Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

Balché, LONCHOCARPUS RUGOSUS, leaves & flowers

from the December 25, 2011 Newsletter issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort beside Chichén Itzá Ruins, central Yucatán, MÉXICO

Balché is one of the Yucatán's best known trees because a drink concocted from its soaked bark, also called balché, is much used during Maya rituals. When at the four sides of a ceremonial area a shaman pours something from his jícara cup, usually he's pouring balché. Traditionally the balché drink was slightly fermented but what I've drunk didn't seem fermented at all. It was sweetened with honey and tasted of cinnamon and woodsmoke. Over the vast Maya domain different Balché species are used for the drink.

In mid-November I photographed our local native Balché species, LONCHOCARPUS RUGOSUS, at the peak of its flowering period. You can see its flowers and leaves above. A pinnately compound leaf from the tree is shown below:


The leaves are similar to the North's ash tree leaves, except that Balché leaves arise singularly at each stem node. The species name "rugosus" derives from the technical term "rugose," which means "wrinkled." In the above photo you can see how leaflet surfaces are a bit sunken above veins, or "impressed." On the leaflets' undersides veins stand above the blade surface, which is densely and roughly hairy, as seen below:

Balché, LONCHOCARPUS RUGOSUS, underside of leaf

A close-up of some fully and partially open flowers is shown below:


These are classic "papilionaceous" flowers typical of the Bean Family. Note the distinctive, rusty-colored hairiness on the backs of the top petals -- the "banners."

Nowadays our trees have discarded their abundant flowers, which carpet the ground like dry, brown confetti. The vast majority of flowers produce no fruits; usually only two or three fruits result in each flower spike. You can see some broad, thin fruits below:

Balché, LONCHOCARPUS RUGOSUS, fruits, or legumes

Often in gardens another Lonchocarpus species is planted. It's Lonchocarpus violaceus, introduced from the Lesser Antilles and Northern South America. You can see its larger flowers and smoother leaflets at http://www.backyardnature.net/yucatan/lonchoca.htm.

By the way, all the books I've seen use the spelling "balché," with the accented e indicating that "balché" is the Spanish rendering of the Maya word. That means that the word must be pronounced with the emphasis on the last, accented syllable. However, the shamans I know emphasize the first syllable, pronouncing it "BAL-che."

from the December 27, 2015 Newsletter issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort beside Chichén Itzá Ruins, central Yucatán, MÉXICO

Nowadays Balché is producing nearly mature fruits, as shown below:

Balché, LONCHOCARPUS RUGOSUS, maturing legumes

Since Balché is a member of the Bean Family, the fruits are legumes, and their seeds are beans. Balché legumes are unusual in that each bears only one or a very few beans. They're also noteworthy for each legume bearing on one side a kind of double ridge instead of just one sharp margin. Below, you can see two legumes exhibiting the legumes' two kinds of sides:

Balché, LONCHOCARPUS RUGOSUS, legume form