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NYTimes
New York Times
25 Mar 2023


NextImg:‘Merchant of Landscapes’: The Lasting Footprint of a Japanese Gardener in Mexico

The Mexican president wanted cherry trees.

It was 1930, and President Pascual Ortiz Rubio had seen them lining the streets of Washington and desired the same beautiful spectacle for his country’s capital.

To try to fulfill the leader’s request, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs tapped Tatsugoro Matsumoto, a Japanese immigrant who tended the gardens of Chapultepec, then the presidential residence in Mexico City. But winters in the capital were not cold enough for the cherries to fully blossom, the expert gardener said. The president wouldn’t get his hanami, the flower-contemplation ritual the Japanese celebrate every spring.

At least not a pink one.

If cherries were not suitable for the Mexican capital, another tree with colorful flowers might do the trick: jacarandas.

ImageJacaranda trees with colorful purple flowers in a park in Mexico City surrounded by buildings.
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Mr. Matsumoto had already advised another president to plant jacarandas 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 Hernández, a researcher at the National Institute of Anthropology and History.

History has blurred some details of the president’s request and its execution, but today the jacarandas stand tall among the city’s greenery, a lush canopy heralding spring’s arrival.

For nearly 100 years, Mexico City residents have enjoyed jacaranda season: a “fascinating sorcery” that brings a little bit of the Amazon rainforest to urbanites’ doorstep, as Alberto Ruy Sánchez wrote in his 2019 book “Dicen las Jacarandas.” And when the flowers fall, “the sky blooms on the ground,” an unexpected burst of color at one’s feet.

Each spring, millions of people stroll around the country’s capital under an explosion of purple flowers. Each spring, the colorful fronds signal that it’s time to enjoy the warm season and walk on a fine rug of lavender petals. Come out and play, the jacarandas whisper with an inflection that’s both foreign and familiar.

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“I was told this tree always creates hope,” said Alma Basilio, a psychologist posing for a selfie with a friend under the blossoms “The jacaranda is kindness.”

Jacarandas are actually not native to Mexico: The name comes from Guaraní, an Indigenous language spoken mainly in Paraguay and the tree has its origin in the Amazon.

They are deciduous trees, meaning they lose their foliage every year when the weather turns cold enough. And when temperatures rise, their bare, tortuous branches fill with bunches of blooms.

“Boom! Immediately, not progressively, the whole tree is full of flowers,” said José Luis López Robledo, an arborist who runs a nursery garden near Mexico City.

The flowers grow in bunches and bear an attractive purple-blue color because of anthocyanins, a pigment also found in dahlias, berries, black beans and sweet potatoes. In 2021, when most of the planet was focused on pandemic survival, jacaranda was named a trend color by a Mexican forecast company.

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“The color jacaranda is an omen for a rebirth,” the agency, Trendo.mx said, describing the hue as between amethyst and mauve, 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 in Latin America came either as indentured servants or with contracts to supply cheap labor to plantations, mines and railroads.

Mr. Matsumoto’s Mexican immigration card says he arrived in 1896, and listed “gardener” as his occupation. But in Japan, he was in fact a trained landscape architect who had served the imperial palace, Mr. Hernández explained.

Mr. Matsumoto made his way to the Americas in 1888 at the behest of a Peruvian entrepreneur who wanted a Japanese garden, the first in South America, on his property.

“From his faraway native land, the artist brought by ship beautiful plants,” reads a Peruvian volume about the residence where the garden was built. Shortly after seeing his work in Lima, a Mexican mining businessman hired him to create something for his hacienda.

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Mr. Matsumoto would eventually become a wealthy entrepreneur who served several Mexican presidents: from the French-loving Porfirio Díaz to the revolutionary Álvaro Obregón and the nationalist Lázaro Cárdenas. With his flower shop, which he opened in 1898, Mr. Matsumoto introduced ornate floral arrangements to high society and created bouquets for stars of the golden era of Mexican film.

In recent years, Mr. Matsumoto’s talents with flora have made him something of a local pop icon, a quiet hero. But Mr. Hernández, who has documented extensively Mr. Matsumoto’s trajectory, points out he was much more than that.

He didn’t introduce the jacarandas to Mexico — some may have already been growing in the wild — as much as domesticate them. He didn’t just suggest a more appropriate tree for the weather in the Mexican capital: He outfitted its streets with an aesthetic vision that resurfaces every spring.

“Matsumoto was a merchant of landscapes,” said Mr. Hernández.

In a city of old trees and crooked sidewalks, jacarandas are good tenants: Their roots tend to grow downward — instead of to the sides — and leave the urban infrastructure almost untouched. But because they grow tall (they can reach up to 80 feet), they can be a nemesis of electric wires and a target of the tree trimmers of the utility company.

In recent years, jacarandas have also drawn detractors: “Controversy Blooms Over Jacarandas,” read an article this month that quoted specialists warning exotic species might create imbalance in the local ecosystems.

“They’re too hyped,” said Francisco Arjona, 34, an environmental engineer who leads tours of trees around Mexico City. He can list parks, intersections and parking spaces where one can admire the spectacle, but he also reminds visitors that they are also home to many other beautiful native trees.

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By the 1940s, as the first generation of jacarandas were perhaps a bit over 30 feet high, Mr. Matsumoto and his son, Sanshiro, had become advocates for their community. When Mexico ordered all Japanese in the country to relocate to Mexico City and Guadalajara because of World War II, the Matsumotos interceded with the government and lodged 900 of their displaced compatriots in one of their many sprawling haciendas.

Jesús Roldán, 38, a mountain climber, was sitting below the crooked branches of a blooming jacaranda outside the Palace of Fine Arts, one of the most tagged trees on Instagram.

“They seem really complex to me, from their stature to their color, its arms and structure are very difficult to understand,” he said. “I think they’re not comfortable, perhaps they’d be better elsewhere.”

Matsumoto Flowershop, on the northern edge of a trendy street in the Roma Norte neighborhood sits now mostly vacant, its expansive front outfitted with a handful of withering plastic flowers, an old sign and a lonely desk. Mexico City’s urban landscape is continually changing: new buildings rise every day, hundreds of palm trees are dying to an unforgiving plague, water-conscious gardeners look for plants that will last through a drought. Winters are becoming shorter and hotter.

However, “if something will survive, it’ll be the jacarandas,” said Mr. López Robledo.

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