Updated: Dec 1, 2020
This blog is the third installment in our series about why Ecuador is a megadiverse country. You can read the first article here, where we explain what megadiversity is and why, worldwide, our country is in sixth place! Last month, we focused on some of the keystone animal species in the ecosystem where our project is located; that is, the Amazon rainforest (you can read about it here). We are dedicating this month's entry to three very emblematic tree species of Ecuador, in general, and of the Amazon, in particular: 'guayacán', 'palo santo' and 'ceibo'.
'Guayacan' (Tabebuia chrysanta)
When in bloom —even at a distance— the ‘guayacan’ tree is easily recognizable, due to its distinctly bright yellow flowers, which are shaped like little trumpets. This beautiful, slow-growth tree reaches a maximum height of about 35 meters, and a diameter of about 60 centimeters. Its trunk is straight and thin, and its bark is gray to dark brown; the leaves look a little bit like a hand that is stretching out all five fingers.
Since this tree is native to tropical America, it’s a part of the culture of the indigenous peoples; it’s even mentioned in some of the Amazon Kichwa’s myths: for example, it was from the high tree-top of a ‘guayacan’ tree that one of the four survivors of the great flood spotted a river mermaid, a Yaku Muja Warmi. The young man saw that the mermaid left her two baby daughters on the riverbank and then returned to the river; so he stole the babies and gave them to his sister to raise. According to the myth, after many years, they would later become, along with the young man who kidnapped them, the mothers, and the father, of all the Kichwa people.
In another myth, a howler monkey wanted to learn how to fly, so he sought the help of a vulture, who covered him with feathers. Then, the monkey launched himself from the top of a ‘guayacan’ tree...
‘Guayacan’ wood is of excellent quality; it’s dark, heavy, hard, and resistant, and is therefore very expensive. Consequently, it has been highly valued for making furniture, parquet flooring and fine crafts, among many other products. Unfortunately, because of this, it has been over-exploited and is currently in danger of extinction.
'Palo santo' (Bursera graveolens)
‘Palo santo’ is well known for its pleasant aroma, which has spiritual associations, both for the indigenous Amazon peoples, and for Latin-American Catholics, who have been burning it as incense in their churches since colonial times. According to the beliefs of the Amazonian Kichwa people, ‘palo santo’ can cure muscle and bone pain and can rid the home, and other environments, of bad energies; it can also protect children from the "evil eye".
It grows mostly in old-growth forests, and it can reach a height of about 40 meters, with a diameter of about 1.20 meters. Its trunk is mostly straight and round, and the rough bark is dark gray with white dots and crumbly chunks. The leaves are green, and the flowers are red. The fruit, which is small and edible, is shiny and black. Its wood is semi-hard and of good quality; it’s used to make wooden boards, formwork for the construction industry, and in carpentry. Unfortunately, this species is also in danger of extinction, due to over-exploitation, not only for its wooden products, but also for spiritual purposes.
The irony is that it’s pointless to cut down the trees for use as incense, since the wood can only be used in this way if it comes from a tree that died naturally, and has been resting on the forest floor for many years; the wood must go through this process for it to acquire the aromatic, curative and spiritual properties attributed to ‘palo santo’.
Therefore, in order to protect this species from extinction and, at the same time, take advantage of the benefits of its wood, it must be harvested sustainably; that is, only the wood that is found on the forest floor should be gathered.
'Ceibo' (Ceiba pentandra)
For the Amazonian Kichwa people, the ‘ceibo’, or ‘ceiba’, is a sacred tree: it represents the forest’s soul. It’s an easily distinguishable tree, as it’s huge and very thick, and its dense crown provides lots of shade. It’s one of the largest trees in the Amazon jungle: it can grow to be 70 meters tall, and three meters wide. Its green-to-gray trunk is cylindrical and straight and is covered with distinctive thorns. The roots are very large, and also make the ‘ceibo’ easily recognizable: they are wide and tall, up to five meters high!
Its red flowers have a very pleasant aroma. The medium-sized, capsule-like fruits are yellowish-green and contain many black seeds covered with white, woolly fibers, which are very similar to cotton. When it’s in season, from December to January, the fruits open up while still on the tree and the seeds, attached to the cotton fibers, are blown away by the wind.
This majestic tree is very useful for humans, but the fibers (known as kapok) are the most important by-product. They are used as thermal and acoustic insulators in cold rooms and in airplanes. They are also used as filling for mattresses, pillows, life jackets, sleeping bags and flotation devices.
In addition to the kapok, all parts of this tree are useful: the seeds are edible if cooked or roasted, and an oil can be extracted from them which is used to make soap, paint and butter; the leaves are used as feed for livestock; the wood is used to make plywood, formwork, rafts, veneer and paper; the bark has medicinal and anti-inflammatory properties: it’s used for curing wounds, pimples, abscesses and tumors, as well as for soothing toothaches and rheumatism; and, finally, the sap and a tea made from the flowers can be used to cure stomach aches.
The cultural and environmental importance
of these native species
The fact that these trees, so distinctive and characteristic of the Amazon rainforest, are threatened, or in danger of extinction, is alarming. The loss of a native species undermines the biodiversity that makes the rainforest so exceptional and entails a serious environmental problem. Furthermore, it represents a cultural loss, because these trees, with all their uses, (as well as the threatened keystone animal species we presented last month) are an intrinsic part of the ancestral traditions of the Amazonian Kichwa people. Conserving the remaining primary forests, as well as restoring the forests that have been cut down, is the best way to reverse the trend of destruction and deforestation. The importance of restoration and conservation work is not only environmental: it’s also cultural.
Fundación Ishpingo, Guía practica para la reforestación Recolección de semillas, Manejo de vivero y Agroforesteria; Fichas técnicas de las principales especies maderables - Alto Napo - Amazon[ia Ecuatoriana, Tena, 2008.
La selva, los pueblos, su historia: mitos, leyendas, tradiciones y fauna de la Amazonía ecuatoriana; S.J.A. Valarezo; Ediciones Abya-Yala; Quito, Ecuador, 2002.
Sabiduría de la Cultura Kichwa de la Amazonía Ecuatoriana, Andy Alvarado, Pedro, et al; Volume I, UNIVERSIDAD DE CUENCA; first edition: 2012.