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Sitio Roberto Burle Marx: Sometimes the Garden Doesn’t Die With the Gardener

Great Gardens: Sitio Roberto Burle Marx in Rio de Janeiro

Some gardens are obviously designed, but the best are an organic extension of their surroundings and their maker. The Sitio Roberto Burle Marx in Rio de Janeiro is just such a garden. From the parking area a path meanders uphill through either gardens or forest, it is unclear which. As you continue through the beautifully under-planted trees, the charm of the estate grows on you. The garden designer, Roberto Burle Marx, is famous for creating a space that has no edges. Closer to the many buildings, small pools and rock outcroppings are natural looking arrangements of colorful plant specimens. Working away from these “centers” you soon realize you could be in a jungle, or a brilliantly recreated one. You are on what looks like a game trail when suddenly a series of blocks become stepping stones to another level. It was all a garden path! That genius of design will leave you wanting to meet the gardener, but you are too late.

Sitio Burle Marx in Rio de Janeiro Brazil
Sitio Burle Marx in Rio de Janeiro Brazil

Also Read: Why Brazil Should Be On Everyone’s Bucket List

Roberto Burle Marx was an artist, designer, and visionary landscape architect who left his mark not just on Brazil, but on the entire world of horticulture. He originated a landscaping form that complemented modern architecture as it preserved the exotic plants of his native Brazil. His garden designs, the plants he selected, many of which he discovered, and his overall artistic sensibility contributed to the functionality and beauty of estates, public spaces and gardens throughout the world. Sitio Burle Marx was his home, his trial garden and his plant nursery. It opened to the public after his death in 1994.

Sitio Roberto Burle Marx
Sitio Roberto Burle Marx

The Sitio isn’t exactly a museum, but it does house the extensive collection of artwork Burle Marx created and acquired in his lifetime. Sculpture, paintings, textiles, a fine assortment of pre-Colombian ceramics, even a remarkable collection of elaborately carved puppets, are displayed throughout the buildings and grounds. The Sitio isn’t just a botanical garden, either, although the 100 acre estate displays his collection of more than 4500 exotic plants from Brazil and around the world. Hundreds of species of ferns, bromeliads and trees, including the Brazilian ironwood and the rare lacquer palm of Malasia, fill the hillsides, wetlands and grottos of this carefully crafted landscape. There is also a treasure of a church in the garden; a small 16th century chapel dedicated to St. Anthony. Sometimes the whole is greater than the parts. Besides everything else the Sitio is finally a monument to the brilliance of its creator.

Sitio Roberto Burle Marx in Brazil
Sitio Roberto Burle Marx in Brazil photo source Wikipedia

One need only tour the city of Rio de Janeiro to clearly see the artistic talent of Roberto Burle Marx. It is everywhere. From the Botanical Garden to the many green areas, his designs for the open spaces show his love of the natural world. Of public gardens he said: “They return to the people the green that the city stole from them.” Copacabana Beach is arguably the best example of his artistic impact on the city. Certainly it is the most visible. Using traditional Portuguese material Burle Marx designed the entire beach promenade in small black and while tiles. The flowing waves of black tile undulate through a field of white, curving up walls and around traditional Brazilian plantings along the boulevard, making a bold and dramatic statement on the oceanfront. The creative use of tiles continues throughout the city, creating a difficult-to-maintain and walk on, but stunning work of art. No other artist’s work so permeates a city as his does Rio.

Roberto Burle Marx
Roberto Burle Marx 1981 by aroid from San Luis Obispo, CA, USA Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

Roberto Burle Marx first understood the importance of the flora of his native Brazil when he was studying art in Berlin in 1928. While visiting the Dahlem Botanical Garden he saw the lush tropical plants of Brazil featured in a way they never were at home, not as jungle plants, but as ornamental garden plants. When he returned to Brazil in 1930 he began a lifelong work of finding, identifying and using native plants in his landscape designs. He participated in and led many expeditions into the jungles of Brazil. As a political activist he worked for the protection of Amazon forests, while as a gardener he propagated and preserved the rare and nearly extinct plant species he found there. This led to his creating not only landscapes that are pleasing to look at, but also ones that are beneficial to the environment. The result is a widely recognized natural tropical design inspired as much by his knowledge of botany as by his artistic temperament. The epiphyte Aechmea burle-marxii, with variegated leaves and pink flower spikes, the green and maroon strap-leafed Neoregalia tristis variety burle-marxii, and the deep shade non-climbing Philodendron ‘Burle-Marx’ are but a few of his plant finds that were named after him.

Various Art Collection of Roberto Burle Marx
Various Art Collection of Roberto Burle Marx (Look: The red cloth looks like an Ifugao woven cloth)

In his lifetime, Roberto Burle Marx completed nearly 3000 landscaping projects. An excellent example of his expertise is in the Northeast United States. The incredible beauty of the diverse Brazilian flora is reproduced under glass in Longwood Gardens, a former DuPont estate in the Brandywine Valley region of Southern Pennsylvania. His Cascade Garden features sixteen waterfalls spilling down vertical walls and pillars of indigenous rock. They are thickly covered with a patchwork of form and color, as tropical plants climb, hang and drape over the many pools. The attached epiphyte plants take their nutrition from the air and the water so they thrive in the 80% humidity and bountiful cascades. Many are plants Burle Marx himself discovered and propagated at his nursery in Sitio Burle Marx.

Beautiful sidewalk at Copacabana beach promenade
Beautiful sidewalk at Copacabana beach promenade

Copacabana beach promenade
Copacabana beach promenade

Sitio Burle Marx was donated to a federal government cultural organization, now known as the National Institute for Cultural Heritage (IPHAN) in 1984. Roberto Burle Marx lived there until his death. Now it is a National Monument to the late landscape designer. The estate is open by appointment for group tours, just west of Rio de Janeiro, on the cities’ edge, not far from the Casa do Pontal.

Sitio Roberto Burle Marx, Estrada da Barra de Guaratiba.
Address: Estr. Roberto Burle Marx, 2019 – Barra de Guaratiba, Rio de Janeiro – RJ, 23020-240, Brazil
Phone: +55 21 2410-1412
Rio Visitors Bureau
TAM Brazilian Airlines
Longwood Gardens
Pennsylvania Tourism

Written by Richard Frisbie

Richard Frisbie is a travel, culinary, and garden writer whose work has appeared in a broad range of print and online venues, including EDGE Publications, InsideOut magazine,, and others. He is also owner of Hope Farm Press, editing and publishing regional books on New York State. Visit his websites,

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