Landscape design Travelog

A Little More Yucatan in Your Yard

Port of El Cuyo
Port of El Cuyo. Photo: Mathieu Hodgson.

Last week, in A Little Bit of Yucatan in Your Yard, I presented some of the plants I came across in the sandy streets of the small fishing village of El Cuyo, located in the Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico (even on vacation, I can’t stop thinking about gardening!) This selection was a synthesis of what I saw in the small private gardens of the villagers, but also a list of plants that could be grown in more northern places, as indoor plants in winter and outdoor plants in summer. Some of our readers may be able to grow them outdoors, or at least find hardier varieties of agaves, palms and dracenas.

All in Bloom

Aside from the Geiger tree (Cordia sebestena), which is not found much as a houseplant, the majority of the flowers I observed were growing on the oleander (Nerium oleander). This shrub is found in the wild around the Mediterranean, stretching into Southern Asia, but has since been naturalized in several parts of Mexico, including the Yucatan.

Oleander (Nerium oleander). Photo: Mathieu Hodgson.

Grown outdoors, the oleander can reach 7 m (22 ft), while indoors we rarely see specimens over 2 m (7 ft). This shrub is very useful in landscaping because of its resistance to drought and its size. Personally, I love plants like this one, which have lanceolate foliage, as their texture stands out in a garden. Plus, what fun when its leaves rustle in the wind!

Despite the beauty of its dark foliage, the main interest of the oleander remains its flowering. Its flowers, originally pink, are now white, yellow, red, salmon and, depending on the cultivar, can even be bicolored.

The oleander is quite easy to grow indoors but it’s more of a challenge to make it bloom. To do so, it will need a resting period. Leave it in a place with cool nights during winter 60 F (16°C) and less light (which is quite easy considering the shortening of the days). Also reduce watering during this period. Then, bring it back into your garden when night temperatures remain above 50 F (10 °C). Resume fertilizing it in small doses with an all-purpose fertilizer and let the soil dry out between waterings. Oleander adapts to the dry air of our homes but, like most plants, prefers more humid conditions.

Ti (Cordyline fruticosa). Photo: Mathieu Hodgson.

A Little Red Please!

With all these green foliage plants and the sand that surrounds them, plants with red or pink hues stand out and are very popular in the gardens of El Cuyo. Thus, the Ti (Cordyline fruticosa) or the Moses-in-the-cradle (Tradescantia spathacea) are found in most gardens for this reason.

I have often seen the Ti alone. Because of its considerable size (4 m outdoors, 1.5 m indoors) and its bald stems forming a 30 to 50 cm leaf cluster at the top, it’s often found in isolation where it’s the center of interest. Since it requires medium to bright light, regular watering (don’t let its potting soil dry out too much) and moist conditions, it is not the easiest houseplant. Without these growing conditions, it will wither. Although it’s native to the western Pacific, it can now be found in the wild in Mexico. If you can’t find it in a garden center, the Madagascar dragon tree (Dracaena marginata) is also available in a pink variegated version and could replace it.

Moses-in-the-cradle (Tradescantia spathacea). Photo: Mathieu Hodgson.

Moses-in-the-cradle, native to Mexico and Guatemala, is often used in the village as a small hedge or border, sometimes in front of a fence to reduce its visual impact. Almost stemless when young, it forms rosettes of 20 to 30 cm high as well as large leaves, green on top and purple underneath. It can reach 70 cm. Easier to store than Ti, it still needs medium light, regular watering and a humid atmosphere. Under intense light, it can even produce small white flowers.

The prickly pear (Opuntia dillenii). Photo: Mathieu Hodgson.

Spike It Up

My next plant of choice was not visible in the gardens, but I was so surprised to see it on the water’s edge in the lagoons of Ría Lagartos Nature Reserve Park that I added it to my list. The prickly pear (Opuntia dillenii) is native to Mexico and Jamaica, but is now found in southern Europe, South Asia and Australia in the wild. This cactus can grow up to 1 to 2 meters (3 to 6 ft) high and wide and has flattened leaves. It produces yellow flowers and edible fruits.

You won’t find it in cultivation. However the genus Opuntia is composed of about 250 species, some of which can grow in cooler climates. The Eastern Prickly Pear (Opuntia cespitosa) is even found in Canada, in southern Ontario. In general, opuncias, need bright light, but tolerate dry air. Grow them in a draining potting soil or a potting soil for cacti and succulents, which is allowed to dry out completely between waterings. Be very careful with opuncias because the glochids, fine miniature needles found on the aureole at the base of the spines, can penetrate under the skin. Touch them at your own risk!

So add a little spike to your garden with a prickly pear!

Béton estampé rougeatre
Concrete is the main building material in El Cuyo, like this stamped concrete space… and a Wilke’s Acalypha (Acalypha wilkesiana). Photo: Mathieu Hodgson.

Designing a Yucatan Garden

If I had to pick one material that is a must for coastal landscaping, as found on the Yucatan Peninsula, it would be sand! Unfortunately for your garden (but fortunately for the person vacuuming), it’s not realistic for many of us to use in our yard. But, in addition to sand, these landscapes are made up of wood, stone and concrete.


Concrete is used as the building material par excellence in this southern region, both for buildings and gardens. Patios and walkways made of concrete, sometimes stamped with a natural stone pattern, can be found, as well as concrete walls in places where here in Canada one would use a wooden fence. Although the concrete is often painted, it’s always pale and faded from wind and sand wear. In the north, a beige or beige-gray paver with a natural stone texture could be used in its place, as unreinforced concrete tends to crack in northern climates.

Bordure de Pierre jaune,
Yellow stone, typical of El Cuyo’s development. Photo: Mathieu Hodgson.

Yellow Stone

Yellow-beige stone is also seen in Yucatecan landscaping. In Quebec, where I live, there is a lot of gray rock, which explains its preponderance as a building material. The gravel used in the south of Mexico is rather yellowish. A yellowish-beige decorative gravel could be used in your pedestrian areas, patios or as mulch. Garden walls in El Cuyo are often built with this same stone, but in larger pieces, stacked about 1 m (3 ft) high. Otherwise, a cut stone of the same color is used as a facing on a concrete wall.

Clôture de branche
Branch fence. Photo: Mathieu Hodgson.


In this village, wooden fences are usually made of thin branches, more or less straight, fixed on posts or planted in the ground. Timber isn’t used much in this region, so the result is a rustic rather than a refined style. At home, bamboo could be a good alternative, but also woven branches.

So bring a little bit of Yucatan home, whether it’s in your living room or in your backyard! After a little cerveza (or several), you might even hear the waves breaking on the beach…

4 comments on “A Little More Yucatan in Your Yard

  1. Oleander actually prefers arid climates, and is more susceptible to pathogens in more humid situations. It used to be quite common in freeway medians here. Unfortunately, most of it has succumbed to oleander scorch. It was unavailable from nurseries for a while, and now that it is again available, it is much less common, and it is no longer installed on freeways. It is unpopular for home gardens because it is toxic. However, it is less toxic than several other plants that are seriously toxic. I grew up with it while it was still common, but never heard of anyone getting sick from it. Modern cultivars are sterile, so do not make those annoying seeds. Old cultivars that make the seeds, are lightly fragrant. They bloom pink. Some are light pink, and some are a bit richer pink. I do not believe that any bloom red, white or peach. Yellow oleander is actually a different genus.

    • Larger cultivars of oleander are populary pruned up as small trees. Those with peachy or double bloom do not get big enough, and some have floppy growth. My oleander bloomed clear white, and was about ten feet tall over a small patio. It seems that most oleander trees bloom white, perhaps because one of the white cultivars gets so big. Most others are either simple red or simple pink. Those with rosy pink bloom tend to be floppier. Trees require staking for a long time, and should be pruned back aggressively at the end of winter until their trunks can support their weight.

  2. redfoxtails

    Makin’ me want to go to Mexico again! Prickly pear cactus can also be found growing wild in southeastern Alberta and I have seen it used as a landscape plant in hot dry locations – and to deter trespassers! Love the look of Oleander, especially in bloom; but please be aware that all parts of this plant are highly poisonous to all mammals including people and pets.

  3. Love this! Several of the ladies in my family love Oleander. I love the prickly pear and bamboo. I never knew what a Yucatan yard would look like but it speaks to me! Thank you!

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