When time and funding permit, each flower (each plant species) will have its own page, and its own PDF, and eventually its own PPT so that professors and students have plenty of material on Guatemala (and Honduras, etc) to study.

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Pachira aquatica, zapoton, zapote bobo, crucial sacred flower for Maya archaeologists and iconographers to become familiar with Print E-mail

General situation of Pachira aquatica in Mesoamerica

Pachira aquatica has a remarkable flower and a huge fruit. The fruit looks like a giant zapote and for this reason is called zapoton (also spelled sapoton, as zapote is also spelled sapote). The outside color and fuzz of the zapoton reminds you of a zapote also. But inside it is totally different: zapote has one long dark brown seed; zapoton has a mass of seeds that together look like a segmented brain.

The tree is a member of the Bombacaceae, the Kapok-tree Family. You could tell that yourself even if not a botanist since the leaves are similar to Ceiba leaves. The fruit is, however, ten times larger, and there are fewer spines on the trunk. Nonetheless, this tree grows near the water and I bet crocodiles and caimans knew that animals would come feed on the fruits when they dropped into the water or onto the shore.

Ironically the best known Ceiba, Ceiba pentandra, has flowers which, to a non-botanist are totally different in size, shape, and colors than Pachira aquatica. But the flowers of Ceiba schottii (Yucatan, not listed for Guatemala), Ceiba aesculifolia (most of Mesoamerica) and especially of Pseudobombax ellipticum, are visually quite similar to the flowers of Pachira aquatica.

It is worth pointing out that Quararibea funebris, Rosita de cacao, a tree which is also sacred, and with remarkable chemicals in its flowers or other parts, is also a member of the Bombacaceae Family. However Rosita de cacao has neither leaves, flowers, nor fruit which look (to a non-botanist) anything like that of Ceiba or Pachira aquatica.

Pachira aquatica Zapoton fruit in tree by Nicholas Hellmuth with a Canon EOs 1Ds Mark III, Auto Safari Chapin Guatemala Agosto 2010. FLAAR Photo Archive.
Pachira aquatica Zapoton fruit in tree by Nicholas Hellmuth with a Canon EOs 1Ds Mark III, Auto Safari Chapin Guatemala Agosto 2010. FLAAR Photo Archive.

Charles Zidar is a helpful source of information on the Pachira aquatica flower related to Classic Maya art (Zidar and Elisens 2009).

Some specimens may have slight spines but of the seven trees I saw in one area of Guatemala (less than an hour from Monterrico), only one had spines that were large enough to be noticeable and these were only on the lower part of the trunk. There were no large conical spines like on the two common species of ceiba in Guatemala, C. pentandra and C. aesculifolia

Illustrations of the fruit (Parker 2008:103) show pronounced ribs, almost making it look like a cacao pod! But in Guatemala I have never, ever, never seen such ribs. That must be an immature fruit, or a mistake. The surface is smooth when the fruit is mature. The other discrepancy in Parker’s illustration is the size: in reality the fruit is huge, one of the largest tree fruits in all Guatemala.

This species is popular with serious gardeners, especially as a house plant and even for bonsai. Although the natural habitat of this plant is in the humid lowlands, it grows, and flowers, nicely at 1500 meters elevation in Guatemala City, in the Jardin Botanico.

Practical uses, other than symbolic

Several authors mention that the bark produces a red dye. But mostly it is the nuts, leaves, and flowers which are “edible”. However the following article reports that lab rats fed raw Pachira aquatica died within 6 to 8 days.

J. T. A. Oliveira, , I. M. Vasconcelos, L. C. N. M. Bezerra, S. B. Silveira, A. C. O. Monteiro and R. A. Moreira
Composition and nutritional properties of seeds from Pachira aquatica Aubl, Sterculia striata St Hil et Naud and Terminalia catappa Linn. Food Chemistry, Volume 70, Issue 2, 1 August 2000, Pages 185-191.

Pachira aquatica Zapoton fruit photo studio. FLAAR Photo Archive.
Pachira aquatica Zapoton fruit photo studio. FLAAR Photo Archive.

Common names

Common names are zapote bobo. Pumpo, zapotón

In other parts of Latin America it has completely different local names, such as Provision Tree in English-speaking Belize.

Even to a lay person the leaves look like what you would expect on a Ceiba, but the fruit is huge in comparison to any other ceiba.

amapola, zapote reventon (for Yucatec area of Mexico; comments by David Bolles, linquist)

zapote de agua, apompo (area of Los Tuxtlas; Angeles, Alvarez Guillermo. 1997. Pachira aquatica (apompo, zapote de agua). En: González Soriano Enrique,
Rodolfo Dirzo y Richard C. Vogt. (Editores). Historia Natural de Los Tuxtlas. Instituto de Biología-UNAM/Instituto de Ecología-UNAM/CONABIO. México, D. F. 133-135)

Where we photographed the tree they call it pumpo and also understood the other terms.

atoyaxocotl or fruit of the river could refer to Pachira aquatica Aubl., much used throughout its range as an aromatizer. (Gomez 2008)

Pachira aquatica Zapoton fruit photo studio. FLAAR Photo Archive.
Pachira aquatica Zapoton fruit photo studio. FLAAR Photo Archive.

Habitat of Pachira aquaticain the Mesoamerican area

I first noticed this tree along the shore of the Rio San Pedro Martyr, Northwestern Peten, Guatemala. In August 2009 we found about seven more of this tree along a lake about 45 minutes drive from the Pacific Coast in Guatemala. It likes to be physically adjacent to water, but is not like a mangrove and can grow away from water (if in a wet area and moist environment). However you may also find this tree in some mangrove areas (along Rio Dulce, Guatemala, for example).

I rarely see this tree along the Arroyo Petexbatun nor Rio de la Pasion, again possibly because during the rainy season anything on the “shore” would be several meters under water.

This tree is not difficult to find if you know what you are looking for, namely the flowers and fruit. If it has no flowers and no fruit, you would need to have memorized the leave pattern to recognize it from afar. However I do not remember very many in the Lake Yaxha (Peten) area. But you can find them along other areas of the country with standing bodies of water. However in some sections of the mangrove swamps none are present (or at least not noticeable). That is probably because those areas flood several meters each rainy season.

There are several Pachira aquatica trees surrounding the main aguada in the Tikal national park (the aguada behind the museum of stelae)

Pachira aquatica Zapoton whole fruit photo studio. FLAAR Photo Archive.
Pachira aquatica Zapoton whole fruit photo studio. FLAAR Photo Archive.

Flowers and fruits of Pachira aquatica

There were flowers and fruits on the Pachira aquatica trees at Tikal during early June. And flowers near the Pacific Ocean in early August. The tree in the Jardin Botanico (far outside its natural range) was flowering healthily during early August.

Pachira aquatica Zapoton peeled fruit photo studio. FLAAR Photo Archive.
Pachira aquatica Zapoton peeled fruit photo studio. FLAAR Photo Archive.

Pachira aquatica and leaf-cutting ants

At Tikal the leaf-cutting ants (zompopos) were cutting every fallen flower that they could find. The ants were not climbing into the trees to cut the flowers; the ants simply waited until the flowers fell. The ants cut up almost every single solitary part of the flower.

Related trees (Bombacaceae

Earlier in my discussion I have already commented on which trees have similar flowers or share other features. Below I list what Levy Tacher et al list as related (2006:83)

  • Ceiba pentandra, the normal and common ceiba tree
  • Ochroma pyramidale
  • Pseudobombax ellipticum
  • Quararibea funebris
  • Quararibea yunckeri

I can’t further comment because I am in the airport en route to lecture in Johannesburg, so I don’t have Trees of Guatemala with me. But Quararibea yunckeri is not a tree that I am familiar with. Nor with Ochroma pyramidale.

Pachira aquatica Zapoton cut fruit in half photo studio. FLAAR Photo Archive.
Pachira aquatica Zapoton cut fruit in half photo studio. FLAAR Photo Archive.

Tabulation of indigenous terms for Pachira aquatica In Mesoamerican languages

Very interesting that the tree is called wild cocoa (Guyana), cacao sauvage (Guadeloupe), cacao Cimarron (Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Venezuela),
It turns out this “ceiba” tree is called cacao in many countries of Central and South America (but not in Mexico, Belize, or Guatemala ).

  • cacao cimmaron (Nicaragua)
  • Cacao de agua (Venezuela)
  • Cacao de monte (Columbia, Costa Rica)
  • Cacao de playa (Nicaragua)
  • Cacao de playa (Nucaragua)
  • Cacau-falso, cacau-selvegem, (Brazil)

(Elsevier’s Dictionary of Trees: North America, M. Grandtner, p. 605). Some of these names are also cited much earlier by Pérez 1956.

One reason for calling the tree “cacao” is possibly because the seeds can be ground to make a hot drink with a taste comparable to chocolate but with a bad odor (Janick and Paull p. 182). They say that young leaves and flowers can also be eaten.

Gallery

 

BIBLIOGRAPHIES

Bibliography: Monographs on Pachira aquatica of Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Costa Rica 

Grandtner, M.
Elsevier’s Dictionary of Trees: North America

JANICK, Jules and Robert E. PAULL
The Encyclopedia of Fruits & Nuts.
Even if compiled from other sources it is an excellent compilation on the zapoton tree and fruit.

ZIDAR, Charles and Wayne ELISENS
2009 Sacred Giants: Depiction of Bombacoideae on Maya Ceramics in Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize. Economic Botany, Vol. 63, No. 2, pp. 119-129.

 

First posted August 2011.

 

Tobacco Ingredients of Aztec & Maya

Tropical Nuts

Spices, condiments, food coloring

Dye plants for textiles

Plants and trees used to produce incense

Camera Reviews for Photographing Flowers and Plants

Trees with conical Spines

Flowers native to Guatemala visible now around the world

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SUBJECTS TO BE COVERED DURING NEXT 6 MONTHS

Fruits (typical misnomer mishmash of Spanish language)

Fruits (vines or cacti)

Flavoring, herbs, and spices

Flowers, sacred

Plants which are sacred

Plants or trees that are used to produce incense

Most common introduced plants (not native)

We Thank Gitzo, 90% of the photographs of plants, flowers and trees in Guatemala are photographed using a Gitzo tripod, available from Manfrotto Distribution.
We thank Hoodman, All images on this site are taken with RAW CF memory cards courtesy of Hoodman.
Pachira aquatica, zapoton, zapote bobo, crucial sacred flower for Maya archaeologists and iconographers
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