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Roberto Burle Marx and the Wilson Botanical Garden

One of the Gardens I am involved with is the Wilson Botanical Garden, part of the Las Cruces Biological Station, Organization for Tropical Studies. The Garden is located in San Vito de Coto Brus, Puntarenas, Costa Rica. The Garden has diverse plantings including large collections of palms, ferns, aroids, bromeliads and gingers. World famous Brazilian landscape architect, Roberto Burle Marx, is known to have had a large impact on the design of the Wilson Botanical Garden and in this photograph the Bromeliad Garden he designed.

Roberto Burle Marx (1909-1994) was a colorful character, a passionate plantsman, and a world famous landscape architect, artist, musician, environmentalist, designer, and painter. Using plants as his medium, his designs had rhythm, color, surprises, and emotion, done with the intention of leaving the person feeling elevated. He wanted to harmonize the ecological medium and looked to local environments for sources of inspiration. Burle Marx believed that the beauty of nature can be transposed to compositions in landscapes. Often referred to as the father of modern landscape architecture his work continues to inspire people around the world.

Most of his life was lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, although he traveled extensively to collect plants (which he propagated for his gardens and nursery) and for his commissions. He designed over 3,000 works in more than twenty countries during his 62 year career and considered plants to be his vocabulary. Having donated his home, Sítio Roberto Burle Marx, to the Brazilian government in 1985, the garden contains over 3,500 species of plants, and people still come from all over the world to see his gardens and the incredible work of this amazing designer. As evidence of his active role with plants there are sixteen plants that bear his name including: Heliconia hirsuta ‘Burle Marx,’ Calathea burle-marxii, and Philodendron `Burle Marx’. He believed that gardens should not only be beautiful but should provide the chance for people to feel one with nature. One of his goals was to get people to truly “see” the plants in front of them and thereby make connections to the place and its flora. During his life Burle Marx was a tireless advocate for the protection of the South American rain forests. According to Luis Diego Gomez’s article in Amigos Newsletter No. 41, September 1994, Burle Marx wrote a letter to Robert Wilson saying, “Why use native plants? Because destruction of the tropical flora is so rampant….governments prefer fast profit than to conserve. Why import English rosebushes when we have so many superior plants?”

The significance of Roberto Burle Marx’s help in the design and layout of the Wilson Botanical Garden cannot be overstated. Roberto Burle Marx met Wilson in 1954 and they went on to become close friends due to their shared love for tropical plants. When Burle Marx visited Las Cruces in 1962 he influenced the design of the gardens and persuaded Wilson to have formal gardens that blended with the wildness of the existing site. When you consider the design of Bromeliad Hill with swaths of bromeliads surrounding the Wilson house, there is a certain formality to the design with terraces, the shapes of planting areas, the colors, textures and patterns of the bromeliads, and it all creates a beautiful rhythm and movement. There are two of Burle Marx signature plants still thriving in the Bromeliad Hill Garden, they are the ruffled fan palm (Lacuala grandis) next to the imperial bromeliad (Vriesea imperialis). From that central core the gardens decrease in formality as they span outward and closer to the forest.

Las Cruces has some records of plants collected by Burle Marx from July 1964 when he was in San Jose and visited Lankester Gardens in Cartago. In 1965, Burle Marx and Wilson went on an extensive plant collecting trip together in Bahia, Brazil and then, in 1977, Burle Marx came to Costa Rica to give a lecture and was able to visit the Wilsons. In 1988, well-known botanist, Dr. Luiz Emygdio de Mello Filho (who collaborated with and influenced Burle Marx) visited the Wilsons at Las Cruces. Yet, there are still many details, gaps and pieces that need to be filled in and gathered. Since most of the Garden records were lost in the Las Cruces 1994 fire, there is a need to track down some of the information that was lost. Inevitably, gardens change over time as conditions change, plants grow or die out and gardens must be refurbished. As an example, Bromeliad Hill is being restored with the intention of having it represent as closely as possible the original design done by Burle Marx. How helpful it would be if we could track down a sketch or design that Burle Marx prepared for the Garden, plant lists for the gardens and collections, thoughts on design intent… Our work will continue.


Almost all of the Garden’s designed by Burle Marx included his favorite Imperial bromeliad (Vriesea(Alcantarea) imperialis), seen here. It is bold and beautiful, a native of Brazil.


The Bromeliad Hill Garden in the early morning light.


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