One of the very top highlights about being an herbalist is learning about plant medicine and the diverse variation of plant species found in every country. The learning never ends, and since it is a learning which I am passionate about… “double bonus!!” When I travel I welcome the opportunity to visit local botanical gardens. There are ALWAYS more medicinal plants to discover and learn of their traditional application.
This particular journey took me to the lush Mayan jungle where I looked forward to visiting one of the largest botanical gardens in Mexico, Jardin Botanico, named after ethnobotanical researcher Alfredo Barrera Marin, a cultural expert in Mayan and Nahuatl history. Established in 1982 outside of Puerto Morelos, on the coast of Quintana Roo, in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico.
This 160 acre reserve contains kilometers of meandering trails, intermingled with mayan ruins; the lush jungle and mangroves are home to a vast selection of endangered plant species and is a conservation project intended to protect regional flora and conserve biodiversity in the Yucatan Peninsula. The plant collection was rumored to contain more than half of the plant species identified in the Yucatan Peninsula, both ornamental and medicinal. I was excited to visit the garden to see orchids, palms, ferns, and a huge selection of cactus and over 60 species of medicinal plants used in traditional Mayan herbal medicine. A herbalists dream! In fact many of the conserved plants, such as palm leaves were used for crafts, preservation of food and the roofs of houses. And many species are now endangered.
Jardin Botanico is one of the featured gardens of Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI). The BGCI provides recognition for all botanic gardens worldwide and is one of the largest plant conservation network in the world (featuring over 500 botanical gardens in over 100 countries), taking care to preserve and grow some of the world’s endangered plant species.The BGCI botanical gardens provide a collection of extensive plants from a local region, supplies seed banks and is a knowledge network focusing on aspects of plant conservation including education. Its mission is “To mobilise botanic gardens and engage partners in securing plant diversity for the well-being of people and the planet”.
So preparing to visit the Gardens early morning- before the heat became the focus of the day. I was awoken early in my tiny stone and clay mayan hut to the sound of a odd bird – clearly pretending to be a rooster (and did I mention that it was early?) – in short order other harmonies of various birds chirped in to welcome the new day and then finally a real rooster. It was still early – way before my alarm. The morning sun was now just starting to peak. Time to get up and begin the adventure.
There was a rumor that the botanical garden also holds a large animal population, including the only coastal troops of curious spider monkeys still left in the region, colorful birds, sunning iguanas and wild boars. As I love monkeys, I was hope-filled to spot some and inquired about their general location on the kilometers of meandering trails.
On the path I discovered a traditional mayan house- an example of traditional architecture and also archaeological Mayan ruins of an alter dating back to 1400 AD. Various sink holes are also visible, and scattered shells from sea life visible underneath…. and a special collection of Mayan Medicinal Plants. I am not certain if I visited off season- but I was disappointed by the lack of selection of flourishing plants in the medicinal garden.
As I neared the last third of the walk, my heart began to sink… there were still no monkeys. I was holding back my disappointment and kept my hears open. Rounding a corner I startled a shy wild boar, who ran for the exit … still no monkeys.
Another turn in the path and I discovered an amazing mushroom and I stopped to take some photos of this impressive fungi.
Once quiet I could hear some rustling in the far off distance… could it be a troop of monkeys? I wait, quiet, not moving…. strangely after a time, I begin to feel like I am being watched and I have a sense to look up above my head into the towering trees.
There is a monkey- quietly sitting in branches directly above my head -observing me. I bring out my camera and begin taking photographs – thrilled that my wish was granted.
The last section of the garden consists of the evergreen tropical forest reaching up to 25 meters in height. With a 130-foot suspension bridge (or wooden slat bridge), which climbed up to a scenic tower overlooking a panoramic view of one of the last preserved areas of mangrove in the region. Off in the distance impending construction and development can be seen.
So when I speak of jungles and mangroves… I need to emphasize, this is one area is of the LAST conserved forest areas between Cancun and Playa del Carmen. And this is also one of the last undisturbed ecosystems and homes to thousands of rare animal species (including black spiny-tailed iguanas, leopard frogs, and swamp crocodiles.
During my entire stay I read and hear of protests from locals over the large amount hectares of jungle which are being destroyed IN A DAY to make room for concrete developments of condos and tourist properties at the cost of the homes of rare animal ecosystems and plant biodiversity. Protesters make note to mention that no animals were re-located, instead they were simply a part of the bulldozed mix of destruction.
Over the past 40 years, the coastal state of Quintana Roo has lost nearly 55 percent of its mangroves to developers in real estate and tourism. The village of Puerto Morelos had 409 hotel beds in 2003; now it has over10,000. Referenced from Mother Jones. In 2016, Santiago Tello from the Riviera Maya News quotes local biologists and environmentalists observing the growing extent of deforestation in northern Quintana Roo, “We went from 3,429 hectares of mangrove to 1,569 hectares” in 1976 to 2013. Countless acres of mangrove forests on Mexico’s Caribbean Coast have been lost — to make way for tourism chain hotels.