México’s contributions to the World : The Botanical Treasures of Mexico

This last Saturday (27/06/22) I was blessed with the opportunity of being able to present a talk on México at the Western Australian Museum. I was invited by the Friends of Mexico Society (FOMEX) to present one of a series of four talks on México. Cesar (the President of FOMEX in W.A.) presented the first talk on 10 Interesting Facts About Mexico and Ernesto (the leader of Ixtul – a Mexican folkloric dance troupe based in Perth) delivered a presentation on Mayan mathematics and Astronomy. The last talk will be presented on 30/10/22 by Eugenia and will cover Dia de Muertos.

Ixtul also performs traditional dances from various regions around México and this weekend they focussed on Vera Cruz and performed the dances of La Bruja, the Palomo y Paloma and the (original) La Bamba. Look for Ixtzul Mexican Folkloric Dance Troupe on Facebook and check these guys out. If you are local to the Perth area then give Ernesto a call as he is a passionate advocate of Mexican folkloric dance and would gladly welcome new students.

I considered the invitation to speak to be quite the honour. I have been a member of FOMEX for 15 years and my relationship started with them when, as the sole parent of a young child, I took my 7 year old daughter to a pinata making workshop put on by them the day before my very first ever Dia de Muertos event.

Below is the slideshow I presented. Between each slide I will insert various notes and references as discussed during the talk. This is actually a much shortened version of what I was initially going to present. It turns out that more than 100 slides is waaaay too much for a 45 minute talk. Fortuitously though I was given an hour to present my talk, still, there was no time to dawdle.

An Acknowledgement of Country is a statement that shows awareness of and respect for Traditional Custodians of the land you’re on and their long and continuing relationship with the land. In this case we met on traditonal Whadjuk nyoongar boodja.

The Nyoongar (there are several ways to spell this name) are an indigenous Australian peoples who live in the south-west corner of Western Australia. There are 14 different Nyoongar groups: Amangu, Ballardong, Yued, Kaneang, Koreng, Mineng, Njakinjaki, Njunga, Pibelmen, Pindjarup, Wadandi, Whadjuk, Wiilman and Wudjari. The Nyoongar people refer to their land as Nyoongar boodja.

  1. Pilcher, J. M. (1998). Que vivan los tamales!: Food and the making of Mexican identity. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Mexcaltitan (in the State of Nayarit) has been put forward as one potential location of Aztlan. This is disputed though.

As I compiled these images for the presentation I was just looking for overtly Mexican landscapes. I didn’t realise until later that all the images I chose were on the Mexican relationship to water. From Mexcaltitan to the Baths of Nezahualcoyotl Tlaloc expresses himself in many ways.

  1. PIC 1 – Itzcoatl : Aztec Huey Tlatoani (in order) : Acamapichtli (from 1369 to 1391 CE) : Huitzilihuitl (from 1391 to 1415 CE) : Chimalpopoca (from 1415 to 1426 CE) : Itzcoatl (from 1427 to 1440 CE) : Moctezuma I (from 1440 to 1469 CE) : Axayacatl (from 1469 to 1481 CE) : Tizoc (from 1481 to 1486 CE) : Ahuitzotl (from 1486 to 1502 CE) : Moctezuma II (from 1502 to 1520 CE) : Cuitlahuac (1520 CE) : Cuauhtemoc (1521 to 1525 CE)
  2. PIC 2 – Itzcoatls mother : Flower speaking was a form of noble speech as spoken by the nahuatlacah (or the “clear speaking” people – those who spoke Náhuatl, the lingua franca of the Valley of Anahuac). It was the ability to speak in intelligent conversation/poetry/wittiness and was highly valued within this culture. This has also been noted as a “scattering of jades”. It refers to the eloquence of the speaker and that his message was understood (and lay strewn upon the ground like a scattering of jewels (jade). Nezahualcoyotl was celebrated for this poetic ability. Another story links Itzcoatls mother with being a descendant of the Toltec people. The Aztec tried to legitimize their rulership by linking their lineage to the ancient Toltec peoples.
  1. PIC 1 : Mexico City today : This goes to demonstrate the lack of understanding that the Spanish had for the environment of the Valley of Mexico and how they wholly misunderstood the sophisticated science behind what the Mexicans had done to optimise their environment.

The dyke is in the image just under the beak of the eagle on the left of the picture.
  1. *https://english.elpais.com/elpais/2015/08/18/inenglish/1439895179_728004.html
  1. Dott, B. R. (2020). The chile pepper in China: A cultural biography.
  2. https://masaamerica.food.blog/2021/07/19/31-alimentos-que-mexico-dio-al-mundo-31-foods-that-mexico-gave-to-the-world/

The list of beans that comes from the Americas is HUGE (and even larger when you add the fresh beans to the list)

  1. PIC 1 : The Tomato : The wild species originated in the Andes Mountains of South America, probably mainly in Peru and Ecuador, and is thought to have been domesticated in pre-Columbian Mexico; its name is derived from the Náhuatl (Aztec) word tomatl.

It is a shame that the other coloured popping corns don’t pop into the colours of the original cob. All popcorn (once popped) is snow white I’m afraid.

  1. PIC 1 : Chicle : from the Náhuatl verb ‘tzicoa’, to stick – interesting that the Náhuatl for ‘sticky’ is ‘tzictic’
Figueredo-Urbina, C. J., Álvarez-Ríos, G. D., García-Montes, M. A., & Octavio-Aguilar, P. (2021).
Morphological and genetic diversity of traditional varieties of agave in Hidalgo State, Mexico.
PloS one, 16(7), e0254376. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0254376
  1. PIC 2 : The Nopal : The introduction of the cactoblastis moth is a textbook example of how to get things right when introducing a new species. https://biology.anu.edu.au/news-events/news/successful-example-biological-control-and-its-explanation
  1. PIC 2 : The Dahlia : https://masaamerica.food.blog/2021/01/04/acocoxochitl-the-dahlia/

The next few images were not a part of the presentation. I have put them in for those not familiar with Kings Park in Perth Western Australia. It is a demonstration on how massive the Aztec gardens were in comparison to modern botanical gardens.

  1. PIC 1 : Stromatolites are living fossils and the oldest living lifeforms on our planet. The name derives from the Greek, stroma, meaning “mattress”, and lithos, meaning “rock”. Stromatolite literally means “layered rock”. Stromatolites are the oldest known macrofossils, dating back over 3 billion years (Earth is ~4.5 billion years old). Dominating the fossil record for 80% of Earth history, they are an important source of information on the early development of life on Earth and possibly other planets.
Born in 1402, Nezahualcoyotl was a scholar, warrior, architect, poet and tlatoani of the city-state of Texcoco. He is considered one of the great designers and architects of the pre-Hispanic era. He is best remembered for his poetry, but according to accounts by his descendants and biographers, Fernando de Alva Cortés Ixtlilxóchitl and Juan Bautista Pomar, he is unusual amongst Mesoamerican rulers in that he had an experience of an “Unknown, Unknowable Lord of Everywhere” to whom he built an entirely empty temple in which no blood sacrifices of any kind were allowed, not even those of animals.

Below is an example of poetry attributed to Nezahualcoyotl.

He makes the Eagles and Ocelots dance with him!
Come to see the Huexotzinca:

On the dais of the Eagle he shouts out,
Loudly cries the Mexica.

The battlefield is the place: where one toasts the divine liquor in war,
where are stained red the divine eagles,
where the tigers howl,
where all kinds of precious stones rain from ornaments,
where wave headdresses rich with fine plumes,
where princes are smashed to bits.

There is nothing like death in war,
nothing like the flowery death
so precious to Him who gives life:
far off I see it: my heart yearns for it!

And they called it Teotihulcan
because it was the place
where the lords were buried.
Thus they said:

‘When we die,
truly we die not,
because we will live, we will rise,
we will continue living, we will awaken
This will make us happy.’

Thus the dead one was directed,
when he died:

‘Awaken, already the sky is rosy,
already dawn has come,
already sing the flame-coloured guans,
the fire-coloured swallows,
already the butterflies fly.’

Thus the old ones said
that who has died has become a god,
they said: ‘He has been made a god there,
meaning ‘He has died.’

Even jade is shattered,
Even gold is crushed,
Even quetzal plume are torn . . .
One does not live forever on this earth:
We endure only for an instant!

Will flowers be carried to the Kingdom of Death:
Is it true that we are going, we are going?
Where are we going, ay, where are we going?
Will we be dead there or will we live yet?
Does one exist again?

Perhaps we will live a second time?
Thy heart knows:
Just once do we live!.
Like a quetzal plume, a fragrant flower,
friendship sparkles:
like heron plumes, it weaves itself into finery.

Our song is a bird calling out like a jingle:
how beautiful you make it sound!
Here, among flowers that enclose us,
among flowery boughs you are singing.

the earth is a grave and nothing escapes it, nothing is so perfect
that it does not descend to its tomb. Rivers, rivulets, fountains and
waters flow, but never return to their joyful beginnings; anxiously
they hasten on the vast realms of the rain god. As they widen their
banks, they also fashion the sad urn of their burial.

Filled are the bowels of the earth with pestilential dust once flesh and bone,
once animate bodies of man who sat upon thrones, decided cases, presided in
council, commanded armies, conquered provinces, possessed treasure, destroyed
temples, exulted in their pride, majesty, fortune, praise and power. Vanished
are these glories, just as the fearful smoke vanishes that belches forth from
the infernal fires of Popocatepetl. Nothing recalls them but the written page.

Etymology of the word Maize – mid 16th century: from Spanish maíz, from the Taino mahiz.
The Taíno were an Arawak people who were the indigenous people of the Caribbean and Florida.
At the time of European contact in the late 15th century, they were the principal inhabitants of most of Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic and Haiti), and Puerto Rico

I only had enough time to focus on one plant. I had initially wanted to speak on the nopal, amaranth and maiz. As I only had time for one plant I chose the one most identified with the Hijos de la maiz (the children of the corn)

  1. PIC 1
  2. PIC 2 : The young corn goddess (left) and the god of mature corn (right) beside the symbol for the axis mundi (line or stem through the earth’s centre connecting its surface to the underworld and the heavens and around which the universe revolves) which is a corn plant. In most other cultures the axis mundi is represented by a tree.
  3. PIC 3 : The Mayan myth regarding the creation of mankind.

PIC 1 and 2 represent a small fraction of the varieties of corn native to México.

In biology, phylogenetics is the study of the evolutionary history and relationships among or within groups of organisms.

  • Benz, B. F. (2001). “Archaeological evidence of teosinte domestication from Guilá Naquitz, Oaxaca”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 98 (4): 2104–2106. Bibcode:2001PNAS…98.2104B. doi:10.1073/pnas.98.4.2104. PMC 29389. PMID 11172083.
  • Matsuoka Y, Vigouroux Y, Goodman MM, Sanchez J, Buckler E, Doebley J. (2002) A single domestication for maize shown by multilocus microsatellite genotyping. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA.
  • Piperno DR, Ranere AJ, Holst I, Iriarte J, Dickau R. (2009) Starch grain and phytolith evidence for early ninth millennium B.P. maize from the Central Balsas River Valley, Mexico. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA.
  1. PIC 1 : https://masaamerica.food.blog/2019/06/21/proteger-la-tortilla-protect-the-tortilla/
  2. PIC 2
  3. PIC 3 : ALLEN, Stewart Lee. In the devil’s garden, a sinful history of forbidden food. Ballantine. 325p. notes. bibliog. index. c2002. 0-345-44016-1. : https://masaamerica.food.blog/2019/06/20/nixtamal/
  1. PIC 1 : Nixtamalisation : Burton, K. E., Steele, F. M., Jefferies, L., Pike, O. A., & Dunn, M. L. (2008). Effect of micronutrient fortification on nutritional and other properties of nixtamal tortillas. Cereal chemistry, 85(1). : Bressani, R., Benavides, V., Acevedo, E., & Ortiz, M. A. (1990). Changes in selected nutrient contents and in protein quality of common and quality protein maize during rural tortilla preparation. Cereal Chem, 67(6). : Gutierrez de Velasco, Arturo Carlos (2005). The effect of enzymes and hydrocolloids on the texture of tortillas from fresh nixtamalized masa and nixtamalized corn flour. Food Science and Technology Texas A&M University. https://hdl.handle.net/1969.1/470
  2. PIC 2 : https://masaamerica.food.blog/2019/06/20/nixtamal/
  3. PIC 3 : https://nahuatl.uoregon.edu/content/nextamalli
  1. PIC 1 : Elia M, Lanham-New SA, Kok K. Nutrition. In: Feather A, Randall D, Waterhouse M, eds. Kumar and Clarke’s Clinical Medicine. 10th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2021:chap 33.

A few of the many incarnations of masa and the foods made from it.

  • Early, D.K. 1990. Amaranth production in Mexico and Peru. p. 140-142. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), Advances in new crops. Timber Press, Portland, OR.
  • Sauer, J. 1967. The grain amaranths and their relatives: A revised taxonomic and geographic survey. Ann. Missouri Bot. Gard. 54(2):103-37.
  • Sauer, J. 1977. The history of grain amaranths and their use and cultivation around the world. Proc. First Amaranth Seminar. Emmaus, PA
  • Rosentrater, Kurt A. (2018). Kent’s Technology of Cereals || Introduction to cereals and pseudocereals and their production. , (), 1–76. doi:10.1016/B978-0-08-100529-3.00001-3
  1. PIC 1 : Shah, Tajamul & Prasad, Kamlesh & Kumar, Pradyuman. (2016). Maize—A potential source of human nutrition and health: A review. Cogent-Food and Agriculture. 2. 10.1080/23311932.2016.1166995. : Lans C. A., Ethnomedicines used in Trinidad and Tobogo for urinary problems and diabetes mellitus, J. Ethnobiol. Ethnomed., 2(45), (2006)
  2. Owoyele B.V., Negedu M.N., Olaniran S.O., Onasanwo S.A., Oguntoye S.O., Sanya J.O., Oyeleke S.A., Ibidapo A.J. and Soladoye A. O., Analgesic and anti-inflammatory effect of aqueous extract of Zea mays husk in male Wistar rats, J. Med. Food., 13(2), 343-47 (2010) : Y.-I. Kwon, E. Apostolidis, Y.-C. Kim, and K. Shetty. Health Benefits of Traditional Corn, Beans, and Pumpkin: In Vitro Studies for Hyperglycemia and Hypertension Management Journal of Medicinal Food.Jun 2007.266-275.http://doi.org/10.1089/jmf.2006.234

5 thoughts on “México’s contributions to the World : The Botanical Treasures of Mexico

      1. Yes thats correct, I hope they have the day again, I must message Cesar and check this year xx


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