The Development of a National Botanic Garden Strategy in Mexico

A.P. Vovides1, E. Linares2, Carmen C. Hernández2 & T. Balcázar2

1Jardín Botánico F.J. Clavijero, Instituto de Ecología, A.C., Apdo Postal 63, Xalapa, Veracruz, 91000 México;
2Jardín Botánico del Instituto de Biología, Universidad Autónoma de México, Apdo Postal 70614, 4510 México D.F.


Prior to 1983 botanic gardens in Mexico were working in isolation with little or no communication between them, nor was there any clear notion of how many functional botanic gardens existed in the country. Communication was limited to interested individuals through the normal national and international botanical congresses and symposia. Since the creation of the Mexican national botanic gardens network (Asociación Mexicana de Jardines Botánicos, A.C.) in 1983, a successful effort has been made to work towards communication and collaboration between the various botanic gardens in Mexico, covering the whole country. To date, there have been five national botanic garden meetings , where emphasis has been placed on living plant record systems, a national botanic gardens' directory, the problems of endangered species, CITES, the organisation of horticultural courses for botanic gardens personnel, and finally, the concept of national collections.

The maintenance of a comprehensive collection of Mexican plants in any one botanic garden in the country is a difficult, expensive and unnecessary task. With the creation of small regional botanic gardens over the last 15 years, it is now practicable to hold specialist collections of local floras, with emphasis on endangered species. The creation of comprehensive collections of a family, genus, or even a species complex that are of interest to personnel of a garden or institution that will give rise to the creation of national collections, is being encouraged by the Mexican Association of Botanic Gardens. This was the main topic of the fifth national botanic gardens meeting held at Xalapa in August, where over 50 delegates from 25 botanic gardens were present, including functionaries from Mexico's environmental protection authority (SEDESOL). The meeting provided an opportunity to discuss the potential collections, as well as a closer collaboration with the Mexican authorities and CITES on the illegal traffic problem. It is hoped that communication through the Association should make material and information on specialist collections available to researchers throughout Mexico and abroad.

Mexico's biological diversity

Mexico is fourth worldwide in biodiversity (Toledo 1988). Considering just vascular plants, there are estimated to be between 25 000 and 30 000 species in Mexico (Rzedowski 1978, 1993; Toledo l988); just in the state of Veracruz it is estimated that there are over 7000 species. In the UK by comparison, there are only 1700 species. In the continental USA and Canada there are 16 000 species, whilst in the Amazon basin there are estimated to be 20 000 species of vascular plants (Stace 1980). However, deforestation rates estimated for Mexico are in the order of 500 000 hectares per year (Toledo 1988).

The creation of regional botanic gardens

Concerned with environmental problems and the associated loss of biodiversity, the Mexican authorities created a number of research institutes during the mid-1970s in order to combat these problems and provide workable solutions. A few of these new institutes, as well as a number of faculties of established universities, began to establish small regional botanic gardens and, according to the Secretaria de Desarrollo Social (SEDESOL) (Martínez et al. 1992), 70% of contemporary gardens were founded during the period 19801990 (see Fig.1). Since the foundation of the Jardín Botánico Faustino Miranda in 1949 , 48 botanic gardens and associated collections have been established in Mexico, with apparently 43 of these functioning today. However this number is still insufficient to cover the great ecological and floristic variation in Mexico.

Fig 1 Foundation of botanic gardens in Mexico since the 1940s (from SEDESOL 1993)

To give a few examples of such gardens, we can mention the Jardín Botánico Francisco Javier Clavijero (JBC) of the former Instituto de Investigaciones sobre Recursos Bióticos, now under the administration of the Instituto de Ecología A.C. This garden follows the recommendations of the 1975 Kew Conservation Conference (Simmons et al. 1976), satisfying the need for regional botanic gardens in areas of high plant diversity, dedicated to the study, conservation and propagation of local flora with emphasis on endangered species (Vovides 1979). Another similar garden is that of the Centro de Investigaciones Cientificas de Yucatan (CICY) in the Yucatan peninsula. It is situated in tropical deciduous forest vegetation and its main objectives are education, research and the propagation of native cultivated and wild species. On the more humid side of the peninsula there is the Jardín Botánico Alfredo Barrera Marín which comprises approximately 60 hectares of rainforest; amongst its conservation activities there is a Mayan ethnographic display which includes a Mayan hut and a kaanche (elevated garden). This garden is administered by the Centro de Investigaciones de Quintana Roo (CIQRO).

In the northern arid states there are a number of gardens devoted to arid and semi-arid vegetation. In the state of Nuevo Leon there is the Jardín Botánico Hernández Xolocotzi, administered by the State University, which has produced a list of threatened and endangered cacti of north eastern Mexico (Alanis, in press). In the state of Coahuila there is the Jardín Botánico Gustavo Aguirre Benavides, also under the State University. Both gardens are devoted to the study, propagation and conservation of native species, especially cacti. Also dedicated to cacti and the vegetation of Queretaro is the Jardín Botánico Regional de Cadereyta, Querétaro.

A national botanic gardens network

Prior to 1983 all botanic gardens in Mexico were working in isolation, with little or no communication between them, nor was there a clear notion of how many functional botanic gardens existed in the country. Communication was limited to interested individuals through the normal national or international botany congresses and symposia. In October 1980, the JBC organized the first intensive 10day course on horticulture and botanic gardens management, aimed at university professors and personnel working in botanic gardens or wishing to begin one. This course became a yearly event and during the 1983 course, by a suggestion from Dr. Arturo GomezPompa and the enthusiasm of the students, the seed was sown for the creation of a national botanic gardens network, Asociación Mexicana de Jardines Botánicos, A.C. (AMJB).

Since its creation, a successful effort has been made working toward closer communication and collaboration between the various botanic gardens in Mexico covering the whole country. To date, there have been five national botanic gardens meetings, and Fig.2 shows the steadily increasing participation of botanic gardens at these meetings. The AMJB also publishes a regular bulletin.

Fig 2 Attendance of representatives of botanic gardens and other institutions at national meetings of the Asociación Mexicana de Jardines Botánicos

The first national botanic gardens congress took place in May 1985 in Mexico City, hosted by the Jardín Botánico of the Instituto de Biología at the National University of Mexico (UNAM), in collaboration with six other national and international institutions. The purpose of this congress was to examine the actual situation of botanic gardens in Mexico at the time, as well as to encourage projects for the formation of new botanic gardens by means of discussion and exchange of ideas between the participants. A special paper was given by Dr. Thomas S. Elias, Director of Rancho Santa Ana Botanical Garden, California, on regional, national and international activities related to the identification and protection of threatened and endangered plant species. A round-table meeting was organized during this event to discuss problems common to botanic gardens. Members from established gardens discussed common problems, and how to overcome them, with newcomers .

The second national botanic gardens congress took place in 1986 at Saltillo, Coahuila, at the Jardín Botánico Gustavo Aguirre Benavides of the Universidad Autónoma Agraria Antonio Narro, where representatives from 10 botanic gardens discussed the following congress objectives:

The third congress was organized at the JBC in 1988, when 13 papers from eight botanic gardens and two institutions were presented. During this event, the first national botanic gardens inventory was presented, listing 13 Mexican botanic gardens with their statistics and the top five plant families represented in their collections.

Fig 3 Distribution of botanic gardens and associated collections within the floristic provinces of Mexico (from SEDESOL 1993). Floristic provinces are numbered. The locations of gardens are show as dots.

The fourth congress took place at the UNAM Botanic Garden in 1991, where representatives from 18 gardens presented conferences and posters with emphasis on specialist collections such as cacti, agaves, pines, cycads and endangered species. A special lecture was given by Graham Pattison of the National Board for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens, Wisley, UK, on the national collections of England. A workshop was given with demonstrations on plant labelling using inexpensive readily-available materials such as boards and Dymo tape, polystyrene sheet, letter punches and aluminium sheet, amongst others. The more traditional methods were also demonstrated, such as laminated plastic, pantograph engraving machines and ceramics.

This congress was followed up by a regional congress at the University of San Luis Potosí where representatives from nine botanic gardens presented their different methods of making accessions and record keeping. Most were computerized, using one or more of the readily available commercial database programs. An introductory paper was given by the principal author on a general overview and on the importance of plant documentation and registration in botanic gardens, with emphasis on the International Transfer Format (ITF). It was recommended that this format be adopted for the interchange of data within both the national (AMJB) and international (BGCI) networks.

The fifth congress took place in August 1992 at the JBC to commemorate its 15th anniversary. Here 10 special papers were invited from eight selected national and international botanic gardens and institutions, including Prof. Vernon Heywood, Director of BGCI, Dr. Arturo GómezPompa, assessor to the President of Mexico and Dr. Exequiel Ezcurra, with two functionaries of the Environment Protection Agency of Mexico. The main objectives of this meeting were to place an emphasis on national collections, ones already in existence or in the making, in order to get some ideas circulating amongst the delegates on how to start national collections in Mexican botanic gardens. A special paper was given by Dr. E. Ezcurra on CITES and the official position of Mexico. Mexico ratified CITES last year and the talk was extremely useful to the delegates. Two round-table sessions were organized after the conferences, where 50 delegates representing 22 botanic gardens discussed:

Close collaboration between SEDESOL and botanic gardens has resulted in the production of a national botanic gardens directory, containing information on Mexican botanic gardens that have answered a questionnaire sent to them during 1991. The data on botanic gardens shown in the following figures is largely taken from this directory (Martínez et al., in press).

Distribution of botanic gardens within Mexico

Out of the 17 floristic provinces of Mexico recognized by Rzedowski (1978), seven do not have a botanic garden (Fig.3) and approximately 70% of the present gardens are located amongst the central plateau, the Yucatan peninsula and the southern sierras. This distribution is heterogeneous within 25 of the 32 states of Mexico, a few states having up to four gardens. The distribution of these gardens within the various vegetation types is also uneven (see Table 1), and three out of the eight major vegetation types, not including secondary vegetation, do not have a botanic garden.

The area covered by individual gardens is very variable, ranging from 0.1 to 60 ha, the great majority (72%) covering less than 5 ha. The roles that each garden plays are also variable: where some are active in education, dissemination, publicity, propagation, research (mostly taxonomic) and conservation in an efficient manner, others have serious problems of understaffing and funding. Four gardens are exclusively managed by students and volunteers, 20 gardens have a staff of only 1 to 5 persons and only one, the Jardín Botánico of the Instituto de Biología at the National University of Mexico (UNAM) in Mexico City has 35 personnel. This garden, founded in 1959, can be considered to be the major national botanic garden in Mexico as regards staff and infrastructure. Only 9% of the gardens have a herbarium and only 14 gardens have access to one. The majority of Mexican botanic gardens lack or have inadequate infrastructure such as nurseries, greenhouses, laboratories, libraries and auditoria necessary for their proper functioning. It appears from Martínez et al (in press) that only 15% of the gardens can be said to have adequate infrastructure.

Research, conservation and education activities

Regarding research conservation and educational activities, of the 26 out of the 43 functional gardens that provided information, 13 belong to universities, 6 to research institutes and 7 to federal, state and municipal authorities. About 40% of these claim to carry out activities that lie within the four basic functions of a modern botanic garden: dissemination, education, research and conservation. The remaining 60% do not totally cover these functions, with research and education generally omitted. The principal research carried out in Mexican botanic gardens is mainly taxonomic, with floristics rating the highest within this category, followed by propagation and ethnobotany (Fig.4.). There are many areas of research that could be taken up by botanic gardens in Mexico, such as plant anatomy, physiology, ecophysiology, cytology, biochemistry and plant biosystematics in general; however few gardens do this kind of research, owing to lack of trained staff and laboratories. Seven gardens reported no research activities at all.

Regarding species conservation, 9 institutes have specific projects on propagation involving 46 species of which 63% are cacti. Within the living collections there are approximately 235 threatened and endangered species listed in the official endangered and threatened plants list of Mexico (Diario Oficial 1951991) which represents 40% of the total. Another form of conservation in these botanic gardens is by maintaining areas with natural vegetation. In this way, these regional botanic gardens excel. Twelve gardens conserve between them areas of natural vegetation totalling approximately 317 ha. The majority of gardens conserve relatively small areas ranging between 0.04 and 8 ha.; only three gardens (UNAM, Jardín Botánico Helia Bravo Hollis, and CIQRO) cover between them 92.4% of the total area (293 ha).

Table 1. Number of botanic gardens distributed within natural vegetation and urban areas in Mexico (from SEDESOL 1993).

The number of registered species held at botanic gardens in Mexico is variable, ranging from less than 50 in three of the smaller gardens to 1242 at UNAM. A total estimate is that 2870 species amongst 1120 genera in 186 families are maintained in 22 botanic gardens, which is approximately 9% of the estimated number of vascular plant species of Mexico. The majority of gardens (73%) hold between 60 and 300 species and only 4 gardens hold over 400 species. Table 2 shows the plant families that have a major representation in Mexican botanic gardens (>20 spp/fam.); there are 228 species listed as threatened or endangered amongst these families. Mainly elements of local floras are maintained in 77% of Mexican botanic gardens and 23% claim that their collections are of national character. Regarding seed lists, only four gardens publish an index seminum, although the fact that others do not have a seed list does not necessarily mean that they do not exchange material. It is likely that understaffing and lack of funds prevents most gardens from publishing and administering such lists.

Regarding publicity and education we lack precise data, but the majority of the botanic gardens give some kind of guided tour to school groups. Others organize summer courses for children, and in particular, the UNAM Garden has a specialized staff dealing with educational matters, where courses for lay people and professionals are commonplace. The JBC, in spite of lack of staff, collaborates with the education authorities and SEDESOL, who lend three of their staff to organize 'environmental education' visits for school groups, as well as workshops for school teachers. The total number of visitors to Mexican botanic gardens varies between 100 000 to 200 000 per year.

Sister garden relationships

Though we do not have data for most gardens, a sister garden relationship, or twinning, has been in existence between the JBC and Fairchild Tropical Garden (FTG), Miami, Florida since 1990. Visits by researchers from both gardens has occurred, and a small grant for cycad research has been made through FTG to JBC. This kind of relationship can be useful, especially in staff training. Carlos Iglesias, coordinator of the JBC, had a three-week visit to FTG where he interacted with curators and garden staff on plant propagation, records and general botanic garden management. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the British Council have collaborated with both JBC and UNAM in the lending of experts to give courses.

Table 2. Plant families represented (over 20 species) in Mexican botanic gardens (from SEDESOL 1993).


The development of a nation botanic garden strategy in Mexico has, by and large, been successful over the past decade. The two basic requirements for such a strategy: the presence of a national network and the compilation of a national directory and inventory, have been achieved. However, from the data presented, it can be seen that there is still much to do. Lack of funding and trained personnel seem to be the main obstacles, and these can only be overcome by better support from national and international sources. More garden twinning should be arranged, where a sister garden in a developed country gives support to its counterpart in Mexico. This support can comprise staff training and exchange, literature and donation of material and funds. Botanic gardens have very important role to play by becoming the centres of research, propagating and cultivation of little-known wild plants, especially in the tropics.


The authors wish to thank the staff of the Mexican botanic gardens that have provided data for the directory being compiled by SEDESOL, and SEDESOL for their information and their enthusiastic participation during the national botanic garden meetings in Mexico. We thank CONACyT for the part-funding of the 5th national botanic gardens congress through project no. A12800E-920711 (ON-5) and A12800E-920722 (ON-7) which enabled the principal author to participate in this Congress.

Fig 4 Botanical research disciplines within Mexican botanic gardens (from SEDESOL 1993).


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