So highly developed and regulated was the art of gardening that strict laws preventing commoners from growing (or picking) certain flowers helped the nobility to display their rank and privileges in a direct (and colourful) way...
• Aquatic - at(l)
• Medicinal - patli
• Herb - xihuitl
• Edible quilitl
• Shrub quatzin
• Tree quahuitl
• Spiny huiztli
• Flower-bearing xochitl
- acid fruits xocotl
- sweet, fleshy fruits zapotla
Moctezuma II kept three pleasure gardens - at his Tenochtitlan palace, as part of the cypress park and hanging gardens at Chapultepec, and at Iztapalapa. In his second letter to Charles V, in 1520, Cortés described the palace garden of Cuitlahuac (Moctezuma’s brother) at Iztapalapa in glowing terms:-
There are... very refreshing gardens with many trees and sweet-scented flowers, bathing places of fresh water, well constructed and having steps leading down to the bottom. [There was also] a large orchard near the house overlooked by a high terrace with many beautiful corridors and rooms. Within the orchard is a great square pool of fresh water, very well constructed, with sides of handsome masonry, around which runs a walk with a well-laid pavement of tiles, so wide that four persons can walk abreast on it, and 400 paces square, making in all 1,600 paces. On the other side of this promenade toward the wall of the garden are hedges of lattice work made of cane, behind which are all sorts of plantations of trees and aromatic herbs. The pool contains many fish and different kinds of waterfowl.
By the time the Spanish came on the scene, the gardens had spread over 7 miles in circumference and held some 2,000 species of herbs, shrubs and trees. Cortés claimed these were the ‘finest, pleasantest and largest’ gardens he had ever seen:-
A very pretty rivulet [stream] with high banks ran through it from one end to the other. For the distance of two shots from a crossbow there were arbors [shady spots] and refreshing gardens and an infinite number of different kinds of fruit trees; many herbs and sweet-scented flowers. It certainly filled one with admiration to see the grandeur and exquisite beauty of this entire orchard.
The Aztecs had developed a highly sophisticated system of medicine, in which these medicinal and useful herbs played a vital part (Burns and Arroo 2005). We know this because, in the wake of the Conquistadors, scholars travelled to the Americas to record the knowledge of the indigenous people in the form of codices and other documents. We can also see traces of traditional uses of herbs in the contemporary use of medicinal plants by Mexican communities.
Of the surviving post-Conquest documents, one of the most attractive is probably the Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis – also known variously as the Aztec Herbal, the Badianus Manuscript, or the Codex Barberini (de la Cruz 2000). It was written in 1552 by a young Aztec doctor, Martin de la Cruz “taught by no formal reasonings, but educated by experiments only”, and describes a number of ailments suffered by the Aztec people, together with their recommended treatments – some of which seem a little bizarre, it must be said.
Like Europeans of the time, Aztecs believed that plants were “hot” or “cold”, and could be used to correct excess heat or cold in the body. Excess cold in the body was concomitant with the retention of water, and cold/watery illnesses like gout ( coacihuiztli, which literally translates as “the stiffening of the serpent”) would be remedied with the application of a hot herb.
Respiratory illnesses don’t appear all that frequently in the Aztec literature, but recommended for a chesty cough is the Tlaquequetzal (Achillea millefolium, or yarrow).
The activities of the Aztec warriors kept the healers busy. For “him who is pierced by an arrow”, the leaves and bark of the waxy chapolxiuitl (Pedilanthus pavonis)