Ipomoea alba, Moonflower, Alta Verapaz and Peten, Guatemala

Ipomoea alba, Moonflower, is a morning glory relative which opens at night instead of in the morning. This flower is very common in several eco-systems of Alta Verapaz. In some eco-systems you can also find another morning glory relative, Merremia tuberosa.

Useful tropical plants of the Mayan people: rubber trees

Although there was long-distance trade (from the middle of Mexico down to Costa Rica, and back) for thousands of years, in most cases the hardworking families of Mayan people 2000 years ago had to rely on what was available in the diverse eco-systems around them. Rubber was one of the products that could be produced in most but not all Lowland Maya cities and rural areas.

To produce rubber you need to add chemicals to latex (sap) from the Castilla elastica (Mesoamerican rubber tree). Castilla elastica is found in many areas of Chiapas, adjacent Costa Sur area of Guatemala, and then on the other side of the mountains in Alta Verapaz, Peten, and surely also in Izabal, Belize and other adjacent Lowland areas.

Hevea brasiliensis is the commercialized rubber tree of Brazil which has been introduced into Guatemala. Hevea brasiliensis is what your tires come from. Castilla elastica is the tree used by the Olmec, Maya, Zapotec, Classic Veracruz, and other civilizations: the Teotihuacans, Toltecs, and Aztecs would probably have imported rubber from lowland areas that they traded with over centuries.

But to make latex of a rubber tree become a functional material, you have to vulcanize it. Thomas Goodyear did it with sulfur and other treatments: the Olmecs, Maya, and their neighbor did it with Ipomoea alba, Merremia tuberosa, plus other plants with comparable chemicals (we have found a third vine which can also vulcanize rubber).

Euphorbia elastica can produce rubber as can other species of Euphorbia, but the names of plants are changed so frequently that figuring out which is an accepted name and which is a synonym is a time consumer: Parker’s 2008 TREES OF GUATEMALA has no Euphorbia elastica and on the Internet it’s a disaster as to which species is which name: so we don’t yet know how many Euphorbia species are at Yaxha (but Senaida Ba did find one relative of poinsettia between Yaxha and Nakum). So more may be present: lots more exciting research to accomplish at Parque Nacional Yaxha Nakum Naranjo.

If Ipomoea alba has no sulfur, what chemical in it vulcanizes rubber?

A few months ago I read an article which clearly stated that their lab analysis of Ipomoea alba documented that it had no sulfur (sorry that every day I read so many different PhD dissertations, monographs, and journal articles that I did not take note of this one).

So this raises the question of what chemicals in vulcanize the rubber and what is the difference between Thomas Goodyear using sulfur with and the Olmec and Maya using Ipomoea alba or Merremia tuberusa on latex of Castilla elastica. We hope our comments inspire lots of fresh research.

How many other trees and plants can produce rubber?

Milky latex is produced by many plants. You can spend hours in a university or botanical garden library (or on the Internet) and learn about latex and which plants produce rubber.

For Guatemala the primary production for the Classic Maya would have been from Castilla elastica tree. Hevea brasiliensis is from South America so was not available to the Maya.

Euphorbia plants grow in Guatemala and produce latex. But I would have to do lots of research to find out if any Mesoamerican studies have tried to see if latex from a Euphorbia plant would be viable to produce usable rubber. There are many species of Euphorbia so you would need to do lots of tests.

Guayule, Parthenium argentatum, is from the deserts of northern Mexico, so is not something well known in Guatemala.

Ficus elastica is a native of India, so a lot more studies would be helpful of how many of the thousands of plants that produce latex in Mesoamerica could have made rubber in addition to Castilla elastica.

Same for the chemicals in Ipomoea alba and Merremia tuberosa: surely there are additional “morning glory vines” with comparable chemicals. There are probably a dozen different species of morning glory vines at Yaxha, best seen when you take a boat around the Islands of Topoxte, Paxte, Cante, and go up the Rio Ixtinto. Then go into the inlet on the northwest corner, the inlet with a submerged cenote at its end: vines cascade down every tree along the shore. Lots are morning glory vines.

We raise both Ipomoea alba and Merremia turberosa

We have both these vines in our FLAAR Mayan ethnobotanical research garden outside Guatemala City. This way we can learn more about each plant and we can do high resolution photography when the plants open their flowers.

 

 Ipomoea alba, Moonflower, is a morning glory that opens at night
  Ipomoea alba, Moonflower, is a morning glory that opens at night

We have done sequential photography on about six to eight plants over the last two years, but if you could donate to this project we could produce more of these full-color reports. For every donation of $40 via PayPal we will send you the first volume. For every donation of $50 we will send you both volumes. Paypal is a safe and secure platform and you can pay with the following cards.


Suggested Reading on Ipomoea alba

  • Austin D. F.
  • 1998
  • Xixicamátic or wood rose (Merremia tuberosa, Convolvulaceae): origins and dispersal. Economic Botany, 52(4): 412-422.
  • Hammel B. E.
  • 2010
  • Convolvulaceae. Monographs in Systematic Botany from the Missouri Botanical Garden, 119:72-126. [Manual de Plantas de Costa Rica, Vol. 5.
  • CONANP
  • 1998
  • Nomination of Ancient Maya City and Protected Tropical Forests of Calakmul, Campeche By the Government of Mexico for Inscription on the World Heritage List. CONACULTA, Mexico.

    Totally unclear who is the author(s) and which is the “publisher”: CONACULTA or CONANP. However the list of plants is impressive.>

    https://whc.unesco.org/uploads/nominations/1061bis.pdf

  • COOK, Suzanne
  • 2016
  • Lacandon
  • O'Donell, C. A.
  • 1941
  • Revision de las especies americanas de Merremia (Convolvulaceae) (Lilloa) 6:514-516.
  • STANDLEY
  • 1938
  • Convolvulaceae, in Flora of Costa Rica. Field Museum of Natural History, Botany Series 18:960-974.
  • STANDLEY, Paul C. and Louis O. WILLIAMS
  • 1970
  • Convolvulaceae. In P. C. Standley, L. O. Williams and D. N. Gibson, eds. Flora of Guatemala, Fieldiana: Botany, Volume 24, Part IX, Number 1, pages 4-85.

Suggested reading on how the Olmec and Maya made rubber bounce

D. Hosler, S. L. Burkett, and M. J. TARKANIAN Prehistoric polymers: Rubber processing in ancient Mesoamerica, Science

 

Bibliography of Castilla elastica, rubber tree of the Olmec and Maya

Castilla elastica hule rubber tree
On our Maya-Ethnobotany Site

 

First Posted: November 16, 2018

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