Toggle navigation

Roberto Burle Marx

Tropical wonder - Sandra visits the house and garden of the highly influential tropical garden designer Roberto Burle Marx and is inspired by his artistry.


The home, studio and garden of Roberto Burle Marx is called the Garden of Wonders, or, more correctly, El Jardin des Maravillas. It’s just outside the city of Rio de Janeiro and I was keen to visit and find out more about this highly influential 20th century landscape designer.


Burle Marx was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil in 1909 and he first studied painting, catching the great wave of abstract expressionism that swept the art world in the early 20th century. While studying painting in Germany he developed an appreciation for the native Brazilian vegetation, which was prized by the Botanic Gardens in Berlin, but dismissed at home in Brazil as scrub or bush.


The promenade at Ipanema, with its mosaic paving and islands of tropical gardens, is Burle Marx's best-known landscape. Photo - Sandra Ross

By the 1930s Burle Marx had swapped paint for plants, applying an abstractly artistic vision to landscape. Using Brazilian plants in a unique approach that combined his fine art training and his love of music and sculpture, Burle Marx started creating unique landscapes for private commissions. His work caught the eye of modernist architects le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer and with them he created some of his most influential works.

Burle Marx designed more than 1,500 gardens and parks and perhaps the most recognisable of all his landscapes is the promenade at Copacabana, Rio de Janiero’s famous beach. The promenade stretches for some five kilometres, as a winding ribbon of abstract stone mosaics. From the upper buildings that line Avenida Atlantica, Burle Marx appears to have painted a giant single canvas.

An exhibition devoted to his work has been developed to celebrate the centenary of his birth. The curator of the exhibition, Lauro Cavalcanti, says, “Burle Marx created tropical landscaping as we know it today, but in doing so he also did something even greater. By organizing native plants in accordance with the aesthetic principles of the artistic vanguard, especially Cubism and abstractionism, he created a new and modern grammar for international landscape design.”


Burle Marx's studio. Photo - Sandra Ross

So, you can imagine how I had been looking forward to seeing the home and garden of this amazing designer. And it doesn’t disappoint. It’s an artistic blend of great swathes of plants, with mountains, lakes and dwellings. All Burle Marx’ many talents are on display here: his sculptures, paintings, pottery and murals, as well as his plants.

This ’sitio’ of approximately 100 acres was bought initially to house his plant collection, and was later lovingly restored to be his home and a small 17th century chapel for worship. The house sits in a forest clearing, and careful attention is given to the balance of void and vegetation, which must be kept in equilibrium. This is a difficult task in a tropical climate where everything grows fast!

The house is surrounded by 800,000 square metres of gardens planted out with 3,500 plant species. Burle Marx was particularly fond of Brazilian orchids, palms, water lilies, heliconias, rhoeo and bromeliads. Landscape design, he once wrote, “was merely the method I found to organize and compose my drawing and painting, using less conventional materials.”


Dramatic agaves feature all through these gardens, this one in flower with an enormous spike. Photo - Sandra Ross

There is a lovely cool outdoor room with a simple kitchen for entertaining; a precursor of our contemporary courtyards. A dramatic and colourful tiled mural dominates this space. Attached is a substantial pergola with the exotic jade vine, Strongylodon macrobotrys, hanging as a curtain of of claw-like flowers.

The Pond Terrace below the house features a lush green lawn, a classic pool and palms and bromeliads. At one end a tall stone plinth is mounted with a bromeliad. At the other stands a carved timber ‘totem’ pole.

Burle Marx’ layered planting style, with massed plantings of ‘always separated’ colours, gives the garden a timeless quality and a beautifully relaxed style. Huge clumps of orchids, bromeliads and staghorn ferns hang in the trees. It was quite an experience to be immersed in such a rich landscape.


The colorful flower spike of a bromeliad. Photo - Sandra Ross

My favourite part was the water garden at the foot of the steep slope up to the house. The backdrop to this dramatic yet serene garden is a gentle waterfall with huge boulders of dark stone carefully positioned to allow water to trickle down the slope and into the ponds. These are planted with a superb combination of textured plants including palms, mussaenda, rhoeo, alocasia, alcanteras, bamboo, gingers, hibiscus and bromeliads.

Burle Marx died in his beloved home in 1994. He had donated his property, in trust for posterity, to the Brazilian government in 1985.


Eucalypts line the main driveway entrance to Burle Marx's garden, underplanted with alocasias, ferns and other foliage plants. Photo - Sandra Ross


Plant notes:


Bismark palm

Plant name: Bismarckia nobilis

Description: this most beautiful of palms is native to Madagascar so prefers a tropical climate. Its rounded, silver-blue fronds are up to 3m wide, divided into stiff pleated segments.

Size: in its natural state it can reach 25m, but in cultivation grows to 12m. The stout trunk gets to 45cm diameter.

Special comments: Burle Marx used these palms as accents in the background of his lake garden where they catch the light and “glow”. 

Photo -


Elephants ear

Plant name: Alocasia

Description: burgundy, almost black, heart-shaped glossy leaves make this a highly desirable foliage plant. It loves a wet bog or pond location.

Size: to 0.5m in individual clumps

Special comments: used by Burle Marx to soften the edges of the pond garden.

Photo - Sandra Ross


Moses in a cradle

Plant name: Rhoeo discolour

Description: this tough little plant has bicoloured green leaves with a pink stripe and a deep purple reverse. Each plant grows in a rosette form. Planted en masse, in a warm climate, it makes a fabulous carpet.

Size: 20cms.

Special comments: Burle Marx used this plant extensively through his garden because of its stunning foliage, texture and colour.


Photo -

Lobster claw

Plant name: Heliconia

Description: this exotic tropical plant from South America (Peru, Colombia and Ecuador) is grown for its spectacular flowers. It likes heat, bright shade and plenty of moisture in the air and the soil.

Size: plants grow into large clumps of banana-like foliage to a height of 2m.

Special comments: flowers are long-lasting, so make an excellent cut flower. 

Photo -



Plant name: Alcantera imperialis

Description: this giant Brazilian bromeliad has tough leathery leaves and a thick red flower spike carrying hundreds of lightly fragrant, white flowers.

Size: the rosette of green foliage reaches 1.5m tall and wide. When mature the red flower spike grows to a height of 3m.

Special comments: Burle Marx used alcantera as an accent foliage plant. Look out for the fabulous red form of Alcantera imperalis ‘Rubra’.

Photo - Linda Ross


Text: Sandra Ross

About this article

Author: Sandra Ross