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Garden of Gold

It was Sir Walter Raleigh who got me started on the garden of gold (I am always chasing Sir Walter and his moonbow).  His 1595 voyage to South America in hopes of finding El Dorado and regaining the favor of Elizabeth I, his ‘Cynthia’, was disastrous:  he found no gold, his eldest son Wat was killed, and upon his return he was accused of fraud in overstating the voyage’s prospects, a charge that eventually led to his execution.  He knew it might happen; knew that he was in danger as soon as he stepped onto English shores and so composed as masterful a document of spin as any political party ever used to torque a bad election result.

In his account of the  ‘Discovery of the Large, Rich, and Beautiful Empire of Guiana, with a relation of the great and golden city of Manoa (which the Spaniards call El Dorado) etc. performed in the year 1595”, Raleigh attempted to divert attention away from his failure by describing lots of things that he had heard about, but not actually seen, including this description:

“Yea, and they say, the Incas had a garden of pleasure in an island near Puna, where they went to recreate themselves, when they would take the air of the sea, which had all kinds of garden-herbs, flowers, and trees of gold and silver; an invention and magnificence till then never seen.”

Like Eldorado itself, it is a myth grown large in the retelling, but one that is nonetheless based in fact. 

There WAS a Garden of Gold. 

At Coricancha, the sacred precinct of the Incan capital Cuzco,  grew a supremely artificial and precious garden that honored not a decorative landscape tradition but a productive one:  the cultivation of maize.  

“They had also a garden, the clods of which were made of pieces of fine gold; and it was artificially sown with golden maize, the stalks, as well as the leaves and cobs, being of that metal.” 
The Second Part of the Chronicle of Peru, Pedro de Cieza de León
, 1532-1550

The only eyewitness account to survive is that of Pizarro, who is also the only one to speak of how the Garden of Gold was used, in a ritual 'growing' of the golden food:

"Away from the room where the Sun was wont to sleep they made a small field, which was much like a large one, where at the proper season they sowed maize. They sprinkled it by hand with water brought on purpose for the Sun.  And at the time when they celebrated their festivals, which was three times a year, that is when they sowed the crops, when they harvested them, and when they made orejones; they filled this garden with cornstalks made of gold having their ears and leaves very much like natural maize all made of very fine gold which they had kept in order to place them here at these times."

Maize was clearly the garden's patron saint, its centrality is apparent in all the accounts.  But they differ as to the other features of the garden:  de Leon describes twenty golden sheep and lambs, along with figures of shepherds to keep watch, while Garcillasso de la Vega (c. 1600)  recounts a complete landscape of flower, fowl,  and creeping things:  

“That garden, which now supplies the convent with vegetables, was in the time of the Incas a garden of gold and silver, such as they also had in the royal palaces. It contained many herbs and flowers of different kinds, many small plants, many large trees, many large and small animals both wild and domestic, and creeping things, such as serpents, lizards, and toads, as well as shells, butterflies, and birds. Each of these things was placed in its natural position. There was also a large field of maize, the grain they call quinua, pulses, and fruit trees with their fruit; all made of gold and silver.”

And the enclosing garden wall was covered with a band of gold all around its perimeter, to reflect the sun.  de la Vega's mention of the convent is telling; it is likely around the time of its establishment (c. 1571) that the garden disappeared into the yawning, insatiable maws of the Spanish galleons.

So in fact, the garden of gold was already gone by the time Raleigh penned his apologia.  As with all great troves, there are of course rumors that it was buried, that it was hidden, that it might still be found.  But for now only a few stalks of maize remain.  

Incan gold and silver stalk of maize from the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
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The Field of Gold said...

Amazing that they did have such a garden. There is a reason my own blog is called "The Field of Gold" It is my garden, and there are masses of real real gold here. Lots of it mined and lots not. However no lovely formed artifacts such as that maize. Kerry

College Gardener said...

Absolutely fascinating! While I am generally not one for artificial plants, this certainly speaks volumes about the appreciation the Incas must have had for the cultivated landscape.

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