An old expat once told me during an asado that an Englishman comes to Buenos Aires for one of three reasons and three reasons alone; for work, for love or to run away from the law. However, if for some reason you don’t fall into one of these three criterion or indeed you are not lucky enough to be English, you may in fact be here because you are either an anthomaniac or an arborist or just simply someone who is rather keen on trees. The capital city is renowned for its wide variety of outstandingly beautiful greenery, ranging from the majestic ombu tree all the way to the comic palo borracho. BA has a deep rooted reputation for importing fantastic specimens not only from around South America but also from old world Europe. In this article I hope to highlight just a few of the cities many floral delights.
“The drunken stick.” This tree is indigenous to northern Argentina and gets its name from its distinct appearance. The trunk appears fat and swollen, like a large beer barrel, although I always think of fat drunken old men swaying on the side walk when I come across them. The tree has white, pink and red flowers that blossom during the summer (February-March) but one should watch out for the sharp protruding cones that come from the bark of younger specimens. Another thing to watch out for is the large dead flowers of the tree, which coat the streets in slippery banana like peels, a real danger to those who have been enjoying a fernet or two. Legend has it that the tree was actually once a woman, who after devoting her love to a soldier that died in battle, became a tree in the woods and the blood of her deceased lover spread through the flowers that were once her fingers.
The Jacaranda tree is perhaps the most beautiful and without a doubt the most recognizable tree (when in full blossom) in the capital. In spring (November) they give forth their highly distinct and mesmerizing deep purple flowers. Julio Carlos Thays (1849-1934) is the man we have to thank for the importing of this and several other wonderful specimens. As the Director of Parks and Walkways of Buenos Aires he designed several of the city’s most splendid parks and avenues. Plaza San Martin and the streets near the American embassy host some of the best examples of the Jacaranda. The trees, which are originally from the North West part of the country, are in their prime in November and are not hard to spot if you are lucky enough to be in BA at this time of year. When the flowers of this tree have died they fall to the floor and give the appearance of purple snow.
Whilst the Jacaranda is perhaps the city’s most obvious and vibrant tree, La Tipa is for many (including myself) the one most closely associated with Buenos Aires’s many leafy avenues. Before it produces its iconic yellow flowers the trunks and branches look dark, almost burnt. In the morning light they can sometimes give an almost ghost like appearance, towering high above the buildings.
When I first moved to the city in late September they were still bare and I would often find myself walking around the streets of Palermo with my neck craned skywards, staring at them like some sort of bewildered child in a zoo. La Tipa is considered by the porteno to be the sad tree and “weeps” in the spring, “el llanto de las tipas”. When in bloom (November-March), cool drips of liquid gently fall from the leaves of this tree. However, the substance that falls from the tree is neither water or sap as many think but is in fact the faeces of an insect called “la chicharrita de la espuma” (Cephisus siccifolius). These bugs eat the sap from the leaves and then pass it out into the air. Therefore, next time you see a gormless foreigner like myself staring up at La Tipa, take pity on them for they are in fact covering themselves not only in wonder but insect droppings also. (Note: it isn’t toxic just a bit grim)
More akin to a scene Lion King than downtown BA, these highly distinct trees can be seen throughout the parks and plazas of the city. Growing up to 60 ft high and producing a veritable maze of roots, these trees are perfect for the weary tourist and worker alike to sit, relax, hide from the glaring Latin sun and munch away on a choripan. Perhaps my favourite example of this tree is the one sat atop a hill in the middle of the Plaza Roma, amongst the towering sky scrapers of the financial district. Ironically enough the sap of this seemingly gentle giant is poisonous, making it immune to locusts and other pests. It is a symbol of both Uruguay and Argentina, and also of Gaucho culture.
The Gomero tree, less commonly known as Ficus Elastica, is another iconic specimen found throughout the city. Even if you are not a major tree enthusiast and cannot find the time to tear yourself away from the major city sites you will still undoubtedly come across this leafy beast. The Recoleta cemetery is usually pretty high up on any tourist agenda and if you take an official tour of the necropolis you will most certainly be led to BA’s most famous Gomero. ‘El Gran Gomero’ is what the natives have dubbed him and he really is indeed quite an impressive plant. There is an intense debate amongst Gomero historians about the origins of this tree and when it was planted. Some say it was planted in 1791 by Martín José Altolaguirre, a landowner in the area at the time, whilst others maintain that it was placed there in 1800 by the monks of Recoleta. Either way it’s rather antique and has a huge 50 metre crown of roots and branches to prove it.
This well-known tree can be found all over the world including Buenos Aires, most commonly known as the monkey puzzle tree, the Araucaria araucana occurs naturally only in the cordillera of Neuquén Province and at similar latitudes in Chile, where it favors the volcanic earth particular to that region. The tree was one of the many species brought to the city. One worldly traveller once compared them to a Dr Seuss creation, which to me seems like a highly apt description.
The female trees produce huge, head-size cones filled with up to two hundred pine nuts called piñones. It was worshiped as the daughter of the moon by the Mapuche people. Due to their reverence for the tree and believing the nuts to be dangerous the natives never ate the piñones. However, during a terrible famine their god Ngüenechén, saved them from starvation by teaching them the best way of to eat, prepare and store the nuts. Since this gastronomical salvation these nuts have been worshipped and scoffed in equal measure.
The Botanical Gardens
Besides individual trees the city is home to a huge range of parks and designated green spaces. One of the most notable of these urban paradises is the Botanical gardens in Palermo, situated next to the Plaza Italia. Home to more than 5000 species of plants the gardens really are a prime example of Thays influence on the green scene. Entrance is free and besides a few fellow plant enthusiasts, young lovers and school children in white lab coats, it tends to be very quiet and relaxing.
The plants are fairly well signed so you can get a clear idea of the extreme diversity of the flora, in terms of both genus and country of origin. There is also an abundance of wonderful sculpture and art installations, much of which is based on statues from classical antiquity. The Romans were of course famous for their pleasure gardens and the Botanical garden pays homage to this. There is even a huge greenhouse which was shipped over from Paris after the 1889 World’s Fair. All in all the gardens are a little slice of Europe tucked away in one of Latin Americas most bustling metropolises.