malvaceae

Pseudobombax septenatum - Ceibo Barrigon, Barrigon

Pseudobombax septenatum is a large tree with a tall straight trunk that is usually swollen at the base. The bark has bright vertical lines, especially apparent in juvenile trees as is apparent in the images below.

P. septenatum is a highly deciduous species, dropping all of its leaves around December and leafing out again with the rains in April and May. The trunk stores water during the dry season and the tree uses these stores to fill out flowers and fruit. 

 

I took these photos on the island Pedro Gonzalez off the Pacific coast of Panama. This species species appears to be one of the tallest canopy trees on the island. 

Theobroma cacao- Chocolate, Cacao

BACKGROUND, ORIGIN AND DISTRIBUTION

There's a lot that can be said about this species.

Some of the latin synonyms are: Cacao guianensis Aubl., Cacao minus Gaertn., Cacao sativa Aubl., Theobroma caribaea Sweet, Theobroma interregima Stokes, Theoboma kalagua De Wild, T. leiocarpa Bernoulli, T. pentagona Bernoulli.

Some of the folk names include: Ah kakaw (Lacandon), aka-'i (Ka'apor), aka-'iwa (Ka'apor), bana torampi (Shipibo), biziaa (Zapotec), bizoya, cacahoaquiahuit, cacahoatl, cacahua, cacahuatl, cacao, cacaocuahuitl (Aztec).

The list of folk names goes on and on. Cacao has been a significant species for melenia. The tree was cultivated throughout areas of Central America 4,000 years ago where it was venerated as a divine substance, a food of the gods, and was primarily consumed during rituals and offered to the gods. Thus the plant genus is called Theobroma, meaning "gods" "food" in Latin. Cacao is a word borrowed from the Mayan language and refers to the tree, the fruit, and the drink that is prepared from the fruit. The word chocolate is derived from the Aztec word xocolatl.

USES AND ETHNOBOTANY

Cacao beans were held in extremely high regard by the Aztecs who used them as food, stimulant, medicine and currency. Notably, as a currency, the cacao bean was typically used as standard fare to pay prostitutes. Perhaps this has something do to with the beans aphrodesiac properties.

The Aztec viewed the cacao tree as a gift form the god Quetzalcoatl. The following, extracted from an Aztec text, provides a precise description of the tree and of the drink:

Cacaoaquavitl - Cacao Tree

It has broad branches. It is simply a round tree. Its fruit is like the ears of dried maize, like an ear of green maize, some whitish brown. Its name is "cacao ear." Some are reddish brown, some whitish brown, some bluish brown. Its heart, that which is inside it, its filled insides, is like an ear of maize. The name of this when it grows is cacao. This is edible, is drinkable. This cacao, when much is drunk, when one consumes much of it, especially that which is green, which is tender, makes one drunk, has an effect upon one, makes on ill, makes one confused. If a normal amount is drunk, it makes one happy, refreshes one, comforts one, strengthens one. Thus it is said: "I take cacao, I moisten my lips. I refresh myself." (Sahagun, 11)

Initially, when cacao beans were first brought to Europe by Hernan Cortez it was used almost exclusively in the production of love drinks

Today, although the wild form of the plant (T. lacandonense) is found only in the jungles of southern Mexico, domesticated cacao can be found grown as a crop throughout many of the tropical rainforest regions of the world, throughout the Americas, in southeast Asia, and parts of Africa.

I have found wild cacao relative, Herrania purpurea, on an island off the Caribbean coast of Panama. The pod is smaller than T. cacao. When opened the pod contains a similar white pulp surrounding smaller seeds.

Interestingly, in ancient Nicaragua, cacao farmers were required to abstain from sex for thirteen days prior to planting cacao seeds so they would not make the chocolate god (moon god) angry.

Generally speaking, cacao served (and still serves) the important function as a vehicle for administering other psychoactive plants and fungi (Ott 1985). The Aztecs ingested cacao together with entheogenic mushrooms (Psilocybe spp.) Associated rituals are still practiced amongst numerous tribes today.

In ancient America, cacao was esteemed as a tonic and aphrodisiac. Cacao is also used in indian fold medicine to treat diarrhea and scorpion stings. Kuna women (Panama) drink a decoction of the fruit pulp as a pregnancy tonic. Fresh young leaves are applied externally as an antiseptic agent. In Peru, cacao is drunk primarily as a diuretic and in cases of kidney infection.

Cacao beans contain 18% protein, 56% lipids, 13.5% carbohydrates, 1.45% theobromine, .05% caffeine, and 5% tannin.

The following cacao recipe was said to have been brought by conquistador Hernan Cortez to Spain in 1528:

700 g cacao

750 g sugar

56 g cinnamon (probably Canella winterana)

14 Mexican peppercorns (Capsicum spp.)

14 g spice cloves (Pimenta dioica)

3 vanilla pods

1 handful of anise (probably Tagetes lucida)

1 hazelnut

musk, grey amber, and orange blossom water

Adansonia digitata - Baobab, Muyu (Chonyu), Mbuyu (Swahili, Digo), Muramba (Embu)

The Baobab appears to be a somewhat disproportional tree, with a massive trunk and gnarled, twisting branches.

The fruit grow to around 25 cm long, with a hard oval shell and longitudinal grooves, like a football. The pod is packed with seeds embedded in an edible cream or white pulp.

The cream can be eaten raw, or alternatively dissolved in water and stirred into a milky paste, served as a drink. Coconut juice is commonly added. The seeds can be sifted off and roasted like groundnuts.

In times of famine the soft tuber-like root tips are cooked and eaten. Germinating seed roots are also eaten, and young leaves are used as a vegetable, often mixed with cassava leaves.

The pulp covered seeds are coated with colored sugar and sold as sweets in coastal towns in Kenya (where the tree is most common).

A. digitata is also employed as a plant medicine. A decoction of the bark is used to steam-bath infants with high fever. A juice made from the mashed pulp is drunk to treat fever.

This versatile tree also yields a fiber (taken from the trunk) used as string for weaving baskets and ropes. Strings are first stripped from the trunk, chewed for softening, then woven.

Adansonia digitata leaf.jpg

Trees are traditionally used for placing bee hives, assumedly due to the high quality honey produced with the pollen of its flowers.

In parts of Kenya it is believed that the appearance of new leaf growth or flowers is an indicator that the rainy season is going to start. Fallen trees provide a huge amount of biomass and decompose over time improving the soil quality significantly.

Adansonia digitata trunk.jpg

Perhaps more then any other tree in east Africa, this one is associated with complex myths, legends, and beliefs amongst peoples in areas where it grows. For instance: Young plants are never cut down, while large trees are never debarked (for sap or fiber) just before the onset of rainy season for fear that to do so would keep rain from falling. The Baobab is considered to be a sacred and peaceful tree. A cut in the tree is said to bleed like a human being. And in the region of Meru, there is a belief that a person will turn into the opposite sex if they walk in a circle around the tree with a goat.

The tree is easily propagated from seed. For higher germination rates seeds can be scarified or put in boiling water briefly and let to cool. Naturally a seed can take several years to find water and germinate. The tree is very slow growing and should not be planted near houses as lateral roots can reach lengths of a hundred m or more. A tree is said to begin producing fruit after 60 years, so plant one now!

In Kenya there are three distinct varieties, differing mostly in the degree of sweetness of the pulp and size of the seed. The shape of the trees and fruit will also vary.

Adansonia digitata tree.jpg

Pachira aquatica - Guinea Chestnut, Apompo

Pachira aquatica is a medium size tree native to tropical wetlands of Central and South America. Its native habitat tends to be seasonally flooded lowlands or swamps, however it is adaptable to a wide range of tropical environments. The large, oblong fruit is full of large seeds which taste reminiscent of peanuts, and can be eaten raw, cooked, or ground into flour to make bread. The leaves and flowers are also edible.

Interestingly Pachira aquatica and close relative Pachira glabra are both used and sold with braided trunks as the "money tree", an indoor plant that is supposed to bring monetary wealth. Personally I prefer to plant them in the ground outside. 

Pachira glabra - Saba nut, Guinea peanut, French peanut

BACKGROUND, ORIGIN AND DISTRIBUTION

Bombacopsis glabra leaf.jpg

Originating in Mexico, Guiana, and  northern Brazil, Pachira glabra is similar looking and closely related to Pachira aquatica, the Malabar chestnut. In Brazil the Saba nut is a fruit tree, cultivated as an ornamental in south-eastern areas of the country.  It is not very frequent in its natural habitat, the pluvial Atlantic forests from Pernambuco to Rio de Janeiro and the flood plain forests of Para and Maranhao. Today this species is distributed throughout the tropical world, used both as an ornamental tree and a food crop. 

It is a small evergreen tree 4-6 m tall. The fruits are semi-woody capsules which stay green even when ripe. Like many of the Bombacaceae species P. Glabra has a very fat trunk to store water. Just after germination the girth of the trunk becomes noticeable, almost disproportional to the rest of the tree.

USES AND ETHNOBOTANY

The tree produces a fruit/pod which contains many edible seeds which can be consumed raw or toasted/roasted/boiled. The seeds contain 16% protein and 40-50% fat. P. glabra along with P. aquitaca are both considered to be among the more notable under appreciated tropical food crops.

The young leaves and flowers of P. glabra (and P. aquatica) are also edible. 

Bombocopsis glabra fruit.jpg

Mature trees will produce between 50 - 80 fruits per year.

PROPAGATION AND CULTIVATION

The tree can be propagated from seed, cuttings, and air layers. Trees are resilient to both droughts and flooding. 

USES IN REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE

P. glabra makes a fantastic full sun / deep shade tolerant, medium size, understory seed/nut crop. Trees are resilient to pests, they drop a thick leaf biomass year round and produce abundant fruit. The trees are relatively maintenance free aside from irrigation upon initial establishment. 

Cola nitida - Cola nitida, Cola nut, Abata cola, gbanja cola, goro cola, labozhi kola

ORIGIN AND DISTRIBUTION

C. acuminata is indigenous to Congo, Nigeria, and Gabon, while C. nitida (photographed above) occurs naturally in Ashanti, the Ivory Coast, and Sierra Leone.

USES, ETHNOBOTANY AND NUTRITION 

Cola nitida flower. 

Cola nitida flower. 

The seeds, or nuts, of Cola have been chewed since ancient times in West Africa for their stimulant properties. Cola nuts make up a very important product in regional West African markets. Historically, cola nut was also used to flavor cola soft drinks but are now largely supplanted by synthetic products. The embryo, seed, or “nut”, varies considerably in size and weight. A nut will typically contain 2 – 3 percent caffeine, to which the nuts stimulating effects are ascribed. Theobromine is also present in the nut in significant quantities.

Cola nitida seeds / fruit. 

Cola nitida seeds / fruit. 

As far as nutritional value, the cola nut is unimportant, as only small amounts are consumed. The nuts do, however, have some health benefits when used in moderation. Seed extracts are used to treat mental and physical fatigue, and are considered useful as a tonic (mild diuretic, secretion of gastric juices is stimulated). People suffering from ulcers or hypertension should restrict their intake of caffeine.

PROPAGATION AND CULTIVATION

Cola nitida germinates quickly from seed. The fresher the seed the better. As with many tropical species, seeds to not retain viability for very long.

Seedling leaves of Cola nitida.

Seedling leaves of Cola nitida.

When cultivated, the tree is typically managed below 10 m high, with long lateral branches, like cacao. Cola acuminata is considered secondary in masticatory quality to C. nitida.

I took the photos in this post at Summit Botanic Garden outside Panama City.

Two lesser known species are bamenda cola (C. anomala), and owé cola (C. verticilla)

Chiranthodendron pentadactylon - Devil's Hand, Mācpalxōchitl

OVERVIEW

Chiranthodendron leaf.

Chiranthodendron leaf.

The Genus Chiranthrodendron comprises a single species, C. pentadactylon. The tree is called the Devil's, monkey's or Mexican hand tree or the hand-flower in English, the árbol de las manitas (tree of little hands) in Spanish, and mācpalxōchitl (palm flower) in Nahuatl, all on account of its distinctive red flowers, which resemble open human hands.Common names include Arbol de las Manitas (Spanish), and mācpalxōchitl (palm flower) in Nahuatl.

ORIGIN AND DISTRIBUTION

The tree is native to Guatemala and S. Mexico, growing to 10.5–27.5 m (35–90 feet) in height. I took the photos in this post at the UC Berkeley Botanic Garden in California. Fortunately my timing was perfect to collect seed which I then propagated. Five years later I have 40 ft tall trees in the ground. 

USES AND ETHNOBOTANY

Chiranthodendron mature seedpod.

Chiranthodendron mature seedpod.

From what limited ethnobotanical information I can find: solutions containing the tree’s flowers are used as remedy for lower abdominal pain and to treat heart ailments. Similar solutions are used to reduce edema and serum cholesterol levels and are used as diuretics.

Chiranthodendron mature seedpod.

Chiranthodendron mature seedpod.

Pseudobombax ellipticum - Shaving Brush Tree, Amapolla

OVERVIEW

Pseudobombax ellipticum.jpg

Pseudobombax ellipticum, is a species of plant in the Bombacoideae subfamily of the Malvaceae family. known in English as Shaving Brush tree (in reference to the flower) is native to Mexico and Central America where it is referred to variously as Acoque, amapola, árbol de doncellas, árbol de señoritas, calinchuche, jilinsuche, matías, pilinsuchil, pumpo, shaving bush, shilo, shilo blanco, shilo colorado. I took these photos in Jalsico, Mexico where it is called Clavelina.

Mature trees grow to about 60 ft developing an engorged, bottle-shaped trunk.

USES

Uses include firewood and wood for carving handicrafts.

The attractive flowers are used to decorate homes and churches in Central America. In Central America, a highly intoxicating drink is made from the tree.

Pseudobombax ellipticum trunk. 

Hibiscus acetosella - Cranberry Hibiscus

Overview

Cranberry Hibiscus flower and leaf.

Cranberry Hibiscus flower and leaf.

Cranberry hibiscus, also known as False Roselle, is a member of the large and diverse Malvaceae family with botanical relatives such as Baobab (Adansonia spp.), cotton, okra, cacao (Theobroma spp.) and Durian (Durio spp.) among many others. Hibiscus is the largest genera in the Malvaceae family with over 300 species.

Cranberry hibiscus has bright red edible leaves and is nematode and insect resistant and grows well in sandy soil. The leaves can be eaten raw and have a somewhat tangy yet agreeable flavor, similar to sorel. The pink blossoms can be blended with citrus juice and sugar to make a brightly colored beverage. I use cranberry hibiscus raw primarily in mixed salads. The leaves do contain oxalic acid, thus should not be consumed regularly in massive quantities.

Origin

Native to East and Central Africa.

Propagation

Cranberry hibiscus can be propagated from either seeds or cuttings. Seedling plants tend to live longer and be more productive. Seeds can be sown any time of year in the tropics, or in early spring in a greenhouse in cooler climates. Germination is typically fast. Germinated seedlings can be transplanted to individual pots, or directly into the field if protected during initial establishment.