledge of plants to the sacred calendar - and made possible by the accumulated wealth of the Aztec state. Writing of one of the many palaces that so astounded the Spanish with its beauty, Susan Toby Evans explains some of the ‘nitty-gritty’ behind the scenes:-
Labour crews performing tribute obligations built the place, dug the ponds, plastered them, brought the stone and timbers and plants - all of this magnificence was paid for by the Aztec empire. And the design... reveals how Aztec [rulers] were kept in contact with affairs of state - canals brought canoes directly to the palaces... just as limousines and helicopters today ferry executive officers of business and government from one important meeting to another.
So highly developed and regulated was the art of gardening that strict laws preventing commoners from growing (or picking) certain flowers helped the nobility to display their rank and privileges in a direct (and colourful) way...

Pic 6: Aztec flower workers, Florentine Codex Book XI
Pic 6: Aztec flower workers, Florentine Codex Book XI (Click on image to enlarge)

Whilst the Spanish constantly only used one word - ‘rose’ - to describe any large, colourful flower, Mexica horticulturalists had already developed an entire scientific system for plant names, combining terms that referred to a plant’s key characteristics (appearance, colour, habitat, medicinal properties etc.) Phil Clark lists the following examples:-
• Aquatic - at(l)
• Medicinal - patli
• Herb - xihuitl
• Edible quilitl
• Shrub quatzin
• Tree quahuitl
• Spiny huiztli
• Flower-bearing xochitl
• Fruit-bearing:
- acid fruits xocotl
- sweet, fleshy fruits zapotla

Pic 7: Detail from the Historia Tolteca-Chicimeca, folio 35a
Pic 7: Detail from the Historia Tolteca-Chicimeca, folio 35a (Click on image to enlarge)

The Aztecs themselves clearly appreciated the mental and physical benefits that a flower garden brings:-
It freshen things. It germinates in all places; it becomes green. It makes things lovely in all places... It spreads constantly blossoming, extending its flowers. [The plants] are watered, sprinkled. It is a very good place, a reedy place, a desirable place, a constantly sought place, a coveted place, a joyous place. (Florentine Codex Book XI)

Pic 8: Detail from the Historia Tolteca-Chicimeca, folio 35b
Pic 8: Detail from the Historia Tolteca-Chicimeca, folio 35b (Click on image to enlarge)

It’s a sad fact today that not a single Aztec garden plan remains, and we’re left, ironically, with the - in some cases quite detailed - descriptions written by the Spanish conquerors before they ravaged what must have been a truly beautiful landscape. As Susan Toby Evans points out, many of the Spaniards came from the province of Extremadura, which had largely been deforested for centuries before, and for them to feast their eyes on Tenochtitlan, with its canals lined with huge green ahuehuetl trees and willows, lush gardens enveloping whitewashed palaces, and beyond these the intense blue of Lake Texcoco must have genuinely taken their breath away. Little wonder that Bernal Díaz del Castillo described Moctezuma I’s tropical garden at Huaxtepec as ‘the best that I have ever seen in all my life.’

Pic 9: The rain god Tlaloc, painting by Miguel Covarrubias from a mural in a building at Tetitla, Teotihuacan
Pic 9: The rain god Tlaloc, painting by Miguel Covarrubias from a mural in a building at Tetitla, Teotihuacan (Click on image to enlarge)

Moctezuma II kept three pleasure gardens - at his Tenochtitlan palace, as part of the cypress park and hanging gardens at Chapultepec, and at Iztapalapa. In his second letter to Charles V, in 1520, Cortés described the palace garden of Cuitlahuac (Moctezuma’s brother) at Iztapalapa in glowing terms:-

There are... very refreshing gardens with many trees and sweet-scented flowers, bathing places of fresh water, well constructed and having steps leading down to the bottom. [There was also] a large orchard near the house overlooked by a high terrace with many beautiful corridors and rooms. Within the orchard is a great square pool of fresh water, very well constructed, with sides of handsome masonry, around which runs a walk with a well-laid pavement of tiles, so wide that four persons can walk abreast on it, and 400 paces square, making in all 1,600 paces. On the other side of this promenade toward the wall of the garden are hedges of lattice work made of cane, behind which are all sorts of plantations of trees and aromatic herbs. The pool contains many fish and different kinds of waterfowl.

Pic 10: Flower as number 20, the last in the ‘wheel’ of calendar/day signs
Pic 10: Flower as number 20, the last in the ‘wheel’ of calendar/day signs (Click on image to enlarge)

Bernal Díaz was just as impressed, amazed to see that ‘great canoes were able to pass into the garden from the lake through an opening that had been made so that there was no need for their occupants to land. ... I say again that I stood looking at it and thought that never in the world would there be discovered other lands such as these... Of all these wonders that I then beheld today all is overthrown and lost, nothing left standing.’

Pic 11: The remains of the hilltop gardens at Tetzcotzinco
Pic 11: The remains of the hilltop gardens at Tetzcotzinco (Click on image to enlarge)

The hilltop gardens of the poet-king Netzahualcóyotl of Texcoco at Tetzcotzinco proved legendary, and were later to inspire the not-to-be-outdone Mexica ruler Moctezuma I to create the ‘botanical’ gardens at Huaxtepec. The native chronicler Ixtlilxochitl (himself descended from Netzahualcóyotl) gave a rich description of the former:-

These parks and gardens were adorned with rich and sumptuously ornamented alcazars (summerhouses) with their fountains, their irrigation channels, their canals, their lakes and their bathing-places and wonderful mazes, where he had had a great variety of flowers planted and trees of all kinds, foreign and brought from distant parts... and the water intended for the fountains, pools and channels for watering the flowers and trees in this park came from its spring: to bring it, it had been necessary to build strong, high, cemented walls of unbelievable size, going from one mountain to the other with an aqueduct on top which came out at the highest part of the park.

Pic 12: Map of the archaeological site of Tetzcotzinco hilltop
Pic 12: Map of the archaeological site of Tetzcotzinco hilltop (Click on image to enlarge)

The water gathered first in a reservoir beautified with historical bas-reliefs, and from there it flowed via two main canals (to north and south), running through the gardens and filling basins, where sculptured stelae were reflected in the surface. Coming out of one of these basins, the water ‘leapt and dashed itself to pieces on the rocks, falling into a garden planted with all the scented flowers of the Hot Lands, and in this garden it seemed to rain, so very violently was the water shattered upon these rocks. Beyond this garden there were the bathing-places, cut in the living rock... The whole of the rest of this park was planted, as I have said, with all kinds of trees and scented flowers, and there were all kinds of birds apart from those that the king had brought from various parts in cages: all these birds sang harmoniously and to such degree that one could not hear oneself speak...’

Pic 13: Xochiquetzal, goddess of fertility and vegetation, and patron of pleasure, love and flowers... Codex Magliabecchiano folio 62r
Pic 13: Xochiquetzal, goddess of fertility and vegetation, and patron of pleasure, love and flowers... Codex Magliabecchiano folio 62r (Click on image to enlarge)

Though rather quaint, this picture of the gardens at Tetzcotzinco is supported by the remains of the empty reservoirs, the aqueduct, the steps and the terraces. Susan Toby Evans has updated the description, and provided a useful graphic of the site (pic 12):-

The whole hill-sized sculptural and architectural masterpiece was transformed into a fountain by bringing a stream of water from a spring higher in the mountains to a point near the top of the hill by constructing a solid aqueduct nearly 8 km (nearly 5 miles) long, in places nearly 50 m (some 150 feet) high. The flow of water rushed down the hill in a set of ingenious channels, forming waterfalls and filling three rock-cut circular baths, watering gardens of exotic plants, and eventually feeding the terraced agricultural fields below.

Pic 14: Plate 69 from the Badianus Manuscript (‘An Aztec Herbal of 1552’), now in the Vatican Library
Pic 14: Plate 69 from the Badianus Manuscript (‘An Aztec Herbal of 1552’), now in the Vatican Library (Click on image to enlarge)

This was some act to follow, but beat it in 1467 Moctezuma I (and later his grandson Moctezuma II) did: he ordered the revamping of an ancient - but by then derelict - garden at Huaxtepec (now the resort of Oaxtepec, near Cuautla, in the modern state of Morelos), a warm, moist, fertile, sub-tropical spot for which the emperor could assemble a much wider range of cultivated plants, trees and herbs, many brought from distant corners of the empire, such as cacao, vanilla orchids and magnolia from the coastal tropics. Whenever the ruler claimed special (rare) plants in tribute, they were brought to the Aztec capital ‘in great quantities, with the earth still about the roots, wrapped in fine cloth’ - along with specialists in their upkeep - and were then ‘taken to Huaxtepec and planted around the springs’, according to the Spanish chronicler Diego Durán. The plantings were accompanied by ritual ceremonies that included bloodletting and the sacrifice of large numbers of quail to Xochiquetzal, the Mexica flower deity (Pic 13).

Pic 15: Model ‘chinampas’ (Aztec ‘floating gardens’ at Xochimilco), National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 15: Model ‘chinampas’ (Aztec ‘floating gardens’ at Xochimilco), National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

By the time the Spanish came on the scene, the gardens had spread over 7 miles in circumference and held some 2,000 species of herbs, shrubs and trees. Cortés claimed these were the ‘finest, pleasantest and largest’ gardens he had ever seen:-

A very pretty rivulet [stream] with high banks ran through it from one end to the other. For the distance of two shots from a crossbow there were arbors [shady spots] and refreshing gardens and an infinite number of different kinds of fruit trees; many herbs and sweet-scented flowers. It certainly filled one with admiration to see the grandeur and exquisite beauty of this entire orchard.

Pic 16: Stone flower representation of Xochiquetzal, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City
Pic 16: Stone flower representation of Xochiquetzal, National Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City (Click on image to enlarge)

All this was more than just an exotic display of conspicuous consumption: the medicinal plants grown at Huaxtepec were key to a huge trade in what today we might call ‘health products’ (follow the ‘Four Hundred Flowers’ link below to our Aztec Health section) - an Aztec industry whose importance was recognised by the Spanish: Huaxtepec was visited by the great natural historian Francisco Hernández, sent by the Spanish king to document the resources and to obtain valuable plants. Several great historians, including William Prescott and Francisco del Paso y Troncoso, have claimed that the Aztecs developed the world’s first botanical gardens or ‘places designed to display an encyclopedic array of plants’ (Toby Evans). It remains highly likely that Europe’s earliest botanical gardens, created in Italy in the 1540s, were inspired by the great Mexica pleasure gardens that blew the Spanish away with their beauty...

Pic 17: Marigolds - always at the heart of Day of the Dead festival decorations and displays (here at Coyoacán, Mexico City)
Pic 17: Marigolds - always at the heart of Day of the Dead festival decorations and displays (here at Coyoacán, Mexico City) (Click on image to enlarge)

Info sources/further reading:-
• Clark, Phil A Flower Lover’s Guide to Mexico, Minutiae Mexicana, Mexico City 1972
• Velasco Lozano, Ana María L. & Nagao, Debra ‘Mitología y Simbolismo de las Flores’, Las Flores en el México Prehispánico, Arqueología Mexicana, Vol. XIII, no. 78, March-April 2006
• Heyden, Doris Mitología y Simbolismo de la Flora en el México Prehispánico, UNAM, Mexico City 1983
• Toby Evans, Susan Ancient Mexico & Central America: Archaeology and Culture History, Thames & Hudson, London 2004
• Phillips, Charles & Jones, David M. The Everyday Life of the Aztec & Maya, Anness Publishing, London 2007
• Soustelle, Jacques Daily Life of the Aztecs, Stanford University Press, California 1961
• Sahagún, Bernardo de Florentine Codex, Books 8 & 11, translated by Arthur J.O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble, School of American Research and University of Utah, Santa Fe, New Mexico 1979
• León-Portilla, Miguel ‘Las Flores en la Poesía Náhuatl’, Las Flores en el México Prehispánico, Arqueología Mexicana, Vol. XIII, no. 78, March-April 2006
• Díaz del Castillo, Bernal The History of the Conquest of New Spain, edited by Davíd Carrasco, University of New Mexico Press, 2008

Picture sources:-
• Main picture and pix 4 & 17: photos by Iain Pearson/Mexicolore
• Pix 1, 15 & 16: photos by Ana Laura Landa/Mexicolore
• Pic 2: image from the Codex Vaticanus 3738 scanned from our copy of the ADEVA facimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1979
• Pix 3 & 9: scanned from our copy of Indian Art of Mexico and Central America by Miguel Covarrubias, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1957
• Pic 5: photo by Sean Sprague/Mexicolore
• Pic 6: image from the Florentine Codex (original in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence) scanned from our own copy of the Club Internacional del Libro 3-volume facsimile edition, Madrid, 1994
• Pix 7 & 8: personal source (public domain)
• Pic 10: illustration drawn specially for Mexicolore by Felipe Dávalos
• Pic 11: image from Wikipedia
• Pic 12: scanned from our copy of Ancient Mexico & Central America: Archaeology and Culture History by Susan Toby Evans, Thames & Hudson, London, 2004
• Pic 13: image from the Codex Magliabecchiano scanned from our own copy of the ADEVA facsimile edition, Graz, Austria, 1970
• Pic 14: image from the Codex Badianus scanned from our own copy of The Badianus Manuscript: An Aztec Herbal of 1552 translated by Emily Walcott Emmart, The John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1040

This article was uploaded to the Mexicolore website on Apr 04th 2010

emoticon When only the rich can grow certain flowers academics talk of ‘sumptuary laws’. What do you and I call it? ‘FLOWER POWER’...

‘Four Hundred Flowers’

History of Botanic(al) Gardens
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Mexicolore replies: Thanks to Jaazia and Raelynn for your queries. The honest truth is, we don’t know what flower this is! It was photographed in Coyoacán (a district of Mexico City) by an old associate of ours, Iain Pearson, in 1998. We’ve long since lost touch with Iain, but still have the small part of his (35mm colour slide) photo archive and scanned the image without having access to further details. We wish we could help you further!
THE ANSWER! Thanks to the generous help of Todd Gorman from the USA we can confirm that it’s a gazania, sometimes called the ‘treasure flower’. It’s actually a native of South Africa, but this one was definitely growing in Mexico! Todd points out that perhaps a more authentic flower to show would be a dahlia, though since they seem to grow today all over California as well as Mexico, we’re happy to leave things as they are... Many thanks, Todd! (December 2016)
Mexicolore replies: Apologies, Raelynn, for failing to see your question until a year later! Please see our reply to Jaazia, above.
Mexicolore replies: First we’re aiming to open a new section on Mexica (Aztec) writing and books...
Mexicolore replies: Thanks for this positive feedback, Giuseppe. The book you’re studying is known in English as ‘The Daily Life of the Aztecs’ by Jacques Soustelle and is definitely a classic.
Mexicolore replies: (Kate was a mature student of Garden Design at Sparsholt College, near Winchester, and asked us for help in preparing a presentation on pre-Columbian gardens - we’re glad to have been of some help...)