A Mennonite nursery in Mexico

After touring several Mexican nurseries back in 2021 (here, here, and here), it was with great excitement that I had an opportunity to visit a Mennonite nursery this last summer while visiting family in Chihuahua. We headed out one hot summer morning over to the Mennonite community of Cuauhtémoc, a city about 60 miles to the west.

Mennonites in Mexico? Yes, actually, Mennonites have been living in Mexico for about 100 years. Originally from western Russia, many of the more conservative members left for Canada in the 1870s when it looked like Russia was going to mandate military service and take away their right to teach their kids in German. Mennonites are pacifists, who believe in Jesus, and tend to live simple, community-oriented lives focused on stewardship and an awareness of the needs of others. So, it was important to them to stay out of military conflict and to maintain the German language as part of their core identity. They are different than the Amish, who tend to separate from modern society and shun many modern conveniences.

On the road to Cuauhtémoc. Note all of the the green in the distance.
Agriculture is central to the lives of the Mennonites.

Many of the Mennonites ended up settling in Manitoba. However, in the early 1900s, Canada began requiring attendance at public schools. Again, this was unacceptable to many of the more conservative Mennonites, who began looking for another place where they could live their lives as they saw fit. So, in the early 1920s, several thousand Mennonites left Canada for 230,000 acres of land near present day Cuauhtémoc, where Mexican president Obregón promised that they would would be exempt from military service and have the freedom to educate their children according to Mennonite customs. The Mennonites quickly established an agricultural community in the middle of the desert, which is now famous for cheese (which I wrote about here) and apples. This region alone produces over 70% of the apples consumed in Mexico.

Driving along highway 16 to Cuauhtémoc, we passed acres of apple orchards, many grown completely under black netting to protect the crop from hail and the scorching sun. Mennonite farmers here also grow cotton, corn, and wheat. If it wasn’t for the desert mountains in the background and the dry dust in the foreground, this would feel like one of the Midwestern states in the US. Just imagine the amount of water this amount of intensive agriculture takes in an region that is lucky to get 16 inches of rain per year.

Apple orchard
Fields of corn

At it’s height, there were nearly 100,000 Mennonites in the state of Chihuahua. Their population has since dropped to about 70,000. Many have left, returning to Canada. Farming has become too difficult in the dry desert and Mexican crime lords see the pacifist Mennonites as easy targets. Read about one family’s experience leaving Mexico, here.

It’s hard not to notice the agricultural wealth that has accumulated in Cuauhtémoc. It’s visible everywhere in the style, quality, and size of the houses… 

A Mennonite house. Very different than the houses that most Mexicans live in.

…with their large well-watered lawns and beds of flowers.

The wealth is visible in the city too. Driving through Cuauhtémoc felt just like driving through a typical city in New Mexico or Texas, with large US-style brick and mortar businesses. It’s a stark contrast once you notice the economic disparity between the Mennonites in Cuauhtémoc versus the Mexican population in most of the other nearby towns.

I wasn’t able to get a good photo of the US-style commercial district, so here is a one from google street view on a cloudy day.

Pizza Pizza! Shopping mall and movie theater on the right.

After driving through the outskirts of town, we arrived at the nursery. The sign at the entrance to the nursery was mainly in Spanish, though it also had the word “Welcome” in German (Wilkommen). Most Mennonites here speak several languages.

This was definitely the largest and most modern of the nurseries I visited in Chihuahua. There were several, spacious greenhouses, though the selection of houseplants was less than what I remember from the Mexican nurseries. It was nice, however, to see that most of the plants were off of the floor, which helps reduce pests and diseases.

Nothing too exciting that we haven’t seen before. Some plants were bagged and others were in traditional plastic pots.

Their selection of decorative potted plants was different than in the Mexican nurseries, leaning more towards ceramic and molded plastic pots rather than cans and plastic cups. I only saw one plant in an upcycled container – the burro’s tail in the red can on the left. They are obviously targeting a different customer base. L and his mom were quick to point out that all of the the customers looked like me (white). Several women in their homemade dresses and bonnets perused the aisles with their children in matching outfits. The men stayed up front, near the cashier, and wore coveralls or pants with button up shirts.

Lonicera x heckrottii and Duranta erecta blooming in the vine section of one of the greenhouses.

I did find some of the best looking Leucophyllum frutescens (Texas sage), a great native plant for the Chihuahuan desert. I would be tempted to buy these if I lived here.

They also had a nice selection of young agaves, all labeled with a hybridized version of the Spanish name and the scientific name. For example, the agave on the right was labeled “Maguey multifilifera”.

Heading outside, there was a shed filled with pavers and an unusually large selection of red mesh bags filled with varying sizes of blindingly white (and only white) round river rock.

The view towards the shadehouses and the nursery yard. This place was big.

There wasn’t much in the shade houses that I haven’t shown before – junipers, oleander, etc. More boxwood, of course. But, it was nice to see Caesalpinia pulcherrima in bloom. I would gladly grow this in my Oregon garden if it was hardier.

This very large olive tree was only $25,200 ($1,260 US). No thank you. I would rather have a smaller plant that hadn’t been hacked

An agave blooming out in the cull pile. Note the large, brick house in the distance.

The grass section. Most of those on the right are pampas grass.

360 view. This nursery had the largest selection of trees and shrubs of any that I had visited in Chihuahua – fruit trees, nut trees, shade trees, conifers of all shapes and sizes. They even had a decent selection of natives including honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), huisache (Vachellia constricta), and desert willow (Chilopsis linearis), but I couldn’t get good photos because of the harsh sunlight. Everything was neat and well cared for. Very few weeds anywhere.

I was happy to see that they had a decent selection of oaks. These were particularly cute, but not labeled, so I can’t tell you what they are.

Palms. Here you can see that they use native soil in their potting bags, just like the other nurseries. It does make me wonder if there is less transplant shock when the soil in the bag more closely matches the soil in the local landscape where they will eventually be planted. Our bark-based potting mixes in the US are very, very different in composition from the mineral soil in our yards. Still, soil often brings along a slew of other problems (weeds, insects, pathogens), so I am glad we don’t see this practice as much in the US. It’s one of the main reasons that I avoid buying field grown plants.

Sotol and agaves, all heavily trimmed up for safety, I guess. They looked weird.

The sotol on the left looks like a green whisk. Lovely split tips (where they hadn’t been trimmed off yet) on Dasylirion acrotrichum to the right.

I love the scent of lantana on a warm summer day.

Peeking into the closed off propagation area.

Rainlily,  Zephyranthes candida, from South America. I wish they had some of the native species instead. 

Another clue that the customer base was very different at this nursery – rhubarb seeds. Most Mexicans would have no clue what rhubarb is. One of the few plants where the name was written in German (rhabarber) and not Spanish (ruibarbo).

After spending a good hour at the nursery, we needed lunch. I wanted to try traditional Mennonite food, so we headed to a local restaurant. Arriving, I again felt I was in the Midwest – old rusty truck planted with flowers, check.

This fellow was next to the bathrooms, though I would have put a miniature piccolo in its paws.

Sort of a typical Midwest farm restaurant interior, replete with farming memorabilia. We were thirsty and ordered a refreshing glass of cactus/apple juice.

I ordered two traditional dishes, a potato/sausage soup and Kielke, a pasta dish. The soup was pretty good, but I was surprised to see that it came with even more bread, and that the sauce was served on the side. I don’t have too much to say about the Kielke, except that it was very bland.

Afterwards, we headed to the local Mennonite museum.

A very green lawn.

This was a beautiful clawfoot tub to use as a planter. I was slightly envious. But, I remind myself here that I gave away our clawfoot tub planter this summer because it didn’t fit my aesthetic anymore.

Inside, we learned about how the Mennonites first came to Mexico, about farming in the early 1900s, and about Mennonite culture in general. Our tour guide spoke two types of German, Spanish, and English. He seemed quite proud to be one of the more liberal Mennonites who could wear modern tennis shoes, jeans, etc, while the more conservative Mennonites still wear traditional clothing and hold more outdated beliefs. I couldn’t help asking about whether there were any LGBT Mennonites in Cuauhtémoc, because some of the Mennonite denominations in the US have recently become more accepting. He blanched a bit and indicated that they definitely would not be supportive of that.

It’s one of those difficult topics that was on my mind while visiting the Mennonite nursery earlier. If I lived here in Mexico, would I buy from a nursery that sees LGBT people as sinful abominations? I don’t think there would be much choice. Where would I even find a nursery without such beliefs in a predominantly conservative Catholic country?

An early version of a riding lawnmower
Corn stripping tool

Anyway, I don’t want to get too stuck in the weeds on that topic. One last look inside the museum – I didn’t take many pictures because it was all stuff I’ve mainly seen before. This automated harvester, however, was pretty darn awesome, looking all the world like a steam-punk version of the famous Howl’s Moving Castle, a famous Japanese animated fantasy movie.

I hope you enjoyed this brief look into Mennonite history and a tour through one of their nurseries. The next post in the series will set the stage for a driving tour of neighborhood yards and gardens in Chihuahua, Mexico.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Kris P

    Wow, I expected a contrast with the other nurseries/areas you’ve showcased but nothing as pronounced as this. It did have a distinctly Midwest feel. I’m impressed by what the Mennonite community has achieved there. I wonder if their agricultural and other practices have had any significant impact on surrounding communities?

    I has only a very vague impression of the history of the Mennonites so thanks for sharing that. Unfortunately, conservative views about the LGBTQ community, abortion and the like are still widespread issues in Mexico (and even the US) – the Los Angeles Times published a front page article just this morning about a former right-wing conservative telenovela star in Mexico who’s attempting to register as an independent candidate for president of Mexico.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      They have had a significant impact on the surrounding community. Many come to Cuauhtémoc to buy farming supplies and the quality of their produce and dairy products are celebrated for miles around. It’s hard to have Mexican food in this region that hasn’t been influenced in some way by what the Mennonites brought to the region.

      Everything comes in small steps. I was encouraged that some Mennonite congregations are becoming more accepting. In the end, I think one of the most important things is to treat everyone with respect. It’s not easy and many of those who seek power probably aren’t the best people to wield it. Here’s hoping that people continue to embrace their better nature and turn away from divisive politics.

  2. Beth@PlantPostings

    Cheese, apples, plants, great food, and simple living…sounds good to me. And thanks for sharing highlights from Flor de la Rosa–it looks like it has quite a plant selection. I didn’t realize the Mennonites had such a history there. Wisconsin has more Amish than Mennonite, although both have a presence here. Both are fascinating cultures.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      I think some of our current social anxiety would be alleviated if people reconnected to their local community and turned off some of the many modern distractions more often. They are an interesting people and I enjoyed my time in their community.

  3. danger garden

    Cactus/apple juice!? Sounds delish! Interesting tour, the nursery looking very much like any I would wander into in these parts. The homes, hideous, but again very familiar. As for the conservative views, that must have been hard for you to hear and let go. When I’ve been in situations where I have to bite my tongue because I know things could quickly turn ugly if I challenged what I was hearing, it always leaves me feeling on edge and a little poisoned.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      There are a lot of cactus-based smoothies in Mexico. It provides a tart, very vegetative flavor.
      Politics have been wandering more and more into my plant world lately. I’ve tried to adopt patience with people who have different opinions than my own, asking questions to better understand where they are coming from. I’m still trying to find a way forward and don’t want to feed the political divisiveness that has been so toxic. It’s not easy. But, I’ve got a bigger goal that helps me keep focus when I need it most.

  4. Anna K

    Fascinating post. I had no idea there were Mennonites in Mexico. There were plenty of them in Ohio – and Amish too – when I lived there. The green lawns and apple orchards made more sense there. Here, they seem like swimming against the current – perhaps a testament to their determination to live as they did in Germany all these years ago, even if politics forced them to move to an entirely different biome. So strange… I didn’t even know you could grown apples in such a warm climate. To my limited knowledge, I thought apples need a substantially colder winter than what we can even get over here in the Willamette Valley.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      It was odd seeing such a large Mennonite presence in Mexico. They are definitely swimming against the current given the low amount of rainfall in the region. Chihuahua sees a surprising number of cold days in the winter, though probably fewer than here in Oregon. Maybe they grow varieties with less chilling requirements.

  5. Linda Brazill

    Wow. This was totally fascinating. It had never occurred to me that this group had history and a presence in Mexico. But seeing that grassy lawn was pretty shocking and distressing. But I guess it’s no different from many properties in the Southwestern U.S.

    1. Botanica Chaotica

      Luckily, most people in Chihuahua don’t have large green lawns. It’s mainly something that occurs in wealthier neighborhoods.

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