Returning the other day to El Charco del Ingenio, a botanical garden known for its native Mexican Sierra Madre plants, has reawakened my fascination with the semi-arid and yet, stunningly rich environment of San Miguel de Allende in the state of Guanajuato.

One of the first cacti I became familiar with was the prickly pear, or Nopal. Here it is donning its bright golden, often hot pink fruit called tuna. Wonderful salsas and jams are made from them and of course, this cactus is loaded not only with nutritional but medicinal properties as well. Another typical delicacy is the slightly unctuous nopal salad which is prepared with young, pale green "paddles" whose spines have been meticulously removed. (One often sees women in the market performing this task.)

Nopal with canyon background

Nopal with canyon background



I was never a desert person. Instead the ocean beckoned. While once in the southern Moroccan desert on a blistery day, the sands felt blinding to my eyes while my skin was quickly turning into parched paper. Beautiful to behold but not my favorite. But here I am now living in what is known as high desert.  Having been enthralled for just a few days by the Southwest and Big Bend National Park in Texas, I should have known I'd be "swept away" by El Charco and the Sierra Madre's surrounding landscape. I'll never forget my first visit here where it felt I was wandering through a lunar, surrealistic and almost intimidating landscape. And of course, I didn't know a thing about the plants' names or properties.

Indeed, visiting El Charco (or pool in Spanish) can at first be overwhelming. Its vast overflowing collection of native plants including cacti such as vertical organos ( organ pipes), prickly pears, known for their delicious nopals and loaded at this time of year with bright coral red fruit or tuna, along with rather unseemly twisted chorros from which cowboys sought protection by donning thick leather chaps, can make one feel a bit out of sorts, perhaps even unwelcome. Don’t touch me is the message. An important message to heed…

In my past few visits I have felt more comfortable and drawn to this garden’s stately, smooth silver blue sculptural agaves. Its collection of smaller and rather cute hairy cacti, artistically laid out in a pebbly growing medium, were also a source of fascination. And then there are the succulents… With my northern, Zone 5 eye, these fleshy, waxy echeverias or stonecrops with their miniscule, tangerine, fuschia and coral red flowers invariably invite me back to my Berkshire garden. Here below though we have the barrel cactus or silla de tu suegra (mother in law's seat) beginning to bloom.

Barrel Cactus barreling down the canyon   1st Prize Photography The New York Horticultural Society

Barrel Cactus barreling down the canyon

 1st Prize Photography
The New York Horticultural Society


This protected 67 hectare mountainous plateau overlooking a deep canyon and its small dam, protected since the early 1991, is more than a collection of plants, including rare ones on endangered plant lists. It is also more than the elegantly designed and well-thought out paths and esthetic niches of plants of varying textures. And, it is more than the impressive, solar energy powered greenhouse propagating plants and open to the public.

Rather, this site — visited in 2004 by the Dalai Lama and endowed with a Zone of Peace status— offers the best of two worlds: a tame, human environment rubbing elbows with an ancient, seemingly untouched one. I say "seemingly" because much damage was incurred over the centuries primarily due to overgrazing. Much restoration, including re-introduction of native plants has since been accomplished.

At El Charco del Ingenio, we are given the opportunity to wander about a more traditional botanical garden as well as be entranced by an extensive and varied wildscape. Here we are invited to wander quietly amidst mesquite and acacia trees, grasses and cacti while witnessing migrating birds and butterflies and feeling lucky this is but a few kilometers from the bustling Centro of San Miguel.

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