A couple weeks ago, I returned from a trip to Guatemala, where my father was born and raised. It was my second time there- my first trip was ten years ago- and this time I saw it through new eyes. I was hyper-aware of all the plant life, gardens, and parks, especially now that I seek daily inspiration to help me design landscapes. Though the climate of Guatemala is worlds away from the Pacific Northwest, I felt like I benefited greatly from immersing myself in a lush equatorial environment, with its own colors and layers.
Guatemala technically has at least two climate regions, a more temperate mountain zone, and a low lying tropical zone. We traveled primarily in the temperate high altitude regions (over 4000 ft above sea level). Orchids and epiphytes grow on trees everywhere. Spanish moss is abundant and we were lucky to be in the presence of numerous flowering plants. One particular favorite was the Golden Shrimp Plant or “Camarón amarillo” (Pachystachys lutea) pictured below.
Antigua, Guatemala is a town replete with inspiration. From the vibrant colonial architecture to the modest pocket parks of flowering jacaranda trees, my desire for color, texture and multiple layers was immediately satisfied.
Casa Popenoe is a beautifully restored colonial residence open only for tour by appointment. It contains a series of walled gardens and courtyards. Ornate portals let you glimpse a view of the next room. The grounds are immaculate, and one thing I kept noticing is that gardeners here really like to edge borders! That is, edge it without using an actual edging material, but rather just leave a strip of dirt, dug lower than the surrounding grade to make a clear delineation of lawn to bed.
We were fortunate to be able to stay at the verdant and secluded Quinta de las Flores, in Antigua. The grounds were designed by Carmen Pokorny, a landscape designer in Guatemala. I fell in love with the numerous stone fountains, or pilas, where clothes were washed in the past. The pathways wind through various outdoor rooms and places for rest.
Carmen is a master of creating solid massings of plants that make for a very powerful collection of textures and variants of green. She knows how to bring out the architectural qualities of each species. I love the combination of the Pennisetum (fountain grass) and Strelitzia (bird of paradise, shown below.
Guatemala has so much to offer. I’ve barely even scratched the surface! Gardens, architecture, Mayan culture, ruins, wildlife, food, the list goes on. I highly recommend visiting in January, as you will have fairly dry, mild weather and an abundance of plants in bloom. Let me know if you go!