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Colubrina arborescens, medicinal plant, tannin for Mayan hides

Colubrina arborescens tree discovered in Parque Nacional Yaxha Nakum Naranjo

While on the Rio Ixtinto, courtesy of a lancha kindly provided by the Yaxha Nakum Naranjo park administrators (CONAP and IDAEH) we discovered a tree species known for other parts of Mesoamerica but not yet documented for Tikal. This is good evidence that the Yaxha national park has eco-systems not (yet) found in the remarkable Tikal park.

Colubrina arborescens (P. Mill.) Sarg., Family Rhamnaceae, is called Greenheart or snakebark.

Costex is a word for it that no one mentioned when we asked what tree this was. Also called coxte or guayabillo.

Names in Yucatan peninsula are: pimienta ché (español-maya); chak buuj lu'um che', cakte' kajum (maya). (Flora de la Peninsula de Yucatan, www.cicy.mx). But this web site lists not one single use.

Multiple uses of Colubrina arborescens plants

Balick et al (2000: 111) list it as BEV, CNST, MED, and PRD (but without indicating what that product is).

Construction is general since if you are desperate you will use whatever wood is available. BEV is very interesting. Can’t help but notice that tannin is not included in this Belize usage list.

The primary question is whether these uses are for lower Mesoamerica or for Belize, and if for Belize whether for the Q’eqchi’ Mayan people or other people. So one purpose of this FLAAR report is to raise awareness of the need to document edible (drinkable) and utilitarian plants but with specific details. Plus the present FLAAR report is dedicated to raising awareness that the Parque Nacional Yaxha Nakum Naranjo is a great place to undertake research on eco-systems, plants, mushrooms, lichens, birds, animals, reptiles, insects and all other aspects of this Neotropical part of the world.

Lundell lists Colubrina heteroneura and Colubrina reclinata in his index (1937: 228). Colubrina reclinata “Its leaves and wood are said to impart a yellow color to water.” In his The Vegetation of Peten, in the section Northern Peten, for the family Rhamnaceae he lists only Krugiodendron ferreum (Vahl) Urban. Quiebra hacha, for Uaxactun (1937: 68). I learned about quiebra hacha when I lived and worked at Tikal for 12 months (1965-1966) plus when I lived and worked at Yaxha in the 1970’s. Lundell and his colleagues collected mainly in other parts of Guatemala than Yaxha, though he does have many plants in his list from roads leading into Yaxha in the 1930’s.

Colubrina arborescens is not present in Vol. 24, Part VI of Fieldiana Botany monograph series (Standley and Steyermark 1949: 282).

Cook does not list Colubrina arborescens in her excellent coverage of the Lacandon (Chiapas, Mexico). Pennington and Sarukhan also do not include it for trees of Mexico. And in the 54 years I have been in the Mayan areas, no one has ever mentioned this tree to me. We only found it because it was physically next to bright red flowers of another bush that we were photographing along the shore of the Rio Ixtinto.

The flowers of Colubrina arborescens do not stand out as noticeable until you are literally a few inches away from them. We moved the boat to the shore and I stood up to photograph down onto the flowering areas of the branches of the Colubrina arborescens tree.

Uses of Colubrina arborescens

http://tropical.theferns.info/viewtropical.php?id=Colubrina+arborescens
cites World Agroforestry as source of all its information
www.worldagroforestry.org/treedb/AFTPDFS/Colubrina_arborescens.PDF

  • Beverage (as noted by Balick et al. 2000: 111)
  • Medicinal
  • Aphrodisiac (but not listed by Ratsch and Mueller 2003).
  • Seeds used for necklaces.
  • Wood has general use for various purposes.
  • Good firewood.

Colubrina arborescens for tannin

Tannin is used to cure hides to make leather. The Classic Maya had two species of deer and five species of felines (of which they used a lot of jaguar hides and probably occasionally puma hides). The other three felines are rather small but their hides were certainly still used (margay, ocelot and jaguarundi).

Dictionary of Trees, Volume 2: South America: Nomenclature, Taxonomy and Ecology by M. M. Grandtner and Julien Chevrette say it contains tannin, alkaloids and saponins; and has seeds for necklaces and other ornaments (page 151).

Helps local Bees produce nicely flavored Honey

Apiculture: The species is considered a honey plant, furnishing both nectar and pollen to honeybees (Apis mellifera L.)

The plant attracts abundant insects including bees, wasps, butterflies, and diurnal moths, which in turn provide food for warblers (Dendroica spp.), gnatchers (Polioptila spp.), kingbirds (Tyrannus spp.), and vireos (Vireo spp.).
www.worldagroforestry.org/treedb/AFTPDFS/Colubrina_arborescens.PDF

The leaves of Colubrina arborescens have useful chemicals

Has potential as shade tree for cacao, both for shade and for providing leaf mass along the ground. These benefits are mentioned in various articles.

The specimen we found along the Rio Ixtinto was more like a bush or young tree, as most plants along the bank of any Peten river have to survive the rising and falling of the water level, plus the soil at the edge of rivers and lakes tends to erode and fall into the water (bringing the plants with it).

So now we have another tree, present at Yaxha but not yet listed for Tikal

Surely Colubrina arborescens grows somewhere in the extensive Parque Nacional Tikal but we have not yet found it in Lundell’s list of plants in northern Peten (a regional list within his 1937 monograph, which is mostly on La Libertad and savanna areas of Peten). Perhaps this tree is not in the Tikal area because there is no free flowing river like the Rio Ixtinto at Yaxha.

Although the Rio Holmul passes through the Tikal park area, it is just a series of occasional pools of water (as is the same “river” along the edge of Nakum and later near Naranjo). This “river” is dry most years, in fact in 2018 it was still not flowing even during August through December; and same in January 2019: just a series of pools separated by dry river mud. But all the native Guadua bamboo were happily growing along the several kilometers that we have inspected so far (Nakum and westward within the park; we still need to have time and funding to study the Nakum-to-Naranjo portion of the Rio Holmul).

Although the Rio Ixtinto does not have very fast current, it was a functional stream every month that we were at Yaxha during 2018 (August through December).

I estimate that Colubrina arborescens should be found along streams that are tributaries of the larger Rio de la Pasion, though modern pollution and population growth are causing most river bank vegetation to be totally chopped down and exterminated. So it’s great that all of us who worked starting in the 1970’s and through the 1990’s until the park was fully established.

Since Parque Nacional Yaxha Nakum Naranjo has eco-systems not in other adjacent parks. And since Yaxha, Nakum, Naranjo park has most of the eco-systems of much of the rest of Peten (except for pine forests and savanna areas), we high recommend the Yaxha Nakum Naranjo eco-systems as a fruitful place for botanists, ecologists, and students to visit to do their research, theses, and dissertations.

Brief Introductory Suggested Further Reading on Colubrina arborescens

M. M. Grandtner and Julien Chevrette
Dictionary of Trees, Volume 2: South America: Nomenclature, Taxonomy and Ecology

PDF, Articles, Books on Colubrina arborescens

  • FERNÁNDEZ, Rafael
  • 2010
  • Nombres comunes, etnobotánica y distribución geográfica del género Colubrina (Rhamnaceae) en México. Revista Científica UDO Agrícola. Vol. 10, No. 1. Pages 7-22.

    Available online:
    www.bioline.org.br/pdf?cg10002
  • GRANDTNER, M. M. and Julien CHEVRETTE
  • 2005
  • Elsevier’s Dictionary of trees: Vol. 1: North America. Elsevier. 1529 pages.
  • GRANDTNER, M. M. and Julien CHEVRETTE
  • 2013
  • Dictionary of Trees, Volume 2: South America: Nomenclature, Taxonomy and Ecology

 

Suggested webpages with photos and information on Colubrina arborescens

www.backyardnature.net/mexnat/coffeeco.htm
Lots of nice photographs.

www.worldagroforestry.org/treedb/AFTPDFS/Colubrina_arborescens.PDF
(Orwa et al. 2009) Has the most complete information but does not cite where each use takes place (which country, which part of each country). No photographs, but the information by itself definitely helps.

www.theplantlist.org/tpl1.1/record/kew-2731457
Synonyms.

www.freshfromflorida.com/content/download/13736/233883/Colubrina%20arborescens.pdf
Information.

http://tropical.theferns.info/viewtropical.php?id=Colubrina+arborescens
Information and photos.

 

First posted, February 2019
Text by Nicholas Hellmuth. Bibliography prepared by Marcella Sarti, FLAAR Mesoamerica

 

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