Paradise Found: The Vallarta Botanical Gardens

By Julie Parker-Dickerson

Educator Sandro Cusi teaches Orchid Propagation

The Vallarta Botanical Gardens is a 2013 recipient of National Gardening Association's Muhammad Ali Center Peace Garden Grant, unwritten by Yum! Brands Foundation and in partnership with The Muhammad Ali Center. The Vallarta Botanical Gardens is one of 160 programs to receive support and funding for peace studies and hunger and nutrition awareness. Since 2011, over 15,000 youth have participated in programming supported by this funding initiative.

The Vallarta Botanical Gardens, located in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, is a growing 20 acre paradise that provides opportunities for relaxation, recreation, and most important, education for local residents, youth groups, and tourists. Focused on conservation and research, the Vallarta Botanical Gardens holds classes on ecology, caring for the environment, gardening, edible plants of Vallarta's forests, and an introduction to tropical dry forests of Western Mexico. Each year, over 2,000 local youth visit the Vallarta Botanical Garden free of charge. Youth groups and organized school visits make up 60 percent of the audience for classes and instruction.

Many lessons for youth focus on the orchids and bromeliads that are native to the area. Vallarta Botanical Gardens educators use these epiphytic plants to teach about the entirely different world that exists in the canopy of a tropical forest. The variety in form, color, and survival techniques these plants display provides plenty of wonder for visiting classrooms, especially with displays at the gardens that bring these naturally inaccessible plants down to eye level.

Students explore a portion of the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range containing an estimated 400 species of birds and 300 varieties of orchids.

Coming up in March, the Vallarta Botanical Gardens will be celebrating their annual Capomo Harvest Festival, which attracts youth and the community to enjoy culinary delights made from the capomo tree (Brosimum alicastrum). This tree has both historic and environmental importance to the area and is a prolific provider of nutritious seeds during the late winter and early fall. From beverages such as capomo coffee to maza (dough) for tortillas to zesty salads made with its fleshy outer pod, these trees offer a bounty of culinary uses. ″These trees [capomo] are disappearing in nature especially in heavily grazed areas, so teaching about their culinary uses also promotes their conservation,″ comments Neil Gerlowski, Executive Director of the Gardens. ″We hope that more of the local community will see their forests and ranches as vital components of an amazingly diverse forest ecosystem whose long term future depends on the decisions they make to use their land and plants sustainably.″

Students explore observe waterlilies and aquatic life near the Hacienda de Oro Visitor Center.

In an effort to strengthen education efforts and to expand upon learning opportunities, the Vallarta Botanical Gardens is now working to build its newest and most ambitious addition to its living classroom -- the Vallarta Conservatory of Mexican Orchids. Fundraising started in earnest for this project in September 2013. Since then over $200,000 USD have been raised to allow for Phase I of construction to begin this year. Garden staff, board members, and volunteers are now hard at work to raise the remaining $150,000 necessary to complete this project. Once completed, the new conservatory will not only have world-class display and interpretative areas but a functional orchid propagation laboratory connected to visitors through a glass public viewing window.

The Hacienda de Oro Visitor Center complete with areas for educational programming, a restaurant, hall of flowers, and stunning views of the mountains.

The Vallarta Botanical Gardens began in 2004, when Robert Price of Savannah, Georgia joined the ranks of retirees in the tropical paradise of Puerto Vallarta. His passion for plants soon drove him up into the mountains surrounding this lovely beach community where he was amazed at the botanical diversity found upon every step. What he didn't find was a botanical garden anywhere near Vallarta where he could learn about the plants he was encountering. So with a bold investment of almost his entire retirement savings and the generous support of his mother and a few close friends, Bob purchased a 20 acre parcel of forested property overlooking a crystal-clear mountain river and began building a botanical garden. Now, eight years after opening to the public, the Vallarta Botanical Gardens (VBG) is now one of the top garden destinations in the country and an honored benefit and resource to local residents.

The Vallarta Botanical Gardens received the 2013 Muhammad Ali Center Peace Garden Grant for their efforts to support youth education programs.

Learn more about the Vallarta Botanical Gardens.

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