All over the world, certain signs herald the changing of seasons. A yellowing of morning light. A whiff of olive trees in bloom. Early rains.
In Mexico City, one of the signs comes along the majestic Paseo de la Reforma, the capital’s principal thoroughfare and probably its loveliest.
This week the boulevard appears as if painted in orange; in a few weeks, it will be red.
Three times a year, a small army of city gardeners plants a nearly two-mile section of Reforma’s leafy median with the season’s iconic flowers. Orange marigolds for the Day of the Dead. Red poinsettias for the Christmas season. Amber kalanchoe succulents for the spring and summer.
Buses and cars roar by, spewing fumes; pedestrians tramp through, rushing to cross Reforma against the traffic. But the carpets of flowers persevere. Eye-dazzling splashes of color against concrete gray and hazy air.
“Paseo de la Reforma is the most important avenue in Mexico,” says Ernesto Gonzalez, the agricultural engineer who is in charge of the seasonal flower-planting for the city. “So that’s why we spend the money to do this.”
Like clockwork, on Oct. 15, 120 city gardeners reported to duty with hoes, trowels and brooms. They planted 185,000 marigolds for this week’s Day of the Dead celebrations. The large, fluffy marigolds are known here by their indigenous Nahuatl name, cempasuchil (sem-pah-SOO-cheel). They are as much a part of the holiday, when Mexicans picnic at cemeteries and remember their departed loved ones, as skeletons and witches are part of Halloween.
On Nov. 15, the same team of gardeners will return to rip out the marigolds and plant poinsettias, which, like the marigolds, are native to Mexico. Known here as the noche buena, which refers to Holy Night, as in Christmas Eve, the poinsettia takes its English-language name from an American envoy to Mexico in the 1820s who introduced the plant to the United States.
It’s a funny plant. The star-shaped red part isn’t actually a flower; it’s a collection of leaves that turn red. Whatever. Poinsettias are pretty, and the gardeners place 180,000 of them on Reforma, and 270,000 more along several adjacent roadways.
Come Feb. 15, the gardeners are back, tearing out the poinsettias and planting about 179,000 kalanchoes, which will last until the fall.
In each seasonal shift, the gardeners are given five days to clear out one group of flora and settle the replacements.
“It’s the time of year they most want to work,” Gonzalez said. “They want to make sure the plants are treated well.”
The flower-planting idea started in 2002, when the city government launched a major drive to spruce up the Reforma corridor. The boulevard traverses most of the city, from the fancy suburb of Santa Fe on the western outskirts to a congested point northeast of downtown. Today Reforma is flanked by imposing, well-designed skyscrapers, museums and five-star hotels, and dotted with Leonora Carrington statues and revolving public art exhibits. It is turned over to bicyclists on Sundays, musicians on any evening, protesters any day.
As lovely as the flowers are, there is criticism, in part over the money spent — roughly $3 million a year — and especially over the fact that with each replanting, most of the replaced plants are simply discarded.
“It is very pretty to see, but it is really a big waste,” said Gabriela Vargas, who runs a group called Sembradores Urbanos (Urban Planters) that is managing a vegetable garden along another section of Reforma. “We’d prefer the plants be more productive.”
Gonzalez said his teams try to salvage some of the flowers but that they don’t have the nurseries and other facilities to store tens of thousands of plants year to year. And, he said, the quality of poinsettias and cempasuchiles deteriorates over the years; a single plant becomes more gangly and less colorful each season.
Gonzalez said the flowers have proved surprisingly hardy given their location. Some, he said, process the polluted air into nutrients.
And the Mexico City population has “evolved,” he said, to be more respectful of the gardens. There have been only two big car crashes along Reforma this year; vehicles jumped the curb and plowed into the flower beds, destroying about 3,000 plants — which were replaced. All in all, a good balance, as far as Gonzalez is concerned.
But he is worried about the weather. A cold spell poses a real threat to the flowers. He lost 25,000 plants to the chill last year, and, already in October, temperatures in Mexico City dipped into the 30s.
“Who knows what could happen with this cold?” he said. But if any of the plants die, the gardeners will return, fresh specimens in hand.
“It’s a matter of pride.”