‘Merchant of Landscapes’: The Lasting Footprint of a Japanese Gardener in Mexico
The President of Mexico wants cherry trees.
It was 1930, and Pascual President Ortiz Rubio had seen them line the streets of Washington and wished for the same beautiful spectacle for his nation’s capital.
To try to fulfill the leader’s request, the Japanese Foreign Ministry asked Tatsugoro Matsumoto, a Japanese immigrant, to take care of the gardens of Chapultepec, then the presidential palace in Mexico City. But winters in the capital aren’t cold enough for cherries to bloom, says horticulture expert. The president won’t get his hanami, the flower viewing ceremony the Japanese hold every spring.
At least not a pink one.
If cherries don’t suit the Mexican capital, another tree with colorful blooms can do it: purple phoenix.
Mr. Matsumoto advised another president to plant phoenix flowers in the city. But those were the post-revolutionary years when there were few government resources to spend on beautifying Mexico’s capital, according to Sergio Hernandeza researcher at the National Institute of Anthropology and History.
History has obscured some details of the president’s request and its implementation, but today the phoenix trees stand tall among the city’s greenery, their lush canopy heralding the arrival of spring.
For nearly 100 years, residents of Mexico City have enjoyed the purple phoenix flower season: a “fascinating magic” that brings a little bit of the Amazon rainforest to the doorsteps of urban dwellers, as Alberto Ruy Sánchez writes in his book his book “Dicen las Jacarandas” in 2019. And when the flowers fall, “the sky blooms on the earth”, an unexpected patch of color underfoot.
Every spring, millions of people stroll around the country’s capital under a burst of purple flowers. Every spring, colorful leaves signal that it’s time to enjoy the warm season and walk on the smooth carpet of lavender petals. Go out and play, phoenix flower whispers with a melody both unfamiliar and familiar.
Alma Basilio, a psychologist posing for a selfie with a friend under a canopy of flowers, said: ‘I’ve been told this plant always creates hope.
Jacarandas are actually not native to Mexico: The name comes from Guaraní, an indigenous language spoken mainly in Paraguay, and the tree is native to the Amazon.
They are deciduous trees, which means they shed their leaves every year when the weather is cold enough. And as the temperature rises, their bare, crooked branches will be filled with flower clusters.
“Boom! José Luis López Robledo, a grower who runs a nursery near Mexico City, said that immediately, not slowly, the entire tree was in full bloom.
The flowers are clustered and have an attractive purple-green color thanks to anthocyanins, a pigment also found in dahlias, berries, black beans and sweet potatoes. In 2021, when much of the planet is focused on pandemic survival, jacaranda is named a trend color by a Mexican forecasting company.
“The jacaranda color is a harbinger of rebirth,” said agency Trendo.mx, describing the color between amethyst and lilac, comparable to periwinkle.
The man responsible for the purple spring, Mr. Matsumoto, was one of the first Japanese immigrants to come to Latin America as a free man, at a time when most Asian immigrants were in Latin America came as contracted or contracted servants for cheap supplies. labor for plantations, mines, and railroads.
Mr. Matsumoto’s Mexican immigration card said he arrived in 1896 and listed his occupation as “gardener”. But in Japan, he is in fact a trained landscape architect who once served in the imperial palace, Hernández explained.
Mr. Matsumoto came to the Americas in 1888 at the behest of a Peruvian businessman who wanted a Japanese garden, the first in South America, on his property.
“From his distant homeland, the artist brought with him beautiful plants by ship,” a Peruvian volume writes about the mansion where the garden was built. Soon after seeing his work in Lima, a Mexican mining entrepreneur hired him to create something for his hacienda.
Mr. Matsumoto would eventually become a wealthy businessman who has served several Mexican presidents: from French patriot Porfirio Díaz to revolutionary Álvaro Obregón and nationalist Lázaro Cárdenas. With the flower shop he opened in 1898, Mr. Matsumoto introduced ornate flower arrangements to high society and created bouquets for the stars of the golden era of Mexican cinema.
In recent years, Mr. Matsumoto’s talent for flora has made him a local pop icon, an unsung hero. But Mr. Hernández, who has documented Mr. Matsumoto’s orbit extensively, points out that he is much more than that.
He did not introduce jacarandas to Mexico – some may have grown in the wild – nor domesticated them. Not only did he recommend a tree more appropriate for the weather in the Mexican capital: He also equips its streets with an aesthetic vision that re-emerges every spring.
Mr. Hernández said: “Matsumoto was a landscape dealer.
In a city of old trees and winding sidewalks, phoenixes are good tenants: Their roots tend to grow downwards — rather than to the sides — and barely affect the body. urban infrastructure. But because they grow tall (possibly up to 80 feet), they can be enemies of electrical wires and a target for utility company clippers.
In recent years, purple phoenix flowers have also been deprecated by many people: “Controversy blooms because of purple phoenix flowers,” read an article this month Experts have warned that exotic species could create an imbalance in the local ecosystem.
“They exaggerate,” said Francisco Arjona, 34, lead environmental engineer the tour of the tree around Mexico City. He can list parks, intersections and parking lots where one can admire the sight, but he also reminds visitors that they are also home to many other beautiful native trees.
In the 1940s, when the first generation of phoenixes was perhaps a little over 30 feet tall, Mr. Matsumoto and his son, Sanshiro, became advocates of their community. When Mexico ordered all Japanese in the country to move to Mexico City and Guadalajara because of World War II, the Matsumoto family intervened with the government and housed 900 of their displaced compatriots into one of the many wide haciendas their big.
Jesús Roldán, 38, a mountaineer, sits under the branches of a blooming jacaranda tree outside the Palace of Fine Arts, one of the most tagged trees on Instagram.
“To me, they seem really complicated, from their physique to their colour, their arms and their structure are all very confusing,” he said. “I think they’re uncomfortable, maybe they’ll be better elsewhere.”
The Matsumoto Flower Shop, on the northern edge of a trendy street in the Roma Norte neighborhood is now mostly empty, its spacious facade decorated with some withered plastic flowers, an old sign and a lonely table. Mexico City’s urban landscape is constantly changing: new buildings spring up every day, hundreds of the palm trees are dying from an unforgivable plague, water-conscious gardeners look for plants that can survive drought. Winters are getting shorter and hotter.
However, “if anything existed, it would be the purple phoenix,” said López Robledo.