For the Maya, trees were essential for life, they had a profound respect for them, and they attributed religious and cosmological qualities to them. Today many are still considered sacred. The legends and customs that circulate around trees are a lasting part of the culture of the Yucatán Peninsula to this day.
One of the most important trees is the ceiba, or yaxché, a sacred tree to the Maya, symbolizing life and fertility. They relate it to the three cosmic planes: its great height relates to the heavens, its trunk and foliage to the earth, and its deep roots to the underworld. The legend of Xtabay, which we have spoken of in Yucatán Today, is connected to the ceiba. You can still find this tree in parks all over Mérida; you’ll recognize it immediately for its majesty. Some are more than 100 years old!
Did you know the Maya were in the practice of producing and chewing gum? The resin of the chicozapote, or gum tree, a very tall reddish tree, was used to produce a type of rubber used by the Maya since ancient times, another contribution they made to the world. Its wood is also very desirable for its strength and resistance. Due to its commercial exploitation, it is not easy to find any more.
The ramón is another tree used by the Maya as a food source; its fruits are similar to berries, and have a high starch content, which served as flour. Today it is commonly found in parks, avenues, and green areas, and gives excellent shade as well as providing food for cattle. Its leaves prepared as a tea are helpful for asthma and bronchitis, and there are even coffee substitutes made from ramón in organic food stores!
Chechén and Chacáh
If you venture into the Maya forest, you have to know the story of the chechén and chacáh trees, an example of balance between venom and antidote, in accordance with the Maya mysticism of the coexistence of good and evil. Both trees were used for their durability and also as medicines. However, the resin of the chechén is very dangerous, even a drop of it can burn your skin immediately. But don’t worry, because beside this tree there is always a chacáh, which serves as an antidote.*
If you visit the Peninsula, especially in May, you will notice in houses, parks and avenues a tree with white, light yellow, or pink flowers, (plumeria or frangipani), known here as “flor de mayo.” According to a Maya legend, the tree flowers in May in memory of a girl whose father asked the stars for a daughter, but she died due to a divine plan. In exchange, each year this tree produces colorful, sweet-smelling flowers.
There are many Maya stories and legends that have trees as the main characters and that show a tremendous respect for nature. And to this day, their cuttings, fruits, and leaves are used in traditional medicine, a millennial inheritance from this wonderful culture. Why don’t you plant, and care for, one of these trees in your garden!
*ANTIDOTE: Boil a piece of the bark of the chacáh until you have a watery solution from its resin. Once it has cooled (do not apply while it is still hot), apply this to the burn caused by the chechén resin. If the burn occurs out in the country, find a piece of chacáh bark and rub it over the burn immediately.
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