Achuar women carrying their machetes and baskets full of yucca and plantains.
Gardens have held an important role in civilizations and communities throughout history. From the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, to the elaborate landscaping of English Gardens, the local community garden and the Victory gardens of World War Two – gardens have been a source of beauty, inspiration and connection to nature, and a way to produce food essential for survival.
Gardens have a special place in Achuar culture as well. Their gardens have a unique spiritual and cultural significance embodied through traditions and rituals.
The Realm of the Woman
In Achuar culture, the family garden is the realm and responsibility of the woman. Each day, as soon as the sun rises, the Achuar woman is in her garden, which can be as big as an acre.
With a machete and a basket, the Achuar woman will harvest food and herbs, and meticulously maintain her garden to keep it clean. This is incredibly important because gardens attract snakes, and keeping the garden tidy keeps makes it easier to identify and stay away from snakes. Snake bites are more common in gardens than in the jungle because snakes like to come out of the shadows to bathe in the sun, and Amazonian snake bites can be fatal.
As she works in the garden, the Achuar woman will sing to the goddess Nunkui, Mother Earth, to ensure that her garden will be fruitful. The garden is the Achuar family’s main source of food, and if a woman’s garden is not productive, her family could starve. It is said that a woman who does not sing to the goddess will not be able to feed her family.
In her garden, the Achuar woman is accompanied by her children, who use that space to play and learn. She will teach her daughters how to garden, and hand down her sacred plant knowledge to the next generation.
What Grows in the Achuar Garden
Yucca, potatoes and plantains, the mainstays of the Achuar diet, can be found in every garden. Theses starches provide most of the calories of the Achuar diet. Yucca, also called manioc root, is used to make Chicha, a fermented beverage rich in probiotics that the Achuar drink every day, and in ceremonies.
Women will also plant fruit and nut trees like guava, papaya, lime, lemon, and coconut. They plant garlic, onions, and many herbs such as basil, and mint. Achuar women will grow teas, like guayusa, a caffinated plant brewed every morning in the Achuar household.
Medicinal plants are grown as well, but these plants are kept secret because it is sacred plant knowledge. Women might not even share a medicinal recipe with her own sister, the knowledge is so sacred.
For plants like guayusa and yucca, women will not start a plant from seed, but from cuttings instead. They will choose the best, most resilient stalks of yucca, cut them off and replant them to proliferate her garden. But for squash, fruits, and nuts, women will save seeds from fruits they eat, and use them in their gardens later.
A Sacred Place
Because it is a source of sustenance and knowledge, the garden is a very sacred place in Achuar culture. The garden is especially sacred and significant because it is where women give birth to their babies.
When a woman is ready to give birth, it is tradition for her to go to her garden alone, surrounded only by Mother Nature, to deliver her child. Birth is seen as something so sacred that it is only shared between mother and child in the very sacred space of the garden.
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