Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the November 6, 2006 Newsletter, issued from Issued from Diego Nuñez's office above Restaurante "Isla Contoy," Río Lagartos, Yucatán, MÉXICO

Jabin, Jabim, Fish-poison Tree or Jamaican Dogwood -- PISCIDIA PISCIPULABoth at my earlier Yucatan locations and at Ek Balam one of the most common and conspicuous trees in the hacked- over, scrubby, weedy forest is what they called Jabim where I was earlier, Jabin here, and in English is often called such things as Fish-poison Tree, Fish Fuddle and Jamaican Dogwood. It's PISCIDIA PISCIPULA, a member of the Bean Family, with pinnately compound leaves very like ash-tree leaves, except that they arise singly at the stem nodes (are alternate, not opposite like ash). That's my picture of a Jabin leaf and an enlarging stem shoot above.

The "Fish-poison" and "Fish Fuddle" names point to one of the tree's most striking features: Its bark can be ground up, sprinkled into a pool of fishy water, and the fish will rise to the top, gasping for air, and then can be captured. Among the chemicals causing this paralysis are some known as rotenones. These chemicals affect cold-blooded creatures only, so people can eat stymied fish without problems.

As so often is the case, chemicals problematic in one dosage or environment are medicinal in another. One site says that the chemicals in Jabin are "sedative, anodyne, analgesic, antitussive, spasmolytic, anti-inflammatory." Jabin extracts can be used for "neuralgia, migraine, toothache, insomnia, spasmodic dysmenorrhoea. Specifically indicated in insomnia due to neuralgia or nervous tension." More info like this can be found at http://www.purplesage.org.uk/profiles/jamaicadogwood.htm.

Here in interior northern Yucatan where drainage is subterranean we don't have rivers, streams or lakes, so the Maya I've talked to have no idea about Jabin's fish- fuddling properties. What they do know is that the tree's heartwood is remarkably hard. I can attest to that, for I've certainly bent my share of nails trying to hammer it. Most of the time when I ask what kind of wood could possibly be so hard, the reply is "Jabin."

from the April 25,  2010 Newsletter issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort beside Chichén Itzá Ruins, central Yucatán, MÉXICO

So many plants are suddenly flowering that I fear over-flowering you. However, yet another conspicuously flowering, large tree very important because of its commonness and usefulness is the Habim, Jabim or Jabin. (In Spanish the J is pronounced as an English H, and in Maya "m" sounds are interchangeable with "n" sounds, to the desperation of students of the language!) In English usually we call Habim Fish-Poison Tree for reasons given in the section above.

You can see the flowering top of a large Habim tree, below:

Jabin, Jabim, Fish-poison Tree or Jamaican Dogwood -- PISCIDIA PISCIPULA, flowering tree

The ground beneath the tree photographed above was littered with so many fallen blossoms that it looked as if a snow flurry had passed through. You can see a flower, looking a lot like a garden bean flower, below:

Jabin, Jabim, Fish-poison Tree or Jamaican Dogwood -- PISCIDIA PISCIPULA, flower

Habim flowers have the right to look like bean flowers because the tree is a member of the Bean Family. The flower is classically "papilionaceous," typical of the Bean Family. In other words, it shows bilateral symmetry instead of radial, and of its five petals its top petal, the "banner" or "standard," is enlarged, its two side petals, or "wings," are held out like two vertically-held hands guarding the sexual parts between them, and the two lower petals are fused into a single scoop-shaped "keel," which usually folds around the sexual parts and arcs upward.

It's a little unusual for a flower to bear such a conspicuous green spot. This got me to wondering what a bee would see looking at a white flower with a green spot. On the Internet I found that bees can see only four colors, of which one color, ultraviolet, is invisible to normal human vision. Bees are blind to red, and to them orange, yellow and green are the same color –- yellow.

Therefore, a honeybee visiting a white Habim flower with a green spot will see a flower with a yellow spot. What color the flower itself is is hard to say because it might be reflecting UV.

from the May 16, 2010 Newsletter issued from Hacienda Chichen Resort beside Chichén Itzá Ruins, central Yucatán, MÉXICO

Now the Habims are fruiting and the fruits just as splendiferously transluce sunlight as earlier the flower clusters did. You can see a picture of this taken by my friends Jim and JoAnn -- who live near here and have a telephoto lens that reaches into treetops better than mine -- below:

winged fruits of Jabin, Jabim, Fish-poison Tree or Jamaican Dogwood -- PISCIDIA PISCIPULA

Most people interpret what's shown as flower clusters. However, they're clusters of very unusual fruits. Since Habims are members of the Bean Family the fruits are legumes. The dangling legumes themselves are very slender, but each legume bears four paper-thin, fin- like "wings." A typical four-winged legume with its pedicel emerging from a cuplike calyx is seen below:

winged fruit of Jabin, Jabim, Fish-poison Tree or Jamaican Dogwood -- PISCIDIA PISCIPULA

from the January 25, 2015 Newsletter issued from Río Lagartos, on the north-central coast of Yucatán, MÉXICO

In one of those occasionally flooded areas near the mangroves with very thin to nonexistent soil atop limestone rock where regular trees give way to cacti, agaves and scrub usually less than head high, this week a dry-season-leafless, woody bush has been prolifically producing clusters of white flowers. The flowers give a springy look to the hot, mosquitoey landscape, as shown below:

PISCIDIA PISCIPULA as flowering bushes

Up close, the blossoms show themselves to be of the typical Bean Family "papilionaceous" type, meaning that they have a large top petal, two separate side petals, and two bottom petals fused along their common side to form a scoop-like structure called a keel, as seen below:


Closer still, the flowers show their top petal to be graced with a greenish-yellow blotch, with pink tips of the scoop-like keel peeping from between the two white side petals, or "wings," as seen below:


Thing is, we've seen these exact flowers before, but not on low, scrubby plants. Rather, they graced rather tall, mighty trees growing farther south where there's more rainfall and the forest is higher. These are flowers of the common and much used tree the Maya call Jabin or Jabim, and English speakers variously label as Fish-poison Tree or Jamaican Dogwood. It's PISCIDIA PISCIPULA.

So, it's a revelation to me that the wonderful Piscidia piscipula can flower so abundantly when it's only knee high, and apparently live its life as a bush. In this area along highways and elsewhere where soil is thicker, the same species commonly forms trees, though they're not as large as farther south. Also, these larger, local trees currently maintain many or most of their leaves, since the dry season hasn't yet really started to bite, and none of the larger, local trees are flowering. One wonders if these scrubby, flowering ones might be a subspecies adapted to areas of very thin, dry soil, but there's nothing in the literature about that.

I'm glad to report the phenomenon here, for maybe it'll encourage someone to study the matter.