Monday, April 18, 2011

Nature: The Tree

Near Xcanchakan, Yucatán -- After you've driven about three kilometers on the rough ejido road through rocky, scrubby Yucatán monte and passed by one pyramid, one small planted field and through two cattle gates, the tree comes into view. You walk back to your vehicle after closing the final rusty gate behind you and tying it securely with the frazzled piece of rope that dangles from its bars for that purpose. If you know where to direct your gaze at that moment, you will glimpse the top of the tree's canopy, spreading high above its neighbors.

It's fairly wild country. As you look in the tree's direction, you are likely to glimpse the local vultures and falcons high in the air above. You'd be well advised to keep one eye on the ground, too. A variety of serpents, including boas, rattlers and coral snakes, not to mention tarantulas, scorpions and innumerable thorny plants, make a comfortable living here.

After passing through the second gate on the vantage point of a rocky cerro, the track again descends, but from this spot forward, because of its height the tree is always in view. Now, if you tap the horn, the hacienda's owner, Jonathan Harrington, still half a click away, will probably hear it, and may start walking down his grassy front drive toward the dirt road to greet you. If he walks briskly while at the same time you drive slowly and carefully to avoid splitting open the crankcase on one the many large rocks in the way, you might just meet Jonathan in the vast welcoming shade of the tree, which stands a couple hundred meters directly in front of the columns and arches of his front terrace.

Likely as not, if Jonathan has heard the horn and meets you by the tree, he will direct you to drive under the high arches of its branches and continue on just a bit further, where there is a second driveway, the old worker's entrance, that brings you right up to the side of the house.

This tree is known locally by its Mayan name as pich (pronounced "peach" by English speakers). Scientifically it is called enterolobium cyclocarpum. Commonly it is also known as an elephant ear tree, ear pod tree, monkey ear tree, devil's ear tree, monkeysoap tree or guanacaste.

The English common names come from the shape and properties of the seed pods, which resemble an ear, and whose waxy interior can be used to manufacture a kind of soap. The seeds inside the intact dry pod make a nice rattle, and are also used in a variety of crafts.

The massive size of this tree is impressive. On a recent visit, I paced off the diameter of the circle of shade the tree casts on the ground around midday, and found that it measures approximately 45 meters (about 148 feet). This means that the tree's canopy shades about 1590 square meters or nearly .4 acres of earth. Looking at my photos later and using the diameter measurement for scale, I estimate that the tree rises at least 23 meters (75 feet) into the air. 

In doing a little research, I discovered that this is not a terribly large example of the species, which is known to reach an altitude of 35 meters, or more than 110 feet. This pich, if not a youth, is no more than comfortably middle-aged. I suspect in this region that the biggest obstacle to longevity for these trees is the occasional hurricane. But so far, this tree has managed to weather storms pretty well. Jonathan tells me that an elder in a nearby pueblo, who was about 90 years old, once asked if the tree, remembered from his childhood, was still alive. Apparently this pich was already a looming presence on the hacienda nearly a century ago.

It is hard to appreciate the size of this organism without spending some time hanging out under it. Coming into its shade you first notice the dark and the pleasant coolness. The lower branches, which arch high in the air where they leave the massive trunk, eventually come low enough at their extremes to be touched by a person walking by. The roots, looking like the gray, scaly tails of living dinosaurs, have as they've grown pushed large rocks upward to the surface. 

Interestingly, the tree's doubly-compound leaves, which grow in clusters, are feathery and tiny, but that does not keep them from creating the remarkably dense and cool shade beneath the branches. Many types of organisms, including orchids, epiphytes, and various species of lizards, birds and insects take advantage of the temperate micro-climate of this umbrella.

If you follow this blog you probably are familiar with the legend of La Princesa (part 1, part 2). You might be interested to know that during the period of my investigation and rumination on this story I always envisioned her ghost languishing in the twilight gloom of this very tree. It fits the role perfectly.

The other day I told Jonathan, a serious poet, that I was going to blog about his pich, and jokingly started quoting the famous Joyce Kilmer poem that I had to memorize as a kid in school. At this, Jonathan rolled his eyes. All of the information I have shared above is interesting, but to me the fascination of this tree is something more. The magnificent creation that is this tree is not something that approaches poetry... to me it far surpasses poetry. And so Kilmer, as overused, tired and trite as he may be, is appropriate. Therefore, if you will excuse me (with apologies to Kilmer)...

I think that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a pich.

Jonathan Harrington poses under the massive pich that marks the driveway into Hacienda San Antonio Xpakay.


  1. I discovered a pich tree here in Melaque by accident. I was birding and ran across a large collection of birds in a huge tree I had not noticed before. But the "birth control" seed pods gave it away. Ours is small compared to the trees I saw over your way. But it is still a massive tree.

  2. I went to Joyce Kilmer park last summer to see the big trees. It was kind of sad because a bark beetle was killing the hemlocks and white pines, trees of 100 feet and 4-5 feet of girth. The yellow poplar trees looked pretty fine-a few over 10 foot across and looking healthy.

  3. Steve, I had never noticed one of these trees until I moved to Yucatán, despite having lived on other areas where they grow. I have gotten a lot more attuned to noticing that sort of thing, I guess, since moving here. I guess it's because now I have the time, and I use it more productively.

    The thing I lacked for this post is a good photo of seed pods on the tree. This example had lost most all of them for this year. These trees are quite something to see when full of the ear-shaped pods you so interestingly describe. Yes, they do remarkably resemble the packaging for a month's supply of the pill.

  4. Norm, I have never had the pleasure to visit that park, but if I am ever in the area I will do so. I love big trees.

    It is interesting that large trees, although they sometimes live to a great age, are not the oldest. The extremely long-lived are often fairly small examples that barely survive in extreme environments. Unfortunately, large trees are vulnerable to winds and lightning, not to mention very tiny pests, as you noted.

  5. I was hiking in an old slash a few weeks ago, the trees had been timbered 5-6 years ago. I came across a swamp maple that was at least 20 feet across. It had grown from the stump of a tree that had been cut sometime long ago. My guess for the reason that it had not been cut the last time the tract was timbered was that it was too big to get out of the woods with the machines they had on site. Where do you get a saw today that will even cut a tree like that?

  6. Hi Marc,
    First, I like the new format. Certainly does the photos well, good thing you found it in time for this magnificent tree post.
    I'm an old tree hugger myself. Is this not what we call in Hawaii a Monkey Pod Tree? If so, there are some amazing ones on Maui and if you google that I suspect the Images pages will bring some to light.
    Good post, what a tree!!!

  7. MT,
    I suspect that this is the same sort of tree that you mention in Hawaii. In fact, in looking online for information, I believe I read that oustide of Central and northern South America, South Florida and Hawaii are other places where the tree (although not native) will grow.

    I am glad you like the new format. I am having some problems with text formatting (why are some paragraphs double spaced???, and why won't the text wrap around left or right placed photos without weird problems???), but I like the ability to post larger photos. In the old design, these pictures with the tiny human figure would not have worked.

    Norm: They do have saws that will handle a tree as large as the one you mentioned. They clearcut huge stands of old growth trees in Alaska that were that size.


  8. Wow. That tree is magnificent!

  9. The new blog look is a good one, señor.

    -- Felipe

  10. I have strong memories from my chilhood, sitting there, under this tree, resting on a quiet place after a long walk.

    This beauty is also known as "huanacastle". The shadows at night coming from this tree are an important part of legends from the Mayab. You may see a rolling head... :)

    cheers from someone that loves this land

  11. Diosich:

    Yes, trees are such marvellous things. I passed through the pueblo of Uayalceh yesterday, where the CFE has just cut down a huge old pich, or huanacastle, as you say. I always find it sad to see these huge, old friends cut down.

    Thank you for commenting. Thanks to your comment I have started to read your blog. It's beautiful and I will read more.


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