Musings » Mexican Plants for American Gardens
Houghton Mifflin 1932
Cecile Matschat, a professional horticulturist and scholar, lived in Mexico for several years in the 1930s. She used the time to write this very original book. Mrs Matschat travelled widely throughout the country and examined beautiful old gardens It was distressing to see so many of the structures from the colonial era crumbling badly. She even managed to see the faint relics of indigenous gardens from the period before Cortez crashed in.
Garden restoration was not a common cause in those days. In California, the missions were being restored, but in general a desire for historical accuracy and money to pay for it were not in great supply. Mrs Matschat was prescient in her concern.
The largest part of her effort went into tracing native plants in their habitats. In the mountains and valleys she saw such things as fuschsia plants ten feet tall, children playing with the poisonous bright red seeds of Erythrina, and trees with such fragrant flowers that one was enough to fill a whole house with perfume (Talauma).
Her book is divided into three major segments. The first part is a brief retelling of Mexican history and a description of the surviving estates. The second covers modern Mexican gardens and the use of flowers. The third details numerous native Mexican plants which either were already being grown in the United States or which were very desirable and should have been considered by North American gardeners.
Each example is accompanied by useful background information and the best method of growing it in the United States. The chapter on cacti is the longest in the book.
Mrs Matschat wrote in a lucid and pleasant style, discursive rather than scientific, but there was no mistaking her knowledge and skill. She drew attention to the fact that while North American gardens were filled with exotic plants from all over the world, Mexican plants were less well represented than they deserved.
In fact they were to be found far more commonly in England and Europe. This was quite a paradox, since the climates in Mexico and Europe are so wildly different. She was aware that the United States, even in the deep South, cannot compete with Mexico for sustained heat but she dispelled some misconceptions about the toughness of quite a few plants and their ability to withstand at least dry cold in many cases. Several genera, such as Opuntia, are actually widely distributed throughout North America and into Canada.
The historical sections are more than simply pious lip service. Mrs Matschat had read widely in the classical horticultural literature of Mexico and transmitted her profound admiration for this work.
Flowers were not just decoration for the Aztecs. They were important in their religion and even their social structure. Certain flowers were reserved for the upper classes. The ordinary person was not permitted to enjoy them. This is similar to the “sumptuary laws” of the Puritans, and other hierarchical regulations throughout history.
I have compared the plants she noted to a standard horticultural encyclopaedia, the AHS “A to Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants” (1996), just to see where things stand sixty seven years after the book was published.
Of the 384 species in this book, 124 could be identified as available and grown in the United States. In 151 cases, the precise species was not found but similar ones in the same genus were present. The genus used by Mrs Matschat in 1935 was absent from the AHS Encyclopedia in 62 cases. Two species were found to be duplicates of a species in modern nomenclature.
The remaining species were not present and no congeners were seen. There have been significant changes in nomenclature in time since she wrote and so this comparison is at best sketchy, but it does seem that her case was well made. Only about a third of the plants she found are actually in cultivation..
There is already a bewildering variety of plants for sale in nurserymen’s catalogues, so adding more plants from Mexico may not be not feasible. It is hard not be seduced by Mrs Matschat’s enthusiasm, but reality has to prevail.
Epilogue (December 2007)
Recently I read a brief memoir written by Mrs Matschat about her early years, “Seven Grass Huts”. Contrary to the impression I gained from her book about Mexico, Mrs Matschat was not a botanist or horticulturist but an artist with immense enthusiam and stamina who followed her enginer husband all around Central and South America as he undertook large surveys for American developers. She had an almost idyllic childhood in upstate New York, learning about the plants and animals in their small country town.
After her marriage she spent many years living in one of the “grass huts” of the title. Mrs Matschat is the more to be admired for the skilful way she prepared her book. It was also surprising to learn that she had written seven novels, including a mystery set in the Okefenokee Swamp. She died in 1976, aged 81.