Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the July 3, 2016 Newsletter with notes from a visit to Lacanja Chansayab in the Lacandon Reserve, Chiapas, MÉXICO

In mid April when I was in the Lacandon community of Lacanja Chansayab in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve in extreme southeastern Mexico, inside the Reserve where forest destruction wasn't as bad, often I saw a roadside tree I remembered from traveling in the area years ago, but which doesn't appear in the Yucatan because it's too dry there. The trees averaged 15-20ft tall (5-6m) and the eye-catching thing about them was their unusual shape. They were like giant umbrellas -- tall, slender, unbranching trunks topped with widely spreading, ferny-looking leaves. Below, you can see the tops of some:


The leaves themselves are remarkable, as seen closer up below:

Brazilian Fern Tree, SCHIZOLOBIUM PARAHYBA, leaf

They're about a yard long (1m) and doubly pinnately compound, like acacia leaves, and thus fairly typical of many members of the Bean Family, the Fabaceae, to which the species belongs. Unfortunately the trees bore neither flowers nor fruits, but I figured that with such unusual leaves I might figure out the trees' identity anyway, and that was the case.

They're SCHIZOLOBIUM PARAHYBA, sometimes known as Brazilian Fern Trees, despite their being native from southern Mexico south through Central America to southern Brazil. The "fern" part of the name refers to the species' similarity to tree ferns.

Brazilian Fern Trees can grow seven feet a year (2m). In Brazil an eight year old tree already had grown over 40ft tall (12.5m). Largely because they're such unusual looking trees, they're planted in the tropics and subtropics worldwide, even in southern California. During a brief part of the tree's life cycle it issues large clusters of cassia/senna-type, yellow flowers. Older trees develop branches and take on a somewhat gangling look. However, at the forest's edge, they definitely lend the landscape a wild, primitive look.