Jonny Bruce, the current Christopher Lloyd scholar at Great Dixter in East Sussex, made the voyage to Orquidedeario Octavio in Oaxaca to see a collection of over 1200 species of Mexico’s native orchids
A solitary dog barking whilst a man of indecipherable age bends to collect plastic bottles discarded along the verge. This was my first sight as I walked the road to San Andres Huayapam, having being unceremoniously dumped by my taxi, among sunburnt hills in search of a garden. As the distant sound of rapid gun fire reached my ears, I was less than hopeful.
My spirits were further dampened as I surveyed the road block that had caused the taxi’s hasty retreat. A band of disgruntled bus drivers had parked their vehicles across the highway, though for what they were protesting was unclear. Their presence was unsettling but tales of enchanted woodlands dripping with unusual orchids spurred me into forward motion, trying to ignore the aggressive stares as I slipped past.
With just my camera, notebook and a few pesos for the return journey, I set out along this dusty road. I wondered how far I would get before encountering a car that could take me away from this barren landscape. After almost an hour of walking, inevitably just as I had convinced myself to make an about turn, I spotted a faded sign that simply read ‘la encantada‘ – ‘the enchanted’.
Following the track away from the road, I felt invigorated by my discovery but disturbed by the renewed and increasingly loud sound of automatic weapons. I was relieved when the next corner revealed the entrance to a paintball range though relief quickly turned to confusion as it seemed here ended the path. My mood darkened as I contemplated the sorry fate of what was reputedly the best collection of native orchids in Oaxaca. Yet, as I rued a wasted day, the first clue that I was not far from my destination appeared, in the form of four nut-brown Dachshunds yapping and tumbling playfully in the dust. The sight of these comical hounds, which I associate so closely with Dixter, brought a smile to my face as they led me to a suitably shaggy arch smothered in Bougainvillea, the true entrance to the Orquiedeario La Encantada.
Besides the strong recommendations I had very little idea of what to expect from this unusual garden. My first impression was the perceptible change in the quality of light. Whereas the sun on the road had been intensely bright, bleaching the already burnt palette of the surrounding hills, the light here was softened by abundant vegetation. Although still apparent, the sound of the paint shooters was similarly subdued by the gentle bubbling of a narrow stream and the whispering of bamboo.
Before I could explore the garden further I was confronted by the first person I had seen since the bus drivers I had left on the road to Huayapam. However, in contrast to their reproachful gaze, I was greeted by the broad, almost mischievous, smile of the garden’s creator Octavio Gabriel Suárez. With an energy and enthusiasm that belied his sixty-seven years he engaged me with rapid and, to my ill-educated ears, totally incomprehensible Spanish. Realising a guided tour would be of little benefit he thrust a copy of his latest book and a battered magnifying glass into my arms and encouraged me into the garden.
An Oaxacan born and bred, Octavio developed his love of plants as a child exploring the local hills of San Felipe del Agua where he grew up collecting wild orchids. Since establishing his Orquidedeario Octavio has amassed a collection of over 1200 species of native orchid, gaining it botanical garden status, among which he has encouraged other plants such as ferns and bromeliads. The extent of his collection has earnt the garden recognition as an important site for the conservation for many endangered species. Between 1998 and 2005 twenty-two known species of Mexican orchid became extinct and, in an increasingly changing climate, this affirms the importance of these collections’ role in the preservation of such environmentally sensitive species.
However, the garden itself is more than just a taxonomical arrangement of rare specimens. Trained as an architect, Octavio has a clear sense of design and he has created a multi-layered masterpiece full of mystery and hidden wonder. The majority of the plants are epiphytic and hang, in their hundreds, from stretches of barbed wire wrapped around the trunks of tall pine trees. The effect of these massed kokedama, even in the dry season, is magical. Due to the varying levels of the garden and its winding paths the hanging plants form semi-permeable sheets that allow glimpses of the plants through and beyond.
The orchids are carefully placed depending on their specific requirements which vary in regards to light and humidity. Despite January typically being the driest and coldest month of the year there were plenty of intricate blooms to ponder over, Octavio’s magnifying glass providing an even closer look. One flower that demanded such inspection was Epidendrum mamoratum, with its unusual scumbled plum streaks that could only be appreciated at close quarters. In contrast to this subtlety, sprays of pink Laelia sp. shone in the gloom as ferns and begonias tumbled down onto the paths.
There is a charm to this garden that is totally unpretentious, a relaxed sense of dilapidation seen in its rickety bridge, plastic pots and rusty barbed wire. Octavio also shows little concern for those plants beyond his collection. When approached about a particularly fetching Phlebodium he flashed a conspiratorial smile and admitted “I only know orchids.” In another garden these flaws might irritate but somehow the dreamlike atmosphere he has created allows one to lose oneself among the trees. This is a garden unlike any other. It is a celebration of one plant created by one man and I would encourage anyone to submit themselves to the enchantment of Octavio’s orchids.
[Source:- House& Garden]