Vanessa: Where to start… well I worked in a few different organic gardens in Mexico and Argentina after graduating from Northeastern University in Boston. My favorite place was an intentional community/ eco-village called Teopantli Kalpulli in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. The Kalpulli community is involved in sustainable projects to involve people from outside in learning about gardening, horticulture, art and culture. Each member produces different goods and services- one woman makes cheese, another family makes whole grain breads and pies, the community garden has seasonal fruits and vegetables, and there is a green architect that builds houses using local materials and solar energy. Right now I am taking classes at the New York Botanical Gardens to learn more about the connections between people and plants.
Vanessa: This is basil from the community garden in Kalpulli. They use the seed-pods and flowers of the basil plant to make pesto and medicinal teas. They get full use out of all of the plants they grow. When working in the garden, I collected the basil and extracted seeds from the tiny pods, a process that takes lots of patience and meticulousness to get each seed that can eventually become a new plant.
Vanessa: Probably not! These seeds are from a hearty, dark purple variety of basil. There were six different heirloom varieties of basil in the garden. I even got to harvest a lemon basil that had an incredible aroma and tasted delicious in tea and seasonings. I learned that plants like lemon basil sharing similar tastes and scents to other plants have many of the same essential oils that create their odors.
Vanessa: The yellow plant is fennel, which looks and tastes similar to anise or licorice. In Kalpulli, the people use it for stomach problems. Fennel has historically been a medicinal plant to prevent weight gain, treat menopausal symptoms, kidney stones and liver problems.
The white flower in my hand is gordolobo, a medicinal flower that people in Teopantli Kalpulli used as a remedy for respiratory issues, from the common cold to asthma. It grows naturally in abundance in the north of Mexico.
Vanessa: The green flower in the middle is the basil pod where the seeds come from. The white seed is squash from one of the oldest varieties in Mexico. Squash, along with corn, amaranth and beans are all staple crops that completed the indigenous Mexican diet.
Vanessa: This is a variety of oregano from the Kalpulli garden. Now it’s dried out, but when I first saw it, it looked like a cactus because the leaves were thick and filled with water. The oregano plant grows below a sage tree and next to a papaya plant. Oregano, like many other common seasonings has medicinal qualities as an anti-septic, antioxidant, and recent studies have shown its value in preventing cancer and heart disease.
Vanessa: Actually, rosemary can be planted using propagation- you can simply cut a piece of a rosemary shrub and transplant it in a pot with soil or in your garden. You don’t need seeds to grow it; you can use an existing plant to grow your own. It’s a nice plant to have growing at home and use as a spice in your cooking. I like to make rosemary potatoes with garlic.
Vanessa: This is a dark orange corn seed, one of the native corn varieties from Oaxaca, Mexico. With the genetic modification of corn, the biodiversity of crops like corn and other pollen producing plants is becoming endangered. While in an indigenous Mixe community in the mountains of Oaxaca, I harvested the seeds from the husks of corn that were dried and saved from the year before. I made tortillas using the traditional Nixtamal process with a local school teacher named Paula.
Vanessa: Spending a lot of time caring for the garden, I became interested in the living environment I was surrounded by. There were fascinating details, shapes and patterns in everything I saw, and it motivated me to use some of the plants in my art. I met a wonderful artist named Betty who noticed small cones that fell from the Eucalyptus tree in her back yard, and she began making necklaces out of the hard pods. One afternoon, I collected some plants and drew in my journal to create something different from anything I have done before. The plant I am pointing to is called “cola de caballo”- horse tail. It is used medicinally to purify the blood. The mini flowers are from the bugambilia tree, a plant that I grew up around when I spent summers in Mexico with my cousins in Valle de Bravo, Mexico.
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