February 2015

Tlaxcala and Aranjuez: Keystone Gardens of the Columbian Exchange


Enrique Lamadrid and Armando Lamadrid

The agricultural bounty of the Columbian Exchange was such a bonanza to people on both sides of the Atlantic that new plants and animals immediately began spreading from hand to hand to mouth along ancient and modern trade routes. Realizing the strategic importance of the exchange, the Spanish Empire did its best to understand and control the transmission. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, more than 50 expeditions were commissioned to collect plants and animals from an increasingly far-flung empire. A network of jardines de aclimatización, or gardens of acclimatization, were run by state and church to determine which new species might benefit agriculture and medicine. Because most of the Iberian Peninsula is semiarid, acequia technology played a key role in this epic story.


Many, many plants came through this system to the rest of Europe and, eventually, to Asia and Africa. For example, life-saving crops like the vitamin-rich tomato went to places like Italy, not directly from Mexico, its place of origin, but through Spain after acclimatization. Other history-changing crops like potatoes followed more informal lines of distribution. Ordinary Spanish sailors, who had been to the Andes and fallen in love with potatoes, took them to places with similar climates—the mountainous and moist valleys of Galicia—where they thrived. Ireland got them not from Perú but from Spain.


In New Spain, the alliance between the Spanish Crown and the city state of Tlaxcala was the key, not only to the defeat of the despotic Aztecs, in 1521, but to the care and husbandry of the Eurasian agricultural legacy. On their way to Tenochtitlán, the conquistadors of Hernán Cortés left their stores of seeds and cuttings in the hands of expert Tlaxcalan Indian horticulturalists. Beginning in the jollas, or fertile hollows, just west of the grand plaza of the city, crops were carefully tended and acclimatized to a variety of soils and moisture levels. Dry farming and irrigated farming were not the only methods. The chinampas, or raised-bed farms in wetland areas, also played a role. The new grains, vegetables and fruits were successfully adapted to cultivation in Mesoamerica, not only to the fertile valleys of the south but for the vast arid lands of the north.


In 1591, with a list of generous guarantees, or Capitulaciones, which included the right to use horses and arms, the right to found autonomous communities, and exemption from taxes and personal service, the Crown invited the Tlaxcalans to participate in the settlement of the north. In a kind of Tlaxcalan Diaspora, 400 young native families headed north from their homeland to co-found new, twin settlements all the way to Texas and New Mexico. The hybrid agriculture they took north supplied the Camino de la Plata, the militarized road that connected the great silver mines of the north, and the Caminos Reales, or royal roads. In New Mexico, the Tlaxcalans became the teachers and what we would today call the “extension agents” for the missions to the Pueblo Indians. They told them, “We are also people of the corn, but you are going to love the grains and fruits that we bring.”


On the other side of the Atlantic, Spanish ships dutifully unloaded stores of new seeds, cuttings and potted plants at the port cities of Cádiz and Sevilla, both of which maintained nearby acclimatization gardens. From there, they were sent out to a network of gardens in different Iberian climates for propagation and experimentation. Plant samples and seeds were often ruined by seawater on storm-tossed voyages, but horticulturalists developed expertise at reviving them. The most famous plant doctors were monks from the monasteries of Cataluña, who could work wonders. With experience, better watertight containers were designed, and potted plants survived in protective crates with slings, springs and adjustable ventilation. The Royal Navy maintained a more specialized garden near the smaller port of Málaga, where medicinal plants were tested. Sailors on long voyages were vulnerable to diseases and bad nutrition, and naval doctors were always searching out better strategies to maintain shipboard health.


The most spectacular and best-preserved jardín de aclimatización was developed at the Real Sitio, or royal site, of Aranjuez, a former royal hunting preserve not far south of Madrid in a wooded valley surrounded on all sides by semiarid mesas. The 5,000-acre area around the confluence of the Jarama and Tajo rivers features a variety of well-drained soils, supplied by an intricate network of acequias and artificial wetlands. The visionary Hapsburg king, Felipe II, built a summer residence there in the latter half of the 16th century, as well as the austere Escorial monastery north of Madrid, from which he administered the expanding empire. But Aranjuez was much more than a royal retreat. Felipe II had a keen interest in botany and deployed the best landscape architects, hydraulic engineers and horticulturalists in Europe. Their plans were systematically built over the subsequent four centuries.


At first, the baroque notion of the earthly paradise was the inspiration, but along the guidelines of ideal geometry and proportion. Reticular, radial and orthogonal layouts for fields, orchards and gardens blended harmoniously into newer populated areas. Aranjuez grew from retreat to pleasure palace and showcase of cultural achievement. The improvements of Bourbon monarch Fernando VII in the early 19th century reflected the esthetics and scientific developments of the Enlightenment, plus a continuous calendar of cultural activities. A navigable channel was cut between the two rivers where luxurious golden barges floated with receptions, concerts and plays. The beautifully planned towns supplied a larger labor force to operate the complex.


In the environs of the palace, every kind of formal garden was laid out to recall the four corners of the Holy Roman Empire, the Flemish, French, English, Italian and Arabic styles. Many miles of paths and avenues are still lined with trees from the global Spanish Empire like the Lebanese cedar, the Chinese tree of life, the Virginia tulip, the Louisiana dry ash, the Nive laurel, the Carolina poplar, the New England pine, the Jerusalem and Arcadia pine, the American acacia, the maple and plane tree from Canada.


But the experimental farms and gardens remained a part of the foundational vision and purpose. First, a complete inventory and study of native Iberian plants were commissioned to set a baseline from which to better understand all the exotic plants continuously coming in thereafter. The groves of native elms and poplars of Aranjuez were supplemented in the latter 16th century with trees from all over Spain, such as blackberry, ash, walnut, willows and almonds. The inventory of Eurasian fruit orchards still found there is encyclopedic, with more than 60 types of pear, 30 of apple, 11 plums, eight cherries, six apricots, two hawthorns, two loquats, 54 apricots and peaches, two figs, two pomegranates and only one type of blackberry tree.


Because vegetable gardens come and go, varying from year to year, it is the trees of Aranjuez that bear witness to the centuries of agricultural experimentation. There are thriving cinnamon trees from the Philippines as tall as anywhere in their native islands. There are groves of pecan trees from the upper Mississippi Valley. One specimen nicknamed “El Macho” towers almost 200 feet tall and is more than 350 years old. Scientists eventually noticed that American tree species that most loved the acequias and hot summer climate of Aranjuez were from humid regions of Florida, Louisiana and the Mississippi Valley.


The landscapes of Aranjuez are a harmonious blend of the cultivated and the built, of nature and culture in rational enlightened balance. Today, they form the only UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) Cultural Landscape in central Spain, a world heritage site that reminds us of the antiquity and hybridity of our acequia culture.


In the late summer of 2014, we drove south from Madrid across the arid mesas, and the highway dropped abruptly into the verdant valleys of the Jarama and Tajo. To our delight, the entire complex of groves, orchards and palaces was completely surrounded by cornfields!





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