Most civilizations of Mesoamerica show the spiny ceiba tree: Mixtec, Aztec, Maya and other cultures. In most contexts it is clearly a sacred tree. There are plenty of ethnohistorical references to the ceiba tree as a world tree upholding the world.

The roots are considered to go down into the underworld, but frankly most of the Maya area is Karst and there is not much soil, so the roots go horizontally along the surface of the ground, not way down. But in other non-karst areas the roots probably go down deep.

Spines (thorns) on the trunk of young ceiba trees are a major motif in Maya art

The pictures from the FLAAR Photo Archive used to create this QTVR were taken by Jaime Leonardo at La Ruta Maya Conservation Foundation, Guatemala City.

Incense burners from Lake Atitlan (Highland Guatemala) as well as funerary urns from the Quiche Highlands, and incense burners and cache vessels from Lowland Maya areas, frequently have effigies of sacred ceiba tree spikes up and down their sides. It is well known to all iconographers and most archaeologists that these spikes mimic the thorns on the trunk of young ceiba trees.

I am currently beginning a collection of ceiba bonsai, and already two totally different species of trees have been brought to me as “ceiba.” One had five leaves and obvious spines that were what I expected of the sacred ceiba of the Maya. The other “ceiba” had the swollen trunk that is also a typical feature of many of this family; but this other “ceiba” had seven leaves (and no spines, at least not yet).

Botanically the spikes are called stem emergences.

Spanish nomenclature is very lax, such as for “zapotes,” as an example. Many completely different fruits are called zapote. For ceiba, the overall family is large, and many trees share some of the basic characteristics. But the tree that is generally considered the Maya tree of life and the national tree of Guatemala is Ceiba pentandra. It is called the kapok tree in English but almost all visitors of whatever language quickly learn to call it a ceiba.

Because the lay-person terms are so imprecise, and because even botanical names get changed, this is why FLAAR is establishing a photographic archive of all the plants, trees, flowers, fruits, etc that were sacred to the ancient Maya. I am primarily interested in species that appear in Maya murals or ceramics, or fruits which were shown as effigy vessels: cacao and guicoy are two of the most common.

Ceiba Pentandra
thorns on the trunk of a ceiba tree. Ceiba trees grow in all lowland areas of Guatemala and some highland areas as well. The ceiba was the sacred world tree, the axis of the world, in Classic Mayan cosmology. Today the ceiba is still the national tree of Guatemala.

More than one species of ceiba has spines: Two major species of ceiba in Guatemala

Eduardo Sacayon has pointed out to me that there are two major species of Ceiba in Guatemala; Ceiba pentandra and Ceiba aesculifolia (Pochote). The one I know best is the sacred tree of the Maya and the national tree of Guatemala, namely Ceiba pentandra.

Hura crepitans is named the “sandbox tree” in the Virgin Islands (St John, Virgin Islands, Beach Guide). But to me this tree looks like a perfect example of the Ceiba aesculifolia. But only a botanist can tell for sure, and they need to see the flower.

Another tree with lots of conical spines is the Zanthoxylum

Ceiba Pentandra thorn
Close up of a Ceiba pentandra thorn (the insect under it is atypical).

COPNA, Erythrina fusca, also has spines. So it is suggested that iconographers cite this FLAAR web site as well as the FLAAR Reports that introduce iconographers to the actual flora and fauna that the Maya saw around them. Most of what is presented in Maya paintings and sculpture is a reflection of their natural world, from caves to specific flowers.

Not all Ceiba pentandra trees have prominent spines

In many cases the spines simply do not exist. In other trees the lack of spines on the main truck is because they are old; so there are no more spines on the truck. But often you can see spines on the fresh young branches way up in the tree. In other instances the spines have been knocked off so people do not scratch themselves.

If you were to photograph 20 trees with spines (as we have) there are not more than one or two that have the same pattern or size or shape of spines. I recently photographed a tree (perhaps 20 to 40 years old) that had several brown spines (but not ones that looked brown because they were sick or dying).

FLAAR Research in Maya ethnobotany, especially related to Maya iconography

Planting Ceiba tree in FLAAR's garden
Nicholas Hellmuth showing the ceiba tree the day it was planted in the garden of FLAAR offices.

As a comment, there are actually several other species of trees in Guatemala that also have similar spines: one of these trees has spines that are close to the same size and shape as those of the ceiba. We believe that the Maya potters and priests are imitating the spine of the Ceiba pentandra, but the other species need to be checked also, and at least added as a footnote.

young ceiba tree with big thorns
The trunk of a young ceiba tree planted in FLAAR's garden

There is a similar issue with identifying the “tree of Hun Hunaphu’s head” as a cacao, when the Popol Vuh clearly states it was a calabash tree (moro in local Spanish). There are actually two other trees (in addition to the cacao) which bear fruit from the trunk: the papaya and the jicara.

The jicara is a close relative of the moro. The moro is plentiful in the Departmentos of Zacapa and Chichimula; the jicara is reported to be common around Salama. Or at least this is where the artisans live that make handicrafts from the jicara. Both these trees also survive in the Peten, where you find them in gardens of local inhabitants. We have also been told that at least one of these species is common in the Costa Sur area of Guatemala.

FLAAR Photo Archive of Maya Ethnobotany

FLAAR is currently working on creating a photographic archive of Maya ethnobotany, especially plants, trees, and flowers that are pictured in Mayan art of the Classic Maya. Since the ceiba tree flowers only occasionally, and during the months when it’s quite hot, I do not yet have good photographs of the flowers. And since most Ceiba trees are taller than a multi-story building, it’s not easy to get close enough to their flowers to photograph them.

By irony of fate, I found a ceiba tree blooming outside my hotel during a business trip to Israel (I am a consultant to many international companies that develop and manufacture UV-cured wide-format inkjet printers). Although this was probably an African species, the trunk was identical (to me as a non-botanist) in every way, shape, and form to ceiba trees I so frequently see in Guatemala.

Since our funding is limited, we tend to be able to launch field trips primarily during December-early January, and during May-August (the times of the year I am in Guatemala). But for 2008 we will do our best to have some photography field trips when selected sacred flowers are blooming. Our goal is to become a preferred source of absolute top quality images of pertinent Maya plants, flowers, fruits, etc. for botanists, ethnobotanists, iconographers, epigraphers, students, authors of books and articles on these subjects, and members of the interested public.

Ceiba Pentandra with spines
Here is the Ceiba pentandra tree in the back yard of the FLAAR Mesoamerica offices (in Guatemala). The tree is now at least three years older than it was when planted (sorry, we have so many plants we don't have records of when each was planted; it was probably planted circa 2009; so tree is now an estimated 6 to 10 years old).
Tzite (Palo de Pito), moro, jicaro, and Sangre de dragon (croton) are trees we intend to study: trees that are mentioned in the Popol Vuh, trees that are sacred, and trees that produce resin for incense.

Is bark of ceiba tree an aphrodisiac ?
A web site, nationmaster, suggests an ethnomedical use of a decoction of bark of Ceiba pentandra is an aphrodisiac.

Ceiba Pentandra with spines
Here is the Ceiba pentandra tree in the back yard of the FLAAR Mesoamerica offices (in Guatemala). The tree is now at least three years older than it was when planted (sorry, we have so many plants we don't have records of when each was planted; it was probably planted circa 2009; so tree is now an estimated 6 to 10 years old).

X-tabay (demon) lives in a ceiba tree
David Bolles, a linquist of Yucateco Maya, notes that xtabay: demonio maligno que, en forma de mujer, vive en el tronco de la ceiba (Ceiba pentandra).

Relationship between bats and ceiba trees
A Guatemalan specialist in bats, Universidad de San Carlos, has observed that the false vampire may inhabit hollowed areas of large ceiba trees (areas that have rotted and for whatever reason are now hollow inside the otherwise living tree). He said that some of these hollow areas are large enough for a person to crawl into and stand up inside (remember that a ceiba is one of the largest trees in the Central American forest and may live several hundred years; so there is plenty of space to have a small “cave” inside that bats like to inhabit. He said there was such a hollow Ceiba in the yard of Dos Lagunas field station.

Ceiba Pentandra with spines
Here is the Ceiba pentandra tree in the back yard of the FLAAR Mesoamerica offices (in Guatemala). The tree is now at least three years older than it was when planted (sorry, we have so many plants we don't have records of when each was planted; it was probably planted circa 2009; so tree is now an estimated 6 to 10 years old).

Botanical and zoological articles indicate that bats pollinate Ceiba pentandra (Gribel etai, 1999). Surely the Classic Maya would have noticed a bat as large as the false vampire coming in and out of an entrance. And clearly the Maya would have seen the bats swarming around the pretty flowers (especially since the tree has no leaves when it flowers).


More pictures posted June, 2010.
Most recently checked May 25, 2010.
First posted January 2008. Updated December 2008 and August 2009.


Articles by FLAAR Reports for REVUE Magazine

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