Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter


from the January 30, 2011 Newsletter issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort beside Chichén Itzá Ruins, central Yucatán, MÉXICO

The dry season becomes ever drier, more and more herbs die back and more and more trees lose their leaves. Deep in a forest with so many leafless trees that it looked wintry to a Northerner's eyes, despite the heavy, scorching heat, a Cinnamon Hummingbird's wing- whir drew my attention skyward, where among a jumble of slender, naked branches I saw what's shown above.

That's the terminal raceme, or flower cluster, of the small tree the Maya call Chakmolché. It's ERYTHRINA STANDLEYANA, endemic to the Yucatan Peninsula and part of Belize. We've seen the genus Erythrina before, when we met a Coral Tree planted in Querétaro (see it at http://www.backyardnature.net/q/erythrin.htm).

But that species bore leaves and its red flowers weren't as slender and gracefully arrayed as these. It created an altogether different effect from the present tree, which bore not just one scarlet raceme but several.

You can imagine what effect this beautiful and somehow magical-seeming display had on the ancient Maya, their minds already suspended in a universe of spiritual beliefs in which snakes spoke, enemies conquered with evil eyes, and only the shamans knew how to help you survive. In fact, Chakmolché is well known by the Maya.

Seeds, bark and stems of the various Mexican species of Erythrina contain compounds that paralyze the motor system. They're so poisonous that in some cultures they're used to stupefy fish to make them easier to catch, and to poison animals. They've been employed as a hypnotic agent. In various places in Mexico the roots have been used when sweating out poisons is required -- they're "sudorific." The leaves supposedly promote menstrual discharge and a decoction of the flowers is used for chest problems. The juice of the stems is applied to scorpion stings. Also the seeds themselves are supposed to protect from "evil winds."

Chakmolché is a member of the Bean Family, and its slender flowers are papilionaceous like so many other flowers in that family -- each blossom bearing a top "banner" petal, two side "wings," and two petals below fused along their common margin forming a scoop-shaped "keel." However, Chakmolché's flowers are so slender that you have to break them apart before you can recognize the five special petals.

Our Chakmolché's fruits and seeds had long vanished, but about ten feet up, one side of an old, empty seed pod, or legume, was wedged in a branch's fork. It's worth looking at, for its shape showing such narrow constrictions between the parts that once held seeds, or beans, helps clinch the tree's identification. That´s it below: