Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Baroquely Junglesque: Buenos Aires Botanical Garden

The Buenos Aires Botanical Garden is very much a garden of the past, a garden of the Belle Epoque. When I first visited a little over a year ago, I felt some disappointment (it is rather frayed around the edges, but then Argentina's economy is a troubled one). In retrospect, I found much of interest for an afternoon stroll, a reverie of a perhaps fictional past splendor, and one very interesting plant called Ombu.

The entrance, echos of the jungle, impressive trees, a planting with impatiens ... not exactly cutting edge garden design ... but a pleasant scene, and there's much to be said for sensuous appeal which is, after all, the starting point for appreciation of most gardens ...

As I understand it, Buenos Aires is actually part of the pampas. Very few trees are native to this part of Argentina. What we see here is not native to the area. But the garden has a formidable charm even in its decrepitude.

The main building, occupied for a time by Carlos Thays, the designer of the garden, and of most of the parks in the city ... Note the red of the brick is outdone by the brighter orange-red of the dirt paths, typical of most of Buenos Aires' public gardens and parks.

Below one of several notable sculptures in the garden. I don't know its name but it's clearly illustrative of the European, and most notably French, influence on Buenos Aires.

A copy of a noted work, Los primeros Fríos by the Catalan sculptor Blay y Fabregas. I know nothing more of it. Certainly a moving work, but appropriate to this garden? Probably not, though I am glad to have seen it here, or anywhere.

This huge tree was the highlight of my visit. Its name is Phytolacca dioica. You may notice the similarity to the botanical name for Pokeweed, Phytolacca americana. This, in fact, is not a tree. As an Argentinian friend told me, "It's a giant herb." Herb, yes, a 60- or 80-foot-tall herb.

When I saw the fruit, I knew immediately it had to be related to our North American Pokeweed; the similarity is immediately apparent.

Known locally as Ombu, this is the "tree" of the pampas. It survives in that treeless region because it's poisonous like its American relative, thus is not grazed by animals, and its massive water storage capacity protects it from fire.

Another fascinating plant was this Ficus luschnathiana.

This patinated bronze Saturnalia, depicting the ancient Roman festival, by Ernesto Biondi was a special delight. It was installed in 1963.



Something of the wierdness of this sculpture seems quite appropriate to this baroquely junglesque setting with paths of deep red dirt so characteristic of Buenos Aires--sort of a crazy Martian landscape of oddities and beauty tarnished by time and neglect.


  1. What a great garden! I'd love to go there someday.

  2. It's certainly a pleasant place to spend a couple of hours and I believe it reveals a lot about Buenos Aires if you indulge your fantasy a little.

  3. aloha what a beautiful garden and the stories that you tell us...i would love to visit this someday, your photos tell us alot about this beautiful place.

    btw, if you would like to link your post, to the hot meme, please join us :)

  4. When I went to Kew, I was shocked to find our Pokeweed in a flower border, with a lable even. After that, and now that I know it has a giant cousin, I'll give it more respect.

  5. Thanks for your visit, noel. What is "the hot meme?

  6. Les,
    Isn't is weird that the British see Pokeweed as an ornamental. When I learned that, I began to see it differently. I've seen some specimens I'd be glad to have in the garden but it's totally uncontrollable in our climate, as you well know.

  7. Delightful stroll - my thanks, sir.

  8. nallasenyt,
    Have you moved to Seattle yet?

  9. Not yet. Our house has a contract on it but is contingent on the sale of the buyers' condo downtown. They are pre-approved and we are in a holding pattern. In the meanwhile we are doing some regional travel and enjoying ourselves. No idea when this may change, but ready to go!

  10. What a fab garden. Loved the atmosphere, the sculpture and the plants. How good to see another phtyolacca. I grow americana only. One of thosae cases where you know exactly what it is!
    Thanks for this post.

  11. Robert,
    The Saturnalia sculpture has an interesting history. It was supposed to be shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC in the early 20th century. After a short initial showing, the board canceled the contract. It seems the subject matter caused a scandal (American purity couldn't take the exposed breasts and licentious nature of the celebration, I suppose) and the piece was removed. Biondi tried to sue but lost.

  12. nallasenyt,
    Yes, I've been voyeuristicaly following some of your travels on facebook.

  13. Dear James, I loved to see our Botanical Garden in your blog! I felt a little bit homesick though... It represents very well where Argentina has been and where it is now.
    Have you noticed the cats? It was a place where people abandoned their pets (not neutered) where they have reproduced and reached the number of around 5000. The smell was terrible and turned the place into one you didnt want to be, with exeption of old retired people who went to feed them. Some years ago a big effort was done to rehome most of these cats (many people said they were just killed...), but you still get to see some around.
    Another story: a couple of years ago it was discovered that many people took the ashes of their loved ones, bribed the keeper and scatter the ashes in the garden.

  14. The Ombu is a very reperesentative plant of the Pampas. It is a giant herb indeed and a very very beautiful one. There is a very well known argentinean painter, Nicolas García Uriburu that paints it a lot.

  15. Amalia,
    What a pleasant surprise to hear from you. I had meant to do a post on the botanical garden long ago, but I was so lacking in knowledge of the plants I delayed. I had heard much of the cats before visiting, and I certainly did see several cats while there. Apparently many have been removed; I didn't notice a smell, and it was a very hot, humid day. Looking at the photos after a year reminded me how enchanting the garden remains, even though it isn't well kept now (I mean no criticism; you should see the poor state of repair of most New York City parks!). Where I grew up in Mississippi, Phytolacca americana was very common; it was everywhere. So to see Ombu, and learn it is a close relative of the plant I know so well was very exciting. You, in fact, are the "friend" I mentioned in the post who told me it is not a tree, but a giant herb. Thank you for giving me the name of Nicolas Garcia Uriburu. (What a beautiful name.) I'll look his work up on the internet.

  16. I'll forgive a garden some impatiens if it features amazing finds like the ombu. Its genus seems to be so polymorphic, like the genus Senecio, which houses species that range from lush to lunar.

    I enjoy the splendor of ruins, whether architectural or those of a garden, and the characters in the Saturnalia seem to be having an amazing time there too...

  17. Yes ... the impatiens. I had a sinking feeling when I entered to see impatiens. Looking on the positive side, I suppose impatiens is well suited to the heat and humidity of a Buenos Aires summer. But the Ombu was botanical fireworks. One on those "Eurika" moments, as was the Saturnalia. In memory, the garden becomes more dear and I feel more forgiving.

  18. Wonderful story, and about one of the places I really wan to see myself. South America - Brazil, Argentina, Chile to name just few countries - are high up on my list for places to visit, there are so many gardens to see. Loved the gnarly fig tree, such a living sculpture.

  19. Unfortunately, there don't seem to be many public gardens of note. Many private gardens I'm sure, but access isn't easy without some way of introduction. Oh, of course, Roberto Burle Marx's garden in Brazil. I'd certainly like to visit it.



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