A botanical garden is sending some of its plants home with “adoptive parents” in an innovative program to cultivate a deeper relationship between Mexico’s endangered flora and the general public.
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO — Rays of sunlight slip through the glass doors, illuminating fleshy succulents and small cacti, with flowers amidst their thorns.
The specimens are Mexican plants that face the risk of extinction and await adoption in a innovative program at the Centro de Adopción de Plantas Mexicanas en Peligro de Extinción.
The center is part of a joint project between the botanical garden and an association called the Amigos del Jardín Botánico. Both institutions belong to the biology institute at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM), the largest university in the country.
The Centro de Adopción was created in late 2013 to address the threat of extinction of Mexican plants, and to do so in a way that would involve the general public, not just the scientific and academic communities, says Linda Balcázar, the coordinator and founder of the Centro de Adopción.
Given that these plants face varying risks of extinction, it is crucial that the people who become involved with maintaining them commit to caring for them, Balcázar says.
That’s why they came up with the idea to offer the plants for adoption, instead of donating them or selling them, she says.
“The choice to adopt implies a responsibility and not a simple whim,” she says. “When you adopt you know the commitment the plant will involve.”
Balcázar says that the project is the first and only one of its type in the country.
Mexico, with between 18,000 and 30,000 species of plants, is considered one of the countries with the greatest plant diversity in the world, according to the Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad, a federal biodiversity commission.
Among those thousands of species, 987 are at some risk of extinction, according to the Norma Oficial Mexicana NOM-059-SEMARNAT-2010, a Mexican regulation that identifies species or populations of wild flora and fauna at risk in the country.
The regulation classifies species within four levels of risk: subject to special protection, threatened, in danger of extinction, and likely extinct in the wild.
More than 300 species at the UNAM’s botanical garden are at some level of risk.
Not all 300 species are offered for adoption. Only easy-care species can be adopted, which is why most of those up for adoption are cacti, succulents and agave-family plants, Balcázar says.
“For people who live a hectic life in Mexico City, if they forget to water the plant [it] won’t die; even if they go on vacation for a week, the plant will be okay,” Balcázar says.
Around 18,000 specimens of plants at risk have been adopted, according to Balcázar. The “adoptive parents” number more than 15,000.
The fact that the plants given for adoption are at risk doesn’t mean that they’re the only specimens alive of their species. The Centro de Adopción maintains greenhouses inside the Botanical Garden where specimens of species at risk can reproduce. When they’ve grown enough, the plants are exhibited for adoption in a store inside the Botanical Garden.
Balcázar explains that even though the plants aren’t for sale, the adopters are asked to pay a fee to cover costs.
The fees normally range from 60 to 150 pesos ($2.70 to $6.80), although some are higher. That money is used to support existing plants and to continue reproducing them, says Balcázar.
The Centro de Adopción also gives workshops and trainings online for the “adoptive parents” and has a clinic for the plants, says the coordinator. Until now, they haven’t been able to check up on all the plants that have been adopted to find out their current state, but they do conduct random monitoring, she says.
“We know that a percentage of the plants will die, like all living things. We also know that some parents won’t be capable of taking care of them,” she says. “But we also have faith that there’s a large part of the population, as we’ve seen so far, that has responded very well.”
Global Press Journal interviewed people who have adopted plants from the Centro de Adopción.
Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico
The Adoptive Father of 100 Plants
The small terrace of Patricio Ruiz’s apartment is full of plants, nearly all of which come from the Centro de Adopción de Plantas Mexicanas en Peligro de Extinción.
He says that he doesn’t know the exact number of plants that he has adopted, but he estimates that there are around 100.
Ruiz, 30, says that he is a frequent visitor to the Botanical Garden and that he first visited the Centro de Adopción in early 2014. It was around that time that he made his first adoption: an echeveria halbingeri, a succulent which takes the form of a rosette.
Since then, Ruiz has continued to adopt plants.
“Each one that I’ve come across, each one they’ve put out shows you something different, and whenever I go there are some that call [to me],” he says.
Ruiz is an architect who specializes in green roofs. He says that his academic studies and his constant visits to the Botanical Garden — sometimes only to meditate — sparked his interest in and awareness of the plants.
Ruiz says that his plants don’t need much care, which allows him to go on vacation without worrying about them. His girlfriend also helps him take care of them, he says.
“I try to pay attention a little, to see which are flowering, which are becoming deformed and which need a little more sun, but it doesn’t take much,” he says.
What takes the most time is watering them, he says. Depending on the time of year, Ruiz waters his plants every 20 or 30 days, he says. It’s an activity that takes him at least an hour and a half, because he tends the plants one-by-one and brushes off accumulated dust.
Despite his care, about eight of the adopted plants have died, he says. He believes that the proportion is low compared to the plants that have survived.
Ruiz says that the Centro de Adopción project is a good idea to spark responsible plant use, even if the project’s reach is limited.
“It seems to me a great way to encourage people to become responsible for their habitat. I don’t know if they’ll achieve that, because raising awareness is difficult, but if they’re able to with one of every hundred, one of every thousand, they’re doing something that would never happen without them,” he says.
Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico
The Cactus Lover
Mariana Díaz, 40, says that she has never liked counting how many plants she has, but she calculates that there are about 300. Eight of them are specimens from the Centro de Adopción.
Díaz began her plant collection in 2003, she says. The majority are cacti, a species she has liked since childhood, says Díaz, while showing the small scratches the plants have left on her hands. On her forearms she has a pair of cacti tattooed.
“My grandma always had plants and she always taught us to care for them, and that we should love nature,” she says.
Díaz says that she became interested in adopting these plants because they are good quality specimens that can’t be found elsewhere.
“What I liked about the Centro [is] that they give you a quality plant,” she says. “At least for as long as I’ve had them they haven’t gotten sick.”
As a plant lover, Díaz has learned that caring for them requires time, energy and money.
That’s why she recognizes the work of the Centro de Adopción and says that sometimes people don’t realize how difficult it is to keep a plant in good condition. Nevertheless, she believes that they shouldn’t call this “adoption,” because the Centro is receiving money in exchange for giving the plants, she says.
She also disagrees that the plants should be given to just anyone, because there are people who won’t take proper care of them.
“The important thing is that you try to conserve them, precisely because they are in danger of extinction,” she says. “I feel like right now this is misinterpreted or underestimated.”
Díaz says that in the future she would like to reproduce the plants, including the specimens from the Centro de Adopción. She thinks that this is one way she could help make sure the plants continue to exist.
“So people in the future see that it is worth it to commit to cacti, and to continue raising them — raising them so they don’t die out,” she says.
Mayela Sánchez, GPJ Mexico
Aldo Espinoza Arévalo, 30, is the father of a 1-year-old and, since April of last year, is also the “adoptive father” of a plant in danger of extinction. It is an intense green cactus from the genus mammillaria, with thorns like stars that crown its small cylinder-shaped tubercles.
He says that he chose it because it looked different from the other plants.
“I like plants that aren’t very common,” he says.
Although it’s the first at-risk plant he has adopted, Espinoza Arévalo says that caring for plants isn’t new to him. In his home he has various other plants, almost all of which are cacti. They are his favorites and also his wife’s, he says.
Espinoza Arévalo says that his motivation for adopting an at-risk plant was the thought that perhaps his specimen could reproduce more plants, or contribute to the fight against the species’ extinction.
“It’s the responsibility, that ability to say, ‘Look, I have this plant I’m going to care for, and I want to see it grow so that some day it will no longer face extinction, or can help the Centro de Adopción to reproduce other specimens,’” he says.
Nevertheless, he doesn’t believe that giving at-risk plants for adoption to just anyone is the best way of sparking a commitment to conservation.
“I myself wouldn’t give a plant in danger of dying to someone I don’t know,” he says.
He thinks there should be a filter for adopters, or constant monitoring of the plants given in adoption.
In the months that he has spent with his adopted plant he says he hasn’t received any calls from the Centro de Adopción to find out how the plant is doing.
But that doesn’t reduce his commitment.
“I try to keep it healthy because I know that if something happened to it, maybe the people from the Centro de Adopción would contact us, and what would I tell them?” he says.
Danielle Mackey, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish to English.