A Sensory Journey

by | Feb 15, 2020 | Native Plants

The first time I got a professional massage, the masseuse said she was going to take me on a “sensory journey.” She was referring to a series of essential oils to be held under my nose. Whichever I was most partial to would be my massage’s scent du jour. I went with bergamot (as a tea enthusiast, it probably had positive connotations as a key flavor in Earl Grey).

I recently went on a completely different sensory journey — a literal journey across geographic space, with way more information than just olfactory. I traveled to Mexico City, the second largest city in the Western Hemisphere after São Paulo, Brazil. A wonderful, vibrant place, it filled my senses with the inventive flavors of al pastor pizza and tacos filled with deep-fried shrimp and chopped-up chiles rellenos. A 16th-century colonial building covered in gorgeous blue tiles captivated my vision. And the cool, pleasant air of the city’s ideal climate touched my skin each evening while I watched locals walk their dogs along streets and through plazas.

For all these sensory delights, Mexico City is very urban; it’s easy to feel swamped by people. But amid the chaos of taxis vying for traffic lanes that don’t exist and the bustling, costumed crowds of Día de los Muertos lies a treasure, the Bosque de Chapultepec, a green oasis twice the size of New York City’s Central Park. And inside this 1,695-acre forest is a captivating jardín botánico.

Marking a bold contrast between metropolitan and boreal, the park’s entrance lies at the base of three shockingly massive buildings. In fact, many things — public art, streets, architecture, tortas — felt enorme in Ciudad de México (Texas has a challenger for the “everything’s bigger in” title). The substantial bosque (forest) itself includes a castillo (castle), several museums, five lakes, an amusement park, food and merchandise vendors galore, and much more. And in early November, it also included endless potted marigolds (Tagetes spp.), many species of which are native to Mexico; these plants are an important emblem of Day of the Dead, said to help guide spirits to their altars via color and scent — key floral senses to be sure.

Tucked along the southern edge of Avenida Paseo de la Reforma, the Jardín Botánico del Bosque de Chapultepec may seem like a singleleaf in a grand pile of foliage, but its outright inducement to slow down and experience the surroundings is special even amid such a noteworthy public space.

One of the first things visitors see upon entry is a grid of cinder-block planters filled with a variety of succulents. Mexico lays claim to more than 85 percent of the world’s Echeveria species, a large genus of rose-shaped succulents. These low-maintenance plants are undeniably charming, with their waxy leaves and cool tones from wintry blue-green and subtle purple to pale white; they stand out among forbs, trees and even their spinier brethren, cacti. And this garden celebrates them lavishly.

A path near the succulent spread leads through a woodland sprinkled with sense-focused activities, from a wall of textures to recumbent benches inviting guests to recline and peer up at the canopy of poplars (Populus spp.) and other trees. Couples take advantage of a spiraling pallet creation that hearkens to the Wildflower Center’s Fortlandia exhibition, finding nooks for cuddling or picnicking on top of the surprisingly tall wooden structure. The urge to play takes over and you can’t help but climb its lofty wooden steps.

The long, drooping flowers of various Brugmansia species bloom in apricot orange and pale pink. They attract the eye and the hand, their flowers almost asking to be raised and peered into; these enchanting plants are native to South America and related to Texas’ Datura wrightii (both are in the nightshade family and toxic if consumed).

Svelte swamp sedges (Cyperus spp.) adorn the wetland garden, growing along the edges and out of a flat-bottomed, wooden canoe just like the boats vendors sell flower crowns, pulque and various snacks from in the canals of Xochimilco. (Once historic urban farmland, these canals on Mexico City’s south side are now a place of leisure for locals and a popular tourist attraction.) The jardín also features the same small ball kelp that grows in the canals, and it once temporarily housed rescued axolotls, fascinating (and endangered) gilled salamanders that remain aquatic into adulthood and live only in the waters of Xochimilco.

Whether it’s the unexpected sight of various seed capsules, such as buckeyes or chiles, displayed in vertical, see-through cylinders near their mother plants, a “dagger tree” with mythological roots reaching to the center of the earth, or a stunning forest of horsetail (Equisetum hyemale) with sun shining through its scour-brush tips, Chapultepec’s Jardín Botánico is an invitation to take a multifaceted sensory journey, one very different from that offered by the surrounding city. It’s also a reminder that to experience new things is to appreciate them, and that to travel is to learn.

ABOVE Looking into and out of the Bosque de Chapultepec, a massive park sometimes referred to as Mexico City’s “lungs.” PHOTO Jimmie Buchanan Jr.