Did the Maya smoke leaves of Wigandia urens?

Over the last two decades I have made lists of

  • All ingredients in Mayan incense (used currently)
  • All flavorings and ingredients of Mayan cigars (used since 17th century)
  • All flavorings and plants mixed with cacao (for Aztec, Maya, Zapotec, etc).

A valid question is, “why is Wigandia urens named Tabaco in several areas of Mesoamerica and South America”? Is it because the leaves are similar to the size and shape of a tobacco leaf (albeit larger)? Or, are the leaves of Wigandia urens occasionally used by past generations to smoke (either by themselves, or added to tobacco).

It is well known to all ethnohistorians who have worked on Spanish chronicles of Peten that the Spanish commented that the local Maya used leaves of nance (Byrsonima crassifolia, fruit trees) to wrap their cigars. Nance grows in diverse habitats but especially in savannas (either seasonally inundated savannas such as in Parque Nacional Yaxha Nakum Naranjo) or in pine savannas around Poptun and La Libertad Peten (and across the border in Belize).

It is well known to any archaeologist who has worked with local chicleros decades ago that the chicleros would tell us they smoked leaves of guarumo (Cecropia species) when they ran out of tobacco. At age 19 I worked at Tikal so had many chicleros working for me. Same at Yaxha while mapping the pyramids and temples in the 1970’s.

Even though I was an undergraduate student at Harvard in the 1960’s, I do not taste-test plants (even though I lived for literally 12 months at Tikal, Peten in 1965 and many months-per-year during four years nearby while mapping the ruins of Yaxha, Peten in the 1970’s. I am not a prude but even visiting Palenque, as a backpacker, at age 16 in 1961, and being a student intern at Bonampak at age 17 in 1962 (the hospitable INAH team flew me in from Tenosique because I told them that my high school thesis had included a section on Bonampak but I had, obviously, never visited the site). So I do not know the effects of smoking Wigandia urens but it’s a proven medicinal plant throughout Mesoamerica and elsewhere.

All these plants are medicinal: one of our graduated staff visited to wish me Happy Birthday this week and she said she was drinking tea of guarumo as a standard treatment. It definitely helps to be in Guatemala to learn about all this

Wigandia urens, family Hydrophyllaceae, Tabaco tree, ortiga, chichiaste guatemala

Maya medicinal plants, Wigandia urens, family Hydrophyllaceae

Wigandia urens is a known and recognized medicinal plant throughout Mesoamerica and down into South America. We hope that additional scholars do additional studies. We have found the work of chemical biologist (medicinal botanist) Armando Caceres and his colleagues to be helpful.

Where to find Wigandia urens plants?

Wigandia urens is easy to find: you can see it on both sides of highway CA-9 (from Guatemala City towards Puerto Barrios), especially between km. 60 and 70. We also found larger tree-sized specimens along the highway past the pine-oak forests of Baja Verapaz (along the highway that turns off towards Coban). And we found other large tree-height specimens while driving from Santa Cruz Verapaz to Caserio Chilocom (Alta Verapaz). The ones along both sides of CA-9 are shrub-sized. But elsewhere they are tree-sized. Parker would not include a plant in her book Trees of Guatemala unless it were a tree. Wigandia urens is on page 358.

We estimate about 1 million tasiste palm trees are in this one single Petexbatun area tasistal savanna (estimated 150 to 200 meters wide by 3 to 5 km long). The reason an area of this modest size has so many palms is because this genus and species of palm grows in thick clusters. In a tasistal each cluster is adjacent to the next cluster, resulting in often solid tasiste palm in many areas of a tasistal. But, in other kinds of savannas of Peten, the same palm clusters are much further apart.

In distinction, I estimate less than several hundred tasiste palm trees are in the seasonally inundated Savanna East of Nakum (that we discovered from aerial photos and then hiked 8 hours round trip to reach twice). This grassland savanna is almost one kilometer wide by two or three kilometers long in size. This is the largest savanna discovered so far in Parque Nacional Yaxha Nakum Naranjo (PNYNN). We sincerely appreciate the cooperation of the IDAEH + CONAP co-directors of this biodiverse national park to facilitate our focus on searching for previously undocumented plant habitats. There is no savanna inside or outside the Tikal National Park of this size.

The Savanna of 3 Fern Species I discovered from aerial photos west of Yaxha. With the assistance of IDAEH+CONAP and the friendly local military park guards, we hiked long distances to reach this biodiverse area twice. This previously unlisted and undocumented moist area has only a few dozen or so clusters of tasiste palm (Acoelorrhaphe wrightii, called palmetto palm in Belize and Florida). This is the smallest of the three PNYNN area savannas (but because it is the wettest of the three savannas (in one of the driest of recent years) has plants not present in any of the other savannas in addition to most of the plants of the Savanna East of Nakum).

In the Savanna adjacent to the Naranjo sector of Parque Nacional Yaxha Nakum Naranjo (showed to us by Archaeologist Vilma Fialko and Architect Raul Noriega and with Horacio Palacios as guide) we found at most a dozen or so tasiste palms (if we have the opportunity to study this savanna-cibal ecosystem again perhaps we can find at most a hundred tasiste palms).

So a “savanna with tasiste” and a “tasistal savanna” are two totally different ecosystem terms: again, potentially a MILLION tasiste palms in the one tasistal. All three open savannas of PNYNN have probably fewer than several hundred tasiste palms. Yet the one single tasistal in the Municipio of Sayaxche has potentially over a million individual tasiste palms.

Wigandia urens, family Hydrophyllaceae, Tabaco tree, ortiga, chichiaste guatemala
Wigandia urens, family Hydrophyllaceae, Tabaco tree, ortiga, chichiaste guatemala
Wigandia urens, family Hydrophyllaceae, Tabaco tree, ortiga, chichiaste guatemala
Wigandia urens, family Hydrophyllaceae, Tabaco tree, ortiga, chichiaste guatemala

Mikania micrantha photographed in Santa Cruz, Alta Verapaza, Guatemala.

Lots of potential to study Wigandia urens in more detail

The full botanical name is Wigandia urens (Ruiz & Pav.) Kunth. There are 22 synonyms and over 16 common names (depending on what country you are in). We will have a full FLAAR botanical report on this remarkable plant before the end of the year.

In the Tomb of the Jade Jaguar that I discovered and excavated under a pyramid at Tikal in 1969, one of the large polychrome vases showed an individual happily smoking a cigar. And in general it is understood that the Maya have used tobacco for thousands of years. When we visit Maya areas far into the Highlands, we often find one to three tobacco plants in their home gardens. They use these leaves for medicinal purposes, not to smoke. So although I do not smoke myself, I realize that tobacco is important to the Maya, past and present. So native Mesoamerican tobacco is an educational subject.

I hope that future students study Mesoamerican uses of tobacco (incense, medicinal, snuff, cigars, and enemas) and prepare helpful thesis or dissertation on this topic.

We have already prepared an introductory bibliography on Wigandia urens two years ago. We will update this bibliography for the eventual .pdf version of this as a FLAAR botanical report later this year.



First Posted January 08, 2020

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