THE BEAN FAMILY
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
Guanacaste, 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 leucocephala
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.
Tsalam, 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 dye.
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 thick margin.
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.