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Paint the town purple

3 April 2018

We don’t exactly have four season in Mexico City, but if there is a “Spring”, it is when the jacarandas bloom in late March and early April.  We tend to think of them as the iconic tree of the capital, their omnipresence here is only about a century old, and due … not to some force of nature, but to an Japanese immigrant.

Sanshiro Matsumoto wasn’t looking to change the landscape of Mexico City when he arrived here in 1910. He was looking for his dad, Tatsugoro, who been hired to create a Japanese garden in Peru and was last heard of when he’d taken a job as a landscapper for the Mexican mining baron, José Landero y Coss in 1897.  Sanshiro had lost touch with his father, but figured that it wouldn’t be too difficult to track down a Japanese landscapper in Mexico.  He was right.  Dad, Tatsugoro Matsumoto, indeed had landed a plum landscapping contract.  But at the wrong time.  Don Porfirio Díaz had hired Tatsugoro to oversee the gardens at Chapultepec Castle, something not exactly one of Don Porfirio’s priorities in 1910. And, considering he was being driven out of the country, he wasn’t looking to augment the landscapping staff.  With the Revolution, Sanshiro and Tatsugoro were both out of work.

Down, but not out.  If mentioned at all, at the time of the Revolution, Mexico’s political elites were looking to Japan as a potential ally agains the Western powers (especially the United States).  The United States was deeply concerned over Japanese interest in establishing a naval coal station in Baja California, even before the Revolution.  Pancho Villa, who was virulently anti-Chinese, welcomed Japanese immigrants into his ranks, and famously, the Zimmerman Note of First World War infamy, suggested that the Germans would try to convince Japan to change sides (it was on the Allied side in that war) to benefit Mexico.

Outside politics, there had been something of a European craze for Japanes art and culture before World War, one that was a bit late in reaching Mexico, but in time to keep the Matsumotos employed, if only running a nursery and small garden store during the Revolution.  By 1920, with the Revolution more or less over, the nation looking to rebuild, and rapid population growth in the Capital, the Matsumotos were being approached by the resident of Chapultepec Castle once more.  Alvaro Obregón, having firmly taken control of the Revolution, was as anxious to make the capital the nation’s showcase “modern” city as was Don Porfirio.  If Mexico City was to be a 20th century city, it naturally would include that then faddish idea of middle class residential in-town suburbs. Like the recently annexed Roma district.

Washington, DC had had cherry trees since 1912, but the climate wasn’t quite right for them in Washington, or in Mexico City.  Jacaranda mimosifolia, native to Paraguay and Brazil, however, is absolutely perfect for this area.  It can withstand short frosts (and we get a few now and again), drought and flooding, is long lived, and can be propagated from cuttings.  So… while considered a pest in a few places where it has been introduced… since the 1920s, jacarandas have spread from Roma throughout Mexico City, throughout the country and even into the United States.

(Oh, and an infusion of the flowers is known to kill E. coli virus. The bark and roots are used to treat syphillis)

Sergio Hernández Galindo, “Tatsugoro Matsumoto and the Magic of Jacaranda Trees in Mexico” (Discover Nikkei, 6 May 2016).

​Josué Huerta, “La historia de los japoneses que nos trajeron los jacarandas a México” (México disconocido)

Jacaranda mimosifolia, Useful Tropical Plants Database

One Comment leave one →
  1. 4 April 2018 8:42 am

    BEAUTIFUL! They are blooming here, too, in Coatepec.

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