Fish-poison Tree, called Habim around
Mérida and Habin farther east, is Piscidia piscipula. Also in English
sometimes it's called Jamaica Dogwood. At right you can see that the pinnately compound
leaves look like ash leaves, except that they are alternate instead of opposite (one leaf
at a twig node instead of two). In riverless Yucatan the natives appear not to know that
bark and foliage of the tree were traditionally used for poisoning fish so they could be
collected easily and eaten. Instead, they think of the tree strictly in terms of its very
strong, tough and durable inner wood which, I have found, is very hard to drive a nail
into. Flowers are white to purple with red stripes, and the distinctive fingerlike fruits
bear curly "wings." However, during the winter dry season when most northerners
are visiting the Yucatan you seldom see these. To identify the tree from similar species,
notice the leaflets' ± rounded tips and the curiously zigzagging manner of the young stem
tips, as shown in the picture above.
Balché: See our special page on Balché
or Pich in Maya, is Enterolobium cyclocarpum. Often it catches the eye
because it grows into such a large tree, in rainy places with rich soil up to 100 feet
tall, with widely spreading boughs. Except for its size and its lack of spines, its leaves
could be confused with those of an Acacia. Its legume is a distinctive fruit, however,
large, thick and curved into a C-shape. Frequently grown in towns, it is sometimes
confused with the next species, which also appears along many streets.
ROYAL POINCIANA, Delonix regia.
A native of Madagascar in Africa, this species is included because frequently it is
planted as a street tree.throughout the world's tropics. During the rainy season it may
bear abundant, large, brilliantly red flowers. When not flowering often it is adorned with
heavy, woody legumes over two feet long, causing some to say that when it's in fruit it's
as ugly as it is beautiful when in flower. The doubly compound leaves are up to two
feet long, providing dense shade. The tree tends to be dark and dense, growing up to 40
feet tall and spreading widely.
Wild Tamarind, Leucaena
Wild Tamarind, called Guaje in much of Mexico, and by
the Maya name of Uaxim here, is Leucaena leucocephala. Abundant and much
seen along roads, the small tree bears no spines. Its flowers are white, clustered in
small, spherical, stalked heads. The pods are very flat and thin, 2.5 - 7 inches long, a
little over half an inch wide. At the beginning of the dry season, in November and
December, the almost-ripe, still green pods bear small seeds that can be cooked and eaten.
They taste very good, but you need a lot of seeds to make a decent dish.
Bahama Mimosa, Mimosa
bahamensis, is often very common along roadsides and recently abandoned fields. In
other words, despite being woody, it's almost weedy. It seldom grows more than ten feet
tall. The species' flat legumes are fairly distinctive, bearing brownish, papery wings
along both sides of the flat pods. Also, if you look closely you can see how often two or
more pods arise from the same stem, or peduncle. The local folks more or less ignore this
plant, it being too small to produce firewood, and not known by them as medicinal. Its
abundant flowers do feed untold numbers of nectar- and pollen-seeking invertebrates, which
in turn feed birds, which perform many services in the scrub, so Mimosa bahamensis is
a worthy citizen nonetheless.
Lysiloma latisiliquum, doesn't catch your eye until well into the dry season,
around March, when its elongate, inch-wide, flat, swollen-margined, honeylocust-like pods
start maturing, as shown at the right. Before that time you can be forgiven for thinking
that the tree is just another feathery-leafed Acacia. One of Tsalam's claims to
fame is that its bark and heartwood provide local Maya artisans a reddish to brown dye.
Traditionally this dye has been used in dying henequen (sisal) products such as handbags
and hammocks. The dye's exact hue depends on the age of the tree and seasonal weather
patterns. The bark can be chipped and stored. The smaller the pieces, the more vibrant the
Sweet Acacia, Acacia farnesiana,
is easy to identify when it's flowering because of its orange, marble-size flower
clusters. Also note its small, compound leaves and pale thorns. Sweet Acacia is abundant
in many arid areas not only in the Yucatan but also throughout most of arid Mexico, as
well as much of the rest of the world! In fact, botanists debate as to whether this is a
native plant in Mexico. Some say it's introduced from Africa. If it is an invasive
"weed tree" in the Yucatan, it pays its way. Its abundant flowers support many
insect pollinators. Planted close together, the spiny trees make a great "living
wall." The trees' roots host symbiotic bacteria that fix atmospheric nitrogen for
plant roots. The trees prevent erosion, their wood is durable enough to make
ground-contact fence posts -- plus the flowers produce a nice fragrance!
Gaumer's Aciacia, Acacia gaumeri, during the rainy
season bears broad, flat, thin pods with rounded, reinforced margins, clustered at the
tips of the tree's whitish, rather stout branches. The pods mature to the dark, purplish
color shown in the picture. A well developed pod has around eleven closely spaced, longish
seeds inside. Note the supstantial "empty space" between the seeds and the pod's
The twice-pinnate, ferny leaves could be confused with a number of
other Bean-Family trees.
Bull-horn Acacia, called Catsin
in Maya, is an Acacia. More than one Acacia species are considered
"Bull-horns." I'm not sure, but possibly the one at the right is Acacia
collinsii. Bull-horn acacias are easily identifiable by their ferny,
twice-pinnate leaves and large thorns that are curved and much enlarged at their bases --
causing them to look like a pair of bull's horns arising at the point of leaf attachment
with the stem. Like other bull-horn acacias, the thorns are often hollowed out by ants,
and the ants stay in them. Thus the tree offers the ants a home, and the ants help protect
the tree by rushing from the spines whenever their limb is disturbed, and attacking
whatever is at hand. By early in the dry season this small tree produces abundant clusters
of relatively large, brown legumes.