Heliconia plant leaves are used for several tasks in Mayan daily life of Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, and Honduras

I do not personally remember ever seeing heliconia plants mentioned in lists of utilitarian plants of the Maya (other than obvious use of wrapping tamales (Lundell. 1938)). This does not mean that there are no peer-reviewed journal articles or monographs on plants of the Maya which mention heliconia, but if so, such mention does not stick in my mind. Most people simply consider heliconia plants as decoration.


I also have three or four species in the ethnobotanical garden of FLAAR, simply as decoration. It was not until 2015 that I began to realize that heliconia were indeed utilitarian plants of the Classic Maya. In fact, we even found a major, indeed monumental, usage of heliconia plants in a Maya village in Guatemala. Totally unexpected.


Heliconia should be added to lists of utilitarian plants used by the Mayan people for thousands of years.

But our research is with Heliconia plants as utilitarian plants, actually used in daily life of the Mayan people. So now is time to introduce heliconia usage to the world of Mayan scholars. Here are notes by two Q’eqchi’ Mayan assistants at FLAAR. They come from Senahu, Alta Verapaz:


Usos de heliconias en General

Las hojas se utilizan en la cocina para envolver alimentos (en cocción como hallacas, u horneado como pescado) para dar un sabor muy particular a la comida. Denominado como platanillo, debido a que tiene un parecido al plátano, sobre todo por las hojas largas y anchas. Entre los principales usos de este arbusto es el de envolver con las hojas los típicos tamales, lo cual le da una característica especial tanto en consistencia como sabor, es común que las mujeres de los campesinos utilicen la hoja de la platanillo para envolver el almuerzo o lonche, ya que tiene la particularidad de conservar el almuerzo a una temperatura cálida; por esta razón que muchos agricultores conservan los matojos de platanillo dentro de sus cultivos, además de que sus turgentes tallos les sirve para la limpieza de sus herramientas de trabajo. Por otra parte hay otra especie que la hoja se usa para hacer techo tambien se usa la hoja seca para sombra de almacigo para que la semilla no se pega mucho por la gota de lluvia, y la flor se usa para adornar en la iglesia y los tallos en donde sale las hojas se usa para poner en la olla para que no se quema los tamales que están cocinando, envuelven cosas como junco, macuy, otras hiervas para llevar al mercado.



Uses of Heliconia leaves in General

The leaves are used in the kitchen to wrap food (in cooking as hallacas, or to wrap things such as fish, to be baked) to give a very particular flavor to the food.

Locally many heliconia species are named platanillo, because it has a resemblance to banana (platano in Spanish), especially for the long and broad leaves.

Among the main uses of this shrub is to wrap with the leaves the typical tamales, which gives a special characteristic in consistency as well as flavor, it is common that the women of the farmers use the leaf of the platanillo to wrap noon meal or lunch snacks, as it has the peculiarity of keeping lunch at a warm temperature. For this reason many farmers keep the platanillo (heliconia) bushes in their milpas or around their homes, since also their stiff edged stems serve to clean their tools.

On the other hand there is another species of heliconia whose leaf is used to thatch a house roof. Such leaves, when dry, are also used for shade of seedbeds so that the seed do not get hit directly by the raindrops. And the flowers of heliconia are used as decoration in the church.

And the stems where the leaves come out are used to put in the cooking pot so that it does not burn the tamales that are cooking. The use leaves to wrap things like reeds, macuy, and other herbs to take to the market.

Leaves of junco and other local plants are used in many Mayan rural areas as well.


Heliconia in the archaeological record

Now that we know how useful heliconia plants are (in addition to their beautiful red, yellow, and orange bracts (which hold the flowers), it would help if archaeologists can look for evidence of these plants at Maya sites.

Actually a Heliconia phytolith was found in Cache 6ª, Blue Creek, Belize (Guderjan 2007:25). The Nature of an Ancient Maya City: Resources, Interaction, and Power at Blue Creek, Belize. University Alabama Press, Caribbean Archaeology and Ethnohistory. 182 pages.



First posted March 31, 2017


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