Beyond The Backyard – Tropical Pioneers

in Issue 30 by

Two trees that could be confused at a distance and have a lot in common are the trumpet tree and the balsa tree. Both arrived in my garden uninvited but the more I study them my respect increases.They are both fast growing indigenous jungle plants that play a very important role in the eco system.

_1040751Cecropia named after the mythical first king of Athens Cecrops may have about 25 species in Belize of the family Urticaceae. Perhaps the most common is Cecropia peltata called the umbrella tree, embauba, trumpet tree, guarmo, yarumo and kooche as it is everywhere you look. It has been a seriously studied jungle weed due to its interdependency with biting Azteca ants who colonize its hollow stalks and feed exclusively on the muellerian food it provides. In Central America the leaves are also important food to howler monkeys, tapir, deer, sloths, birds,and bats plus a nesting place for chachalacas and an egg depository for the Cecropian Orion or stinking leaf wing butterfly. When the leaves are salted cattle will eat with gusto. _1040747Flowering is between May and August and the following fruit achenes are edible, highly nutritious and apparently taste like figs. The bunches look like stubby fingers and are referred to as iguana toes, snake fingers and dead man’s toes. With such names I was reluctant to take that first bite. Not unpleasant but as some say the female fruit is delicious in dry weather, perhaps they were not quite ripe, a different variety or the wrong gender. Could be an acquired taste.

_1040748The traditional medicinal uses are mashed leaves to reduce swelling, leaf infusions to treat high blood pressure, diabetes, respiratory infections, asthma and calm coughs. A typical treatment would be a cup of tea two or three times a day. The infusion can also be used to cleanse external sores, feminine hygiene and pain. Powdered leaves have been used in trials for Parkinson’s disease and ground roots for eczema. In the USA patents were filed for extracts to be used for cosmetics, dermatology and slimming aids.The crushed root is also given to dogs that have had snake bites. Shredded bark and latex sap are used as a poultice for warts or to stop bleeding.The wooly material is smoked by Mexican Mayans and the leaves can be rolled and smoked like a cigar but I am not recommending this. _1040745The hollow stems make blow guns, water pipes, ceremonial trumpets and the wood for musical instruments and model making. The fibers from the bark make strong rope and the tree trunks excellent long lasting rafts. The cecropia has been utilized to prevent soil erosion and grows rapidly in sunlight. Due to its easy pollination and lack of predators it has been treated as an invasive species. Time to take a better look at this pioneer tree.


_1040752Balsa which comes from the Spanish word meaning raft is Ochroma a member of the mallow family also known as polka. Ochroma pyramidale and lagupus are species grown for export in Papua New Guinea in defunct plantations of abandoned crops not by deforestation and grown from seedlings with no pesticides. In Ecuador who is the largest exporter of balsa it is called boya meaning buoy again signifying its prowess in the water. In 1947 a raft constructed of nine 45 foot long balsa logs strapped with rope of bark, decked with bamboo, a mast of mangrove and a cabin thatched with banana leaves set sail on the Pacific Ocean. The famous Kon Tiki expedition led by Thor Heyerdahl manned by six Norwegians and a parrot sailed from Peru to the Polynesian Archipelago. The indigenous materials employed probably including Cecopia, were to prove logistics of the existence of ancient trade routes and the ethnic origins of man. Further daring expeditions were made and in 1973 Las Balsas became the longest raft voyage in history with a flotilla of balsa rafts. The balsa spreads its seeds far and wide making its scattered jungle habitat a harvesting challenge. In the wild the balsa is considered a good nurse plant as it’s large leaves shade the slower growing plants under its canopy. However this is also a way of slowing other plants growth and ensuring its own survival by being able to conserve enough nutrients. It is a therefore competitive so unlike cecropia in the wild not too many of the same species survive in close proximity. As it grows the leaves decrease from several feet to ten inches now a simple but unique mallow shape._1040754

The tree does not have annual growth rings but with its speed and lightness grows about fifteen feet a year to a majestic 90 feet in ten years. Logs begin to be harvested commercially no sooner than five years when having a diameter of 45 inches. If not harvested the tree trunk could grow to a diameter of six feet, hollow inside with a strong exterior. After three or four years just after the rainy season the tree begins to bloom. A huge single flower shaped like an Italian ice cream cone arrives late in the day filled with nectar that attracts a host of nocturnal visitors. Coati, kinkajou, opossum, and bats dine on this late night sweet treat and incidentally act as pollinators. In the morning the gregarious birds and buzzing bees take over.The fruit is a pod resembling a rabbit foot which is full of fluffy kapok that can be used to fill pillows and upholstery. The pod explodes with seeds attached to a furry golden strip resembling a caterpillar that floats on air until landing._1040072

Balsa is perhaps best known by model makers. It is easy to whittle and makes good strong useable lightweight sheets which traditionally were used to make aircraft starting in World War II as a substitute for cork. Jeff Taylor from Akron Ohio has built drones from balsa which were flown in Belize to monitor illegal fishing. His drone Event 38 has been used to discover further Maya ruins in Mexico and in agriculture to supervise crops, check progress to see which varieties fare best under which conditions. The lightness of the wood is due to the ratio of the solid mass to open space which becomes filled with water holding the tree trunk high and strong. Balsa is also low in sticky linginin and once the water is carefully removed the light wood that we know as a craft item remains. For health the roots and bark can be boiled to a tea and used as a diuretic. The flowers and bark concoctions for coughs and even as emolument for moisturizing skin. So the tree has something for everyone._1040079

In conclusion both trees have contributed vastly to the continuance of life across continents and are valuable assets to our environment.

Topical accounts you will enjoy:A must to view the photography of Christian Ziegler – The Balsa Tree- Party at the Nectar Bar .

To view plantations, harvesting and manufactured products pngbalsa.com Messages from the Gods by Rosita Arvigo and Michael J. Balick, a guide to the useful plants of Belize, an excellent insight into the beliefs and traditions regarding native plants complete with photographic identification.

As always love to hear your comments and insights.

Pictures courtesy of Xen Wildman