Central and South America

Crataegus mexicana - Mexican hawthorn

Crategeus mexicana fruit

I encountered this Mexican hawthorn tree at the Gold Ridge Experimental Farm in Sebastopol, CA - Luther Burbank’s former laboratory. Although much of the acreage has long been converted to housing development and only a small tract of the former farm remains, there are some interesting trees surviving. One area I return to whenever I visit is the small group of Cratageus species in the back where a few species, including C. mexicana, are still thriving.

Compared to the Chinese Hawthorn, C. pinnatifida, the Mexican hawthorn tastes much better out of hand and has an interesting aroma, reminiscent of some obscure tropical fruit or synthetic bubblegum.

The fruit of Crategeus mexicana is eaten in Mexico cooked, raw, or canned. It resembles a crabapple, but it has three or sometimes more brown hard stones in the center. It is a main ingredient used in ponche, the traditional Mexican hot fruit punch that is served at Christmas time and on New Year's Eve. On Dia de los Muertos tejocote fruit as well as candy prepared from them are used as offerings to the dead, and rosaries made of the fruit are part of altar decorations. A mixture of tejocote paste, sugar, and chili powder produces a popular Mexican candy called rielitos, because it resembles a tiny train rail.

In some parts of Mexico, tejecote is taken for treating flu and cough, and also to prevent several cardiovascular diseases.

Due to its high pectin content, the fruit is industrially processed to extract pectin for the food, cosmetic, pharmaceutical, textile and metal industries.

Other uses include food for livestock (for which the leaves and fruits are used) and traditional medicinal uses; a Mexican hawthorn root infusion is used as a diuretic and as a remedy for diarrhea and fruit-based preparations are a remedy for coughing and several heart conditions.

The Mexican hawthorn tree's wood is hard and compact, it is good for making tool handles as well as for firewood.

Bursera microphylla - Torote, Torote Colorado, Elephant tree


Pouteria sapota - mamey sapote

Originating in Central America, Mamey has become common in the throughout Caribbean, Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador. It is widely cultivated in the American tropics, sold in produce markets and, to a lesser extent, supermarkets. Historical records indicate that the Mamey served as the principal source of food for Cortez and his soldiers during their march to Honduras in 1524. The fruit was a very important food source for the Mayan and Aztec civilizations.

Depending on weather it is grown from seed or grafted, and depending on the variety, the Mamey tree can take on a variety of forms. Larger seedling varieties can grow up to 30 m tall, grafted trees can be managed at a relatively low height. The fruit is large, 10 – 20 cm long, either round or oblong with a thick, rough peel. The bright reddish pulp surrounds a large shiny seed. The photos below show an exceptionally large fruit, the largest I have ever seen.

Good Mamey varieties can be very sweet and aromatic, eaten fresh, or used in fruit drinks and ice creams. In Central America the large seed kernel is traditionally toasted and ground with cacao to make a hot beverage. Medicinal properties are attributed to both the fruit and the seed. The fruit is rich in carbohydrates, vitamin A and C, calcium and phosphorous.

Justicia pectoralis - Tilo, piri piri (South America), Chapantye (Cuba)

Justicia pectoralis is a low growing, branching sprawling shrub, can grow up to 3 ft. It has small lanceolate leaves and violet flowers, similar in appearance to those of snapdragons.

In areas of the Central American Caribbean coast it is considered to have aphrodisiac properties. The entire plant is dried in the sun and made into a powder before being used. Notably, the powder is effective only when it is taken via the nasal membranes, (as snuff), or smoked (in conjunction with Cannabis sativa). In South America one variety, Justicia pectoralis var. stenophylla, is used to produce psychedelic experiences or used as an additive in ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi). The plant contains psychedelically active tryptamines. A “tilo tea” is commonly seen sold in supermarkets, it has anti-inflammatory and relaxant effects.

Justicia pectoralis leaf.jpg

Manilkara zapota - Chico Sapote, Nispero

Indigenous to Mexico and Central America, Sapodilla (or Chico Sapote) is a traditional food plant of the Mayan and Aztec cultures and the source of chewing gum, or chicle, chewed by the Aztecs in pre-Colombian ties, still used in some commercial gums. The tree has spread to other parts of the tropical world, becoming a minor fruit crop. Although grafted varieties can be managed low, larger trees can reach a height of 20 m. The tree is evergreen and produces round or egg-shaped fruits, which vary in size. Good varieties can be truly incredible. A good Sapodilla tastes like brown sugar, very sweet and slightly gritty like pears.

Myrciaria glazioviana - Yellow Jaboticaba, Cabelluda

Sterculia apetala -Panama Tree

Cactaceae, Lemaireocereus thurberi, Organ Pipe Cactus, Pitaya Dulce

The Pitaya Dulce is another common cactus on the Baja peninsula. The nocturnal flowers are cream colored and bloom at night, closing the following morning. The Cactus bears an excellent spiny fruit about the size of a tennis ball containing sweet, pink flesh, with a flavor reminiscent of watermelon. The fruit pulp can be eaten fresh, or dried in the sun for future consumption. My Baja California field guide by Norman Roberts includes these interesting anecdotes concerning the Pitaya Dulce: That "Missionaries' records indicate the natives were generally hungry except during Pitaya season. Then they gorged on this wild harvest, spending the entire season in a state of euphoria." And that "the Natives defecated at a particular spot on the trail, later gathering their own dried feces to collect the tiny black Pitaya seeds that had passed through their intestinal tract undigested. These seeds were then ground into a meal to be eaten as a pozole. This was called "the second Pitaya harvest". The missionaries were thoroughly disgusted with this harvest and castigated the Aborigines for it." Of course, the missionaries never successfully survived for thosuands of years in this seeminly inhospitable landscape, which doesn't give them much room for criticizing the native inhbitants for their methods of adaptation.

The book then includes a note about the superb daiquiris that can be made from the Pitaya fruit.

The flesh of the Pitaya is traditionally used as snake-bite medicine, applied directly to the afflicted site.

Organ Pipe Cactus

Cactaceae, Lophocereus schottii, Old Man Cactus, Garambullo, Senita

This, I am pretty sure, is a young Old Man Cactus, growing on a ridge overlooking Bahia Magdalena in Baja, Mexoco. When the cactus gets larger gray, hair-like spines grow out of the top, giving  it a whiskered look, akin to an old man. The Cactus has small, pale pink flowers in the spring, which open at night, pollinated by bats and insects. Indians used to make tea from the cooked, sliced stalks to help relieve ulcerated stomachs. On the Mexican mainland slices of this species are sold in markets, used as a treatment for stingray wounds. The chopped stems were used to stupefy fish, also used as cattle forage.

The small red fruit was eaten by aborigines when other food was scarce.

Old man cactus