Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the June 19, 2016 Newsletter issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort beside Chichén Itzá Ruins, central Yucatán MÉXICO
MAKAL/ EDIBLE XANTHOSOMA SAGITTIFOLIUM

Last summer when I lived in the little Maya village of Yaxunah 20 kms south of Chichén Itzá, I saw that many of the town's farmers grew a member of the Arum or Jack-in-the-pulpit Family, the Araceae, which they called Makal. It's very similar to the big Arrowleaf Elephant Ears, Xanthosoma sagittifolium, presently outside my hut door, only very much smaller, and seldom if ever flowering. You can see me standing beneath an Arrowleaf Elephant Ear leaf at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/elephant.htm

In Yaxunah and elsewhere in the Yucatan, I've not seen the Maya growing large plantings of Macal, but rather they scatter a few plants around their houses or next to their cornfields/milpas, or both places. Everyone knows that Macal tubers are edible, and they're pretty good when cooked, a little like boiled potatos, but nowadays people are gravitating away from such traditional foods, toward Coca-Cola and store-bought food. Macal is considered "poor-folks' food." The Arrowleaf Elephant Ears by my hut don't produce tubers.

Until now I've not commented on Makal in the Newsletter because I've always been unsure exactly what Makal is. For some years I waited to stumble upon a flowering plant -- flowers usually are the key to identification -- but now I'm thinking that Makal just doesn't like to flower, or it can't. The Arrowleaf Elephant Ears outside my hut flower readily, though their ovaries seem to abort and no fruits result. Makal doesn't even seem to try.

A few weeks ago, in mid April when I was in the Lacandon community of Lacanja Chansayab in Chiapas's Lacandon Reserve in extreme southeastern Mexico, I saw what looked like a belly-high Makal growing along a trail, and photographed it. It's shown below:

Xanthosoma sagittifolium

I'm bringing Arrowleaf Elephant Ears into the discussion about Makal because of whats said on an excellent web page on root crops of the Maya, in Spanish, produced by the Autonomous University of Yucatán, UADY, at http://www.mayas.uady.mx/exposiciones/exp_044444.html

There I read that the root crop Kukut Makal, which I'm just calling Makal, is Xanthosoma yucatanense, but that probably that name is just a synonym for Xanthosoma sagittifolium -- which is Arrowleaf Elephant Ears.

So, is the Lacandon plant Makal, and is Makal a cultivated form -- a cultivar -- of Arrowleaf Elephant Ear?

An important field mark separating Arrowleaf Elephant Ears from other look-alike plants is that its leaves' petioles attach to its blades in a certain way, which you can see at http://www.backyardnature.net/n/11/111120xo.jpg

On the Lacandon plant in Chiapas, the sinus connection is a little different, as shown below:

Xanthosoma sagittifolium sinus

The FAO produces a very informative page on Xanthosoma sagittifolium -- which they call Tannia or Yautia -- at http://www.fao.org/docrep/T0646E/T0646E0o.htm

There it's said that the cultivation of Xanthosoma sagittifolium may have originated in northern South America and spread through the Caribbean area and Central America. When Europeans arrived on the continent, it was already known from southern Mexico to Bolivia. They also write that domestication may have occurred in various places and with different materials, with different goals in mind.

The paper also says that there's enormous variability among the group of Xanthosoma sagittifolium-like edible plants, with some cultivars not assignable to any formally recognized species or cultivar name. Moreover, since seeds are seldom produced, reproduction is almost entirely vegetative. The paper sums up the name situation by saying that in recent years the tendency has been to give the name Xanthosoma sagittifolium -- Arrowleaf Elephantears' name -- to all cultivated clones of Xanthosoma, at least "... until a modern revision of the genus clarifies the taxonomic situation of the species mentioned."

I think that with regard to Makal's "real identity," that's about as far as I can go. The Lacandon plant is larger than Makal seen here in the central Yucatan, but that may be because there's more rainfall and the soil was richer in that part of Chiapas than here.