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Roberto Burle Marx was a Brazilian landscape architect, born in 1909. He was also an artist, landscape designer, and environmentalist. He didn’t just dabble in anything – designed thousands of gardens, and sat on councils/drafted legislation to stop the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.
As for the artist part, that made up every aspect of his life. He studied fine art, but preferred to make gardens his canvas. He wrote an essay in 1962, called The Garden as Art Form.
He actually studied art in Germany. He was suprised to see that the landscapes of Brazil were described as beautiful in Germany, whereas in Brazil it was considered untidy scrubland.
He is often referred to as the father of modernist landscape architecture, because he literally changed garden design. His passion for championing native species went against everything that gardening stood for at the time.
All of the photos in this article are examples of his work.
1 – His private collection is incredible
I’ve recently been trying to dive a bit deeper into where some of our popular house plants come from, and there are a few that seemed to start off in Burle Marx’s private collection.
However, since he amassed the collection himself, there’s no notes of whether he found them or hybridized them himself. Some plants, such as the Burle-Marx flame, are thought to have all descended from Burle-Marx’s original specimen, but we don’t know how he came to have them.
2 – He was a landscape designer not a botanist
Shamefully, I always just kind of assumed he was a botanist. Er, no. He was a landscape designer by trade, but a unique combination of a deep love of plants and a charismatic personality led to him becoming an advocate for several Brazilian causes.
3 – He spoke out against deforestation
This seems pretty run of the mill – millions of people speak out about deforestation. But Burle Marx REALLY spoke up. He sat on the Federal Council for Culture for seven years, and actually reviewed drafts of amendments to the Brazilian constitution. He was well known for his big, booming voice, and he used it to make impassioned species about the dangers of the exploitation of the government.
He also liked to throw big parties and sing at them. What a dude.
4 – He loved plants, but wasn’t a plant elitist
I love Burle-Marx’s garden design. I hesitate to describe his style, because I don’t really know the terms. You can look at some of them here. Let’s just say, it really wouldn’t surprise me if the set designers of Jurassic Park used his gardens as inspiration. Also video game designers. Oh, and Jumanji.
BUT one of the things that often surprised Burle Marx’s contemporaries was that he wasn’t particularly interested in using the latest plant and design trends.
He liked using common plants and always had an eye on what would make sense from an ecological point of view.
It seemed old-fashioned at the time, though the actual design was contemporary. It seems like Burle Marx was way ahead of his time since that way of thinking is at the forefront of garden design today.
5 – He collected over 3,500 plant species
This would be an incredible feat in itself, but it’s even more so when we consider the fact that he literally collected them. Like, from the wild, not from the local garden centre. He treated this collection like his own private nursery, and used it to provide the plants for his commercial work.
Many of Burle Marx’s gardens have been neglected over the years, but his own home and garden, Sitio Santo Antonio da Bica, is now owned and managed by the state.
6 – He networked to pull money to public spaces
We’ve already established that Burle Marx was incredibly passionate about the environment, particularly Brazil’s rainforests, but he went further than most. He demanded a seat at the table so that he could effect change, and also used his position to leverage politicians and people with influence to divert money to Brazil’s parks and open spaces.
7 – He designed more than 2000 gardens in 20 countries
Dude was prolific.
8 – He loved aroids
Big whup (whoop??), who doesn’t?
If I want a particular aroid, I go to my garden centre repeatedly until they have it. I’m not massive on buying plants online, so I don’t. Some people will scour eBay and Etsy, set up alerts etc. Some will go yet further, to plant shows and swaps, or even wheedle their way into professional nurseries.
Burle Marx was not like us.
He wanted to incorporate aroids into his design. He lived and worked mainly in Brazil, and wanted to use native plants, rather than rehashing the English Country garden look that most people think of when they hear the word garden.
He actually set up his own nursery, and went out to collect the plants he wanted to use. Such was his concern for the environment, and Brazil’s native plants, he worked on establishing a few specimens in his home nursery and propagating them himself, rather than taking as many specimens from the wild as he could find.
***I’m not condoning going and getting your own plants from the wild. I am condoning propagating the ones you have***
9 – Over 50 plants have the name Burle Marx in their name
We’re not entirely sure how many plants Burle Marx actually discovered, but we do know that more than 50 bear his name.
There are hundreds of plants called Caroline, though I don’t *think* they have anything to do with me. Nm.
I’d be interested to find out if he named the species after himself, or someone else did. From my research it seems that Burle Marx either wasn’t particularly interested in the origins of certain plants, or he just didn’t feel the need to catalogue them. Or the people running his estate are under strict instruction not to share the origins of his collections.
Oh, and one last fun fact: yes, he was related to Karl Marx. Their grandfathers were cousins.