Josefina Lizarraga grew up surrounded by plants. That’s her first and most reasonable explanation why she is devoted to plants which, under her thumb and watch, grow easily and abundantly.
Lizarraga is a self-taught horticulturalist, orchardist, and ethnobotanist – or as one of her fans put it, a gardener “extraordinaire.” Her specialty is to coax tropical fruits from her west-side gardens. Mangos, guayabas, avocados, as well as a myriad of other non-desert plants, have grown in the small spaces behind her home and her florist business of many years.
Now, in a perverse turn, she has to give up her beloved plants and trees because she has developed a serious reaction to the strings of the wasps that enjoy her plants as much as she does.
Standing amidst plants and small trees that are sitting in all sizes of containers outside her St. Mary’s Road flower shop, Lizarraga said it takes her back “home.”
Home for the 76-year-old Lizarraga is Nayarit, a small state on Mexico’s west coast, tucked between Sinaloa and Jalisco. Rain forest blankets its sierra.
She grew up in a railroad stop, on the Pacific coast line that connected Nogales, Sonora, with Guadalajara, Mexico’s second-largest city. Her mother ran a restaurant, where train workers would stop to eat, alongside neighbors. Lizarraga soaked up their stories of places far away, and the tales of the mountains and jungle of Nayarit.
What she prized the most, she said, was the knowledge that her mother, grandmother, and the elders possessed about the flora and fauna that enveloped the railroad town. The inquisitive Lizarraga became hungry to know the names and properties of the plants.
“I got to know all the gardens of my town,” she said.
It became her passion which she carried with her when she moved to Nogales, Sonora, and eventually to Tucson in the early 1960s.
But the desert shocked her. The Sonoran Desert had its unique plant life but it wasn’t home for Lizarraga.
Undaunted and still possessing a zest for learning, she added a passion for adapting to a new environment and climate. And as she did as a child, Lizarraga began to explore Tucson, looking for new plants and plants she knew.
“I learned how difficult Tucson could be but I learned how to grow through trial and error,” she said. “You have to observe. You have to study the plants.”
In the course of her self-education, Lizarraga became well known and respected for her knowledge of plants. In addition, Lizarraga became a cultural caretaker of Roman Catholic traditions and tales of regional life. Writers and researchers knocked on her door or dialed her telephone number.
Among the many traditions she is known for are large, colorful paper flowers. Her work was part of a 1992 national exhibition, Traditions of the Life Cycle, which included a stop at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Local folklorist and author James Griffith cited Lizarraga in his book, “Hecho a Mano: The Traditional Arts of Tucson’s Mexican American Community.”
She has held paper-flower-making exhibitions at the Arizona State Museum, Tucson Botanical Gardens, the Arizona Historical Society’s Cordova House, and the annual Tucson Meet Yourself festival.
And she’s respected in the Tohono O’odham community for her knowledge of their way of life and customs. For more than 40 years, she has been one of the few non-Tohono O’odham who decorate the altar at Mission San Xavier del Bac at Christmastime.
Eight years ago I wrote a column about Lizarraga when she was ready to sell her business, West Boutique Florist, 1470 W. Saint Mary’s Road. She didn’t, however.
This time she insists she’s serious about closing her shop and letting go of her plants. Friends and newcomers are trooping to her store to select her prized plants.
She’s accepting of the fact that, like her plants, she is part of the circle of life. It’s time to do something else, she said. But knowing Lizarraga, she’ll continue doing what she does best.
“I will keep asking questions,” she said. And she’ll keep on telling stories.