Flora & Fauna of Mesoamerica

 

 

FLORA OF MIDDLE AMERICA    (PLANTS)

 

Agriculture

     The significance of agriculture to civilization is that with the benefits of agriculture (you can feed

more people, and they don't have to go as far to get fed), new problems are created which often

lead in their solutions, to civilization. In Mesoamerica agricultural problems arose between

25OO and l5OO B.C.

 

     Problems:     a) land ownership and land use problems (the distribution of

                                    the people on the land).

                        b) population increase:  problems of social organization

                                    maintenance of social organization.

                        c) sedentary life: necessitates new behavioral patterns

                        d) problem of economic distribution

                        e) harvest problems: a storage system needed

                                    l. what to store it in

                                    2. how to protect it from insects, rodents and spoilage

                                    3. managerial: how much to store? how much to use?

                                        how to use it--ritual vs. food--and saving seed to plant.

                        f) continuity of systems for solving the problems.

 

Agriculture is apparently a prerequisite for civilization.  Is New World agriculture borrowed from

the Old World? (Old World agriculture arose around 9,000 BCE; New World agriculture arose about

5,000 BCE.) 

 

If agriculture develops naturally as a result of a certain combination of conditions

that lead unavoidably to it, then it probably arose independently in the Old and the New Worlds.

There are some common conditions in Old and New World agricultural centers:

 

l) both are areas of great diversity

            2) the first developments took place in the hilly flanks areas

            3) both have sufficient rainfall for crops (without need for irrigation)

            4) seed crops existed wild in both areas

 

Agriculture differences:

 

     Old world                                         New World

     wheat, barley                                    maize, amaranth

     plow agriculture                                digging stick (dibble, coa)

     powerful beasts of burden (oxen)        no powerful beast of burden

 

    

Plants found early in Old and New Worlds:

 

Maize  (corn-Zea mays)  native to New World: probably domesticated in Mesoamerica first; maize once

thought to be a cross between Tripsacum and a now extinct pod-popcorn (per Mangelsdorf), but now

seen (by Iltis and others) as derived from teosinte / teocentli [seen on left in picture] through selection

by humans. 

     Maize is domesticated; i.e. dependent on human intervention for its propagation, and the varieties of

maize developed by the Indians of Middle America include several different colors and fall into five main

classes; flint, dent, flour, pop, and sweet.

 

     Researchers have found the earliest evidence ever of domesticated maize in the Mexican Central 
Balsas River Valley. The evidence points to an 8,700 year old origin for domesticated maize. 
Pollen and charcoal found in lake sediments in the area showed forests were being cut down and 
burned to create agricultural plots 7,000 years ago. Then the researchers studied caves where people 
lived earlier in the area. Tools for grinding corn were found that have been radiocarbon dated to 8,700 
years ago. Maize starch was found in the crevices of almost all of the tools unearthed. The previous 
earliest  date posited for domesticated maize was 1,100 years later.  

     Maize dates to 6,000 to 7,000 years ago near Mitla, Oaxaca, and 4000 to 6000 years ago in the basin

of Mexico.  Maize cobs dated at 5050 years ago have been found in Tehuacan Valley caves (Puebla,

Mexico). 

    A date of 3650 BCE (later revised towards the present) is associated with a find of a primitive pod

popcorn in Bat Cave (New Mexico). 

     In Assam, the Naga hills people cultivate a very primitive variety of maize, and in China, maize is said

to have been used to pay taxes within 60 years of the “discovery” of America by Columbus.  Maize may

have been already established in the Philippines when Magellan landed there [1521 CE].

 

     It is in Middle America that maize, as the basis for the diet of most Indian groups, provides by its life

cycle, the rhythm for Indian life and religion.  More than once an Indian revolt has fizzled on the brink

of success because planting time arrived.  Only in Mesoamerica, where maize is processed through

nixtamalization (cooking in lime [calcium hydroxide] and/or ash [potassium hydroxide]), was maize

able to provide the vital niacin to prevent pellagra, along with other nutrients, to eliminate some

mycotoxins, and improve the flavor.

 

Peanut  (Arachis hypogaea)  A new world plant, perhaps first used by humans in South America, but,

like the pineapple, it spread from there to Mesoamerica very early.  The peanut, now cultivated so

extensively in Africa (our word goober comes from a Bantu language of Africa [from the word guba]),

is reported by usually reliable authorities to have been present in China about 2000 BCE.  Regardless,

there is little doubt about its status as a New World plant.   Interestingly, the individual little yellow peanut

flower lasts for only one day.

 

Bottle Gourd - Lagenaria  Native to the Old World, with a dispersion center most probably in Africa,

the bottle gourd is found in the New World very early (e.g. at the Huaca Prieta site in Peru it is dated by

C-l4 to 23OO BC.  It has been dated to 7000 CE in Guila Naquitz, Oaxaca).

 

Cotton  There are wild cottons in both Old and New World.  Domesticated cotton is found by at least

3OOO BC in the New World (Tehuacan valley) and by 2500 BCE in the Old World, but New World

cultivated cotton is apparently a hybrid between Old World domesticate and New World wild.

 

Sweet Potato (Ipomoea batatas)  Mexican name  camote  (from Nahuatl). Native American domesticate,

but cultivated in Polynesia for a long time.  Compare these terms for the sweet potato:  Ecuadorian Quichua

(Chinchasuyu dialect of Quechua–  Brand in Riley et al 1971:360) kumar; Cañari of Ecuador komal;

Nahuatl  kamotli .    Polynesian dialects kumala, kumala and cognate forms in the Pacific;

Add to this Malagasy (Madagascar) kambar 'yam'; Bengali kamalu 'yam'; Telegu (S. India) kumara 'yam';

Malay kemahang 'wild yam';  Korean koguma 'sweet potato'.

 

The above plants are some of the problem plants that have been used as evidence in the

controversy surrounding the question of possible Old World - New World contacts in pre-Columbian times. 

 

 

The following food plants are native to the New World, and many to Mesoamerica:

 

Beans -  (mostly Phaseolus vulgaris, but also other types, including jack beans, runner beans,

kidney beans [habichuelas], lima beans [habas] ).   Extremely important source of vegetable protein in

Mesoamerica.   Called frijoles in Mesoamerica, generically beans are known as habichuelas in the Caribbean.

 

               Squash – (Cucurbita spp.)  several types including pumpkin squash and other large, ripe

squashes (calabaza , calabaza 2, calabaza 3), summer squash [e.g. yellow crookneck, zucchini] (calabazita),

and melon squash (chilacayote).

 

               Avocado – (Persea spp.) many different varieties, from smooth to stringy, large to tiny, tasty to

bland.  First domesticated in the Chiapas-Guatemala highlands. Tree gets large.  Sp.  aguacate  .

For more information.

 

               Sapotes  / Zapotes-  (from Nahuatl  zapotl 'fleshy sweet fruit') These are the fruits of several

different plant genera.  There are red sapotes [mamey – Pouteria mammosa], black zapotes [Diospyros digyna],

white zapotes [Casimiroa edulis], and yellow zapotes [Pouteria campechiana]; all are sweet. 

   Black zapote (Diospyros digyna), named zapote negro or zapote prieto in Spanish,  is a

species of persimmon, named "turkey excrement" in some Mayan languages, due to the color and texture of

the fruit, which is eaten by people out of hand when ripe.  When unripe the fruit is astringent, caustic, and

bitter, and is ground up and used as a temporary fish poison.  The fruit looks a little like the Texas persimmon

only larger, and has about twice the vitamin C of an orange.   The fruit and when ripe has been used as a

 dye.  The leaves are made into a decotion to treat ringworm and itching skin conditions.

               White zapote (Casimiroa edulis,  C. sapota), zapote blanco or matazano (or matasano) in Spanish,

its seeds and to a lesser extent the flesh of the fruit are known to have sedative and other medicinal

properties. 

               Red zapote ( Pouteria sapota, pouteria mammosa), mamey colorado, zapote colorado, mamey

zapote, or just zapote, this delicious fruit is eaten as picked or made into marmalade.

               Yellow zapote (Pouteria campechiana) (not to be confused with Mammea Americana, known as

mamey, mamey amarillo, or zapote de niño, the juicy yellow fruit is eaten while the juice and seeds are used as

an insecticide.

               Green zapote  (Pouteria viridis),  zapote injerto or injerto verde, and raxtul in Guatemala

(from the Quiché Maya).  Found mostly in Guatemala.  Sweet and juicy.

 

 

               Chicozapote  (Manilkara zapota)  (Sp. sapodilla)- fruit of the tall hardwood tree from which the

chicle in our chewing gum comes (cf. the Nahuatl word tziktli 'chewing gum'), very sweet.

 

               Caoba  (Swietenia macrophylla)  This is the tree that we know as mahogany.  Also called

chakalte’(red tree), this giant hardwood tree is rapidly disappearing.   In the late 1800s began the cutting of these trees

in Tabasco and then Chiapas.  Slow to rot, the wood is used for boats and drums.

 

               Papaya - this fruit is used as a meat tenderizer as well as to eat.  Perhaps originally from

Colombia or Central America.  It is a cauliflorous tree.  It will bear clusters of 30 or more

fruits (of up to 25 pounds each) directly from the trunk of the l0 to l5 foot tall "tree".  Papaya plants

develop to their full size in less than a year.  The papaya seeds (as well as the milky juice in the stalks,

leaves, and unripe fruits) are used as a worm remedy.  A piece of papaya leaf placed on a sore will promote

rapid healing, through the action of its "meat tenderizing" enzymes; and mashed papaya fruit is used to

treat skin blemishes.

 

               Granadilla (fruit of the passion flower vine, Passiflora ligularis, P. quadrangularis and other

species).  Flower supposed to have religious significance (lO petals for the lO apostles, 5 anthers for

5 wounds, 3 stigmas for 3 nails).  Fruit is delicious.

 

               Giant Splitleaf "philodendron" (Monstera deliciosa) a house plant here, which is actually a

jungle/rainforest plant of Middle America, that bears a large, tasty, sweet, pineapple-like edible fruit.

 

               Annona - tropical rainforest trees (Annona cherimola and related species) give fruits called

custard apple,  anona, guanabana, cherimoya, sweetsop, atemoya, sugar apple  (see  J. Morton's

Annonaceae on the index page of Fruits of Warm Climates for more detail on the different species of

Annona).

 

               Guava - widely cultivated tree; fruit is often full of worms, which add protein to them.  Several

medicinal uses for the plant.  (Sp. guayabo 'guava tree', guayaba 'guava fruit')     

 

               Cacao – (Theobroma cacao) come from the large fruits of the Cacao tree, hanging

directly from the trunk (ie. it is cauliflorous) brown beans taken from the pulp of the fruit and sun dried. 

Cacao beans were used for money in Mesoamerica from the earliest times, and also by the Aztecs. 

Also used for a refreshing beverage (by 600 BC) to which other vegetable products were added

(e.g. corn meal, vanilla).   Recent discoveries of theobromine in ceramic vessels dating to 1100 BC

suggest the use of cacao beer (fermented cacao pulp) later leading to discovery of the chocolate taste

from the beans (because of the fermentation required in the process.  The name 'chocolate' is said to

derive from the Maya term for hot water  (chocol + ha'), or from the Aztec term for 'water beaten with

a stick' or 'beater drink' (chikol-atl).  Cacao was also used medicinally. 

Cacao flowers sprouting from the trunk are of some interest for their delicate beauty.  

 

               Pineapple- a terrestrial bromeliad (Ananas comosus), related to our ball moss and to Spanish

moss, the pineapple probably originated in lowland South America, but was brought to Middle America

very early.

 

               Chayote- (Sechium edule) a useful vine, related to squash and gourd--gives edible root (cueza)

and edible fruit (chayote), as well as edible flowers.  Comes in both spiny and non-spiny varieties. 

Fruit is boiled like potatoes, and tastes something like the potato.

 

               Chile / chili pepper- (Capsicum species) many different varieties, with many different degrees

of "hot".   Known as chile in Mesoamerica, and aji in the Caribbean.

 

               Husk tomato – (Physalis ixocarpa ,  Sp. tomatillo ) a little green tomato (or can have purple, or

yellow colored skin); strong taste, good for making sauces (salsa verde), or eaten raw when ripe.

 

               Yam (Dioscorea) most true yams in Mexico and Guatemala are famine foods only.  They

contain saponins (hemolytic proteins) and need to be thoroughly cooked before eating in order to

prevent the skin from getting huge bruises (or worse).

 

               Sweet manioc (Manihot esculenta) root is eaten.  Tastes sort of like potatoes.   Called yuca

in many parts of Latin America, and should not be confused with the yucca plant.

 

               Chipilín  (Crotalaria longirostrata)  leafy vegetable found in southern Mesoamerica.

Leaves can be boiled and served green, dried and used as an herb, or added to tamale doughs for color and flavor.

The plant is a nitrogen fixer.

 

               Chaya  (Cnidoscolus chayamansa) Young shoots & leaves are eaten like spinach.

Usually boiled first, otherwise may be somewhat poisonous due to small amounts of cynanide

(hydrocyanic glycosides).  Important nutritional sources for protein, vitamins (A and C), minerals

(calcium, iron, phosphorus), niacin, riboflavin, and thiamine, and is main leafy vegetable used in Yucatan.

Also said to have several medicinal uses, particularly when used as a tea:  for diabetes, obesity,

kidney stones, hemorrhoids, acne, and eye problems (Diaz-Bolio 1975). Chaya shoots and leaves

also taken as a laxative, diuretic, circulation stimulant, digestion facilitator, to stimulate lactation,

and to harden the fingernails

 

                   Loroco  (Fernaldia Pandurata)  Edible herb in southern Mesoamerica.  

Artichoke flavor w/ nutty overtones.

 

 

               Elephant ears (Xanthosoma spp.) Leaves look like elephant ears; the root is eaten,  tasting sort of

like potatoes.   Spanish, malanga, tarabundí, mafafa, or yautía

 

               Potato - native to Peru, came relatively late to Middle America; Never very important in the Middle

American indigenous diet.

 

               Amaranth- "sacred grain of the Aztecs", it was almost eradicated by the Spaniards (who called

it bledos).  Small tasty grains, made into cakes for bloodletting and other rituals (in the past).

Now sometimes called ajonjolí (literally 'sesame') the grains are often toasted and popped  (like popcorn)

and mixed with honey to make a tasty candy.  In Indigenous communities the leaves of this plant are eaten

like spinach.

 

               Ramon tree – [Brosimum alicastrum] The fruit of the Ramon is ground up and used as a

maize substitute in the making of tortillas.   This tree grows well where maize grows, so Lacandón

maize farmers plant their maize where the Ramon tree is found to be growing.  Either of these

facts might account for the Huastecs calling the Ramon "maize of the ancestors."  Yucatecs built huge

bottle-shaped underground chambers (called chultun) in the lime-stone bedrock that may have been used to

store Ramon nuts.   Currently in the US it is sold as a nutritious coffee substitute made from the ground and

roasted seeds, and is called mojo [you can buy it at Wheatsville coop].        

 

               Tomato- (Solanum lycopersicum)  native to Peru, but reached Middle America quite

early, and used in many foods, particularly in tasty sauces. Unusual variety is the Zapotec tomato.

 

               Tree tomato - (Cyphomandra betacea / Solanum betaceum) native to Peru; arrived early in

Mesoamerica.  Grown at medium altitudes.  Known as tomate de arbol or kaxlan pix .  Also known as

tamarillo.

 

               Hog Plum (Spondias mombin, S. purpurea). One of several kinds of Mesoamerican plums, has

plentiful fruit, avidly sought by humans and animals alike.   The purple mombin is preferable to the

yellow.  Resin from S. mombin is used as glue, bark used for tanning and dyeing (because of tannin

content), and young leaves cooked as greens.

 

               Prickly pear- (Opuntia sp.) tasty fleshy fruits called tuna, the leaves (nopal) are sliced and

eaten (sold as nopalitos), often scrambled in eggs.

 

               Pitahaya   -  Several species of cactus with delicious, edible fruit (e.g. Stenocereus thurberi,

Hylocereus polyhizus, Stenocereus gummosus, Stenocereus eruca).    The Seri of Sonora make much

use of several pitahaya species (including, pitahaya agria (the sour pitahaya, Machaerocereus gummosus)

and pitahaya dulce (the sweet pitahaya, Lemaireocereus thurberi).  One species is marketed in the U.S. as

'dragon fruit' (of the genus Hylocereus).

 

               Vanilla – (Vanilla planifolia ) the bean of an tropical orchid vine native to Veracruz, Mexico.  

In 1520 one of Cortes' men, Bernal Diaz del Castillo ,noticed that Montezuma drank his hot chocolate

(made with cacao beans and ground maize and honey) flavored with tlilxochitl (ground black vanilla

pods; literally 'black flower' in Nahuatl – though the flower itself is actually greenish yellow).

 

               Achiote - seeds from the Bixa orellana tree- red dye used as food coloring and for skin coloring

and also as flavoring for beans and some other foods (it has also been called bija, bijol, annatto, urucu

and roucou elsewhere in Latin America).  (the big picture)

 

               Indigo -  (Indigofera suffruticosa )  source for the beautiful color known as "Maya Blue" in

decorated ceramics of the Maya.  Became a major commercial crop (for the dye) during colonial period.

 

   Tobacco - Nicotiana tabacum is the main cigarette and cigar tobacco. It is also used in powder

form and mixed with lime (calcium oxide from ashes or heated limestone or shells) for “chewing” (i.e.

placed in the mouth and left in the cheek for a time).More potent native tobaccos (Nicotiana rustica,

N. glauca), called piciete or pilico in Spanish, are also employed in various indigenous communities.

 

               Datura (jimson weed). Datura strammonium, D. inoxia used in California and N.W. Mexico

for puberty ceremonies.

 

               Peyote (Lophophora williamsi) a spineless cactus, causes visions, allays hunger and thirst,

assists one’s sense of balance and puts off tiredness.  Used today by Huichols and Tarahumara.  

Here's a recent Huichol yarn painting depicting peyote, and a painted stone.

 

               Psilocybe - one of several genera of hallucinogenic mushrooms. Most often associated with

Mazatecs, but also known to be used among Zapotecs, Mixe, Nahuatl speakers and others.

 

               Ololiuhqui - recently identified as (Ipomoea tricolor), relative of the morning glory whose

hallucinogenic seeds were important to the Aztecs (long thought to be Rivea corymbosa).

 

               Ska Maria  (Salvia divinorum)  -  a sage (in the Mint family), propogated vegetatively

(i.e. apparently domesticated), employed by Mazatec healers to ascertain the cause of an illness.

 

               Coral Bean - Erythrina sps. - red seeds used in divination and for protective necklaces. 

Its flowers are used to make whistles, accounting for the Spanish term pito as a name for the tree.

 

               Mountain Laurel -  Sophora secundiflora (now Calia secundiflora) - called the mescal bean,

one of the oldest hallucinogens whose use is documented.  Dangerous to eat (one bean can cause death

of a child), its presumed use by North American Indians supposedly gave way to the safer peyote.

  

               Agave (of the Amaryllis family): the century plant is of the genus Agave. 

Agaves include the true maguey, so important in Mesoamerica, particularly for pre-Columbian alcohol

production.  Large fields of the plant can be seen in many parts of Mexico.

Maguey (Agave americana), from which we get pulque, tequila, needles and thread, and edible

flowers. After about l0 years a maguey plant sends up a thick flower stalk--reaching about 20 feet high.

Before the flower stalk forms, however, the thick center bud can be cut from the plant, leaving a cavity

that receives great quantities of saps meant for the stalk. This sap is sucked out daily for a couple of months

(several quarts a day), and is called aguamiel.  Then it is fermented into pulque.  Distilled, this becomes

mezcal and tequila).  The young stalks are sweet and can also be cut and roasted  for food.  Likewise

when the leaves are cut off, the “hearts” are roasted in pits and eaten.

               Henequen (another species of agave) is planted in dry tropical areas by the acre  (e.g. in

Quintana Roo, Yucatan), and from it comes sisal fiber.  It is important, both economically and

because many Indians were displaced from their home areas and brought to the henequen plantations

to work and live. 

Lechuguilla is the common agave of the northern deserts.  It is a source of ixtle fiber.

 

Guamuchil   (Pithecellobium dulce)  Also called pinsón.  Mimosaceae family – In May and June

it produces edible fruit/seedpods.  Found in deciduous tropical forest region, near water.  A medicinal tea

can be made from its leaves.

 

               Spineless Yucca -  (Yucca elephantipes) -  houseplant sold in local nurseries.   Also called "giant

yucca".   Takes dry conditions and can stand low light.

 

               Ceiba (Ceiba pentandra and other species) - the kapok tree, or silk-cotton tree.  This is the

sacred tree of the Mayans, often depicted as a tree having hundreds of breasts.  It grows to more

than lOO feet.  When young its green trunk has many large and sharp spines.  The green trunk accounts

for the Maya name yax-te'  ('green tree') for the ceiba.  The greenish-yellow flowers develop into large seed

pods full of white fibers (kapok) once used to fill sleeping bags. Some ancient Maya jade earflares

were carved to resemble the ceiba flower.

 

               Ahuehuete  -  (Taxodium mucronatum) this is the Montezuma Baldcypress, relative of the

baldcypress found in Austin along Town Lake and elsewhere along rivers and creeks.  The one at

El Tule in the valley of Oaxaca is Mexico's most famous tree.  It is supposed to be more than 2,000 years

old, with a girth of 178 feet.

 

               Copal - the trees (from several different genera and species) from which the incense widely

used In Mesoamerica comes (i.e. from the sap of the trees).  Bursera, Protium, Pinus, etc.

 

               Marigold-  (Tagetes erecta)  flor de muerto, the "flower of the dead" used at funerals and during

Todos Santos in Mesoamerica.  It has yellow flowers and exudes material with insecticidal properties. 

A close relative of this flower (Tagetes lucida) has a strong anise scent and is used as a substitute for

tarragon.   Both species have a chemical component, tagetone, that is mildly biotoxic.

 

               Flor de Mayo -  Frangipani, the sacred flower of the Maya, the red and the white species of

Plumeria (rubra and alba) represent the sun and the moon respectively in Maya thought and imagery. 

The flowers are strongly and beautifully scented.

 

               Jagua  (Genipa americana), also called genipa or tapaculo.  Tree to 60' tall, gives edible fruits. 

Fruit pulp eaten fresh or made into deserts, syrups, wine and jam.   When green the fruit gives a yellow

or white juice that gradually turns very dark blue and is used to dye hair or clothes, or for body painting

(especially in South America).  Fruit extracts used to treat rheumatism, liver ailments, and asthma. 

Fruit pulp also used as a dental anesthetic.   Green fruit, scraped, treats itching.         

 

               Algarrobo (Prosopis spp.;  Hymenaea courbaril)  This tree is a relative

of the mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) that we have here in Austin.   In northern Mexico and

the US southwest the name algarrobo refers usually to the mesquite (or to a close relative

that may attain 60' in height).   Elsewhere in  Mexico and farther south the term is more likely

to refer to the Hymenaea (also called guapinol or jatoba, or stinking toe), a tree that can

attain 130' in height.  The Hymenaea courbaril has large seed pods with edible pulp surrounding

the seeds, that smells bad but tastes good.   The resin is used for incense and the wood for tool

handles.  Bark, resin and leaves are all used medicinally.   In Spain the name refers to the

carob tree, which also has large seed pods with edible material surrounding the seeds.   The

name comes from the Arabic term for the carob (becoming clear when one breaks it up into

its component forms  al + garrob + o  ). 

 

               Dahlia - the national flower of Mexico and a common garden flower in the U.S.

 

               Zinnia - also native to Mesoamerica, a common garden flower in the U.S. now.

 

               Poinsettia - native to Mesoamerica, this is a member of the Euphorbia  (spurge) family, many

members of which have a milky juice that is biotoxic.

 

               Shellflower (a kind of iris) - Tigridia pavonia – The flower is beautiful, and the bulb, roasted

and eaten by Aztecs and Mayans tastes kind of like sweet potato.

 

               Sensitive-plant -  Mimosa pudica -  the touch-me-not plant, native to tropical areas of the

world, this plant responds to touch by rapidly closing up its leaves.  Its movement is much more rapid than

that of our own Neptunia lutea or our Schrankia uncinata.   It is a relative of the mesquite (i.e. in the bean

family (Fabaceae).

 

               Iron Cross Plant  -  (Oxalis deppei)  tasteless but edible bulblike root, and the leaves are also edible

too, though the oxalic acid makes it risky to eat a lot.  It is a famine food in Mesoamerica.

 

 

Introduced food plants, from the Old World, include:

 

apple,   peach,   mango (India),  pomegranate (Eastern Mediterranean),  coffee (Africa) [not in Mexico

 

until after 1800 – introduced from Jamaica],   wheat,    rice,   barley,   sorghum,    oats,    sugarcane (Africa),  

 

onions,   beets,   garlic,  turnips,   carrots,   cabbage,   eggplant,    lettuce,    mulberry,   orange,   lemon,   

 

lime,    sweet lime,  tamarind (Africa – by way of India – name comes from Arabic) [introduced into Mexico

 

in 1600’s],  banana (some varieties may be  prehispanic, but  not native to New  World –  origin in

 

Indo-Malaysian region extending to northern Australia).

 

               (see Julia Morton's Fruits of Warm Climates)

 

               (see Purdue's crop index ) 

 

               (see Economic Botany writeups)

 

 

Introduced non-food plants (some come from other parts of New World):

 

tree tobacco  (Argentina),  angels trumpet / tree datura / floripondio [Brugmansia sp.] (Peru),  

 

castor bean,   eucalyptus (Australia),   oleander [Nerium oleander] (Mediterranean),   

 

bougainvillea (Brazil),    Jacaranda (Brazil),    Orchid Tree [Bauhinia purpurea.] (India),  

 

royal poinciana [Delonix regia] (Madagascar),   Bamboo (Asia),   African tulip tree (Africa),

 

noni [Morinda citrifolia] (Polynesia).

 

 

Plant Pictures:

 

http://www.jardin-mundani.com/index.htm        photos alphabetically by binomial name

 

 

 

 

 

                                    SOME FAUNA OF MIDDLE AMERICA   (ANIMALS)

 

               Harpy eagle - large, powerful, grey and white eagle; crested.  Referenced in Indian folklore and

also in art.

 

               Scarlet Macaw - the largest and most conspicuous parrot of Middle America, from tropical

lowland areas; called mo? in several Mayan languages.

 

               Quetzal - one of 8 species of trogons living in Mexico and Guatemala.  The quetzal is famous

for long green tail and showy plumage.

 

               Curassow – (Crax rubra)  large edible pheasant-like bird

 

               Chicken  -  George F Carter considers the evidence in "Pre-Columbian Chickens in America"

(in Man Across the Sea, edited by Riley et al 1971.  pp. 178-218), concluding that chickens in America

were more likely present in the New world before Columbus, and that they were more likely to have been

introductions of Asiatic fowl (but by way of Polynesia, and to South America).  There is some linguistic

evidence for Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican chickens.  

   

Fer-de-lance - 6 to 8 feet long, aggressive pit viper w/ neurotoxic venom.   Called "four-nose"

or "twenty-bat" in indigenous languages.

 

               Boa Constrictor lO to l2 feet long - often allowed to live in the thatch of Yucatec Maya houses as

semi-pets, because they eat rats and mice.   Not as big as the 983 lb., 49' long python from Indonesia, a

news story later regarded as innacurately reported.

 

 

               Raccoon Family includes the raccoon, but also has the coati or coatimundi (from a Brazilian word),

known in Mexico as a tejon or pisote.  The coati has a long nose and long, non-prehensile tail.  Makes a good

pet and is fun to watch.  The cacomixtle is nocturnal and lives in the highlands--also called the ring-tailed cat.

The kinkajou or mico de noche (Potos flavus) is a cuddly, small, arboreal, nocturnal, tropical, almost

monkey-like animal.  Sometimes known in Mexico as marta or martucha, and in U.S. as honey bear.

 

               Pig family -  includes the collared peccary (jabali, javelina) - from dry plateaus to tropical

lowlands--can become quite aggressive; and the white lipped peccary (senso), from the jungles of Veracruz,

Chiapas, Tabasco, and Yucatan.

 

               Cat family - includes the jaguar (7 feet or more, 250 lbs.), ocelot (4 feet, 35 lbs, looks like

a jaguar), Jaguarundi (3-4 feet long, looks like small puma), margay (2-3 feet long, looks like small ocelot).

 

               Dogs - Native pre-Columbian dogs include the Chihuahua and the Xoloitzcuintli (or Xolo).  The

latter is hairless and used as food or as a hot water bottle (because no hair, so no fleas, and also has

a high temperature).  It sweats through its skin unlike other dogs, and is believed in some regions to

serve as a guide for human souls in the underworld.

 

               Monkeys - there are 2 kinds in Middle America: the Spider monkey is smaller (l8 inches) and

more slender, with long arms; the Howler monkey which is larger (33 inches) and more heavy

bodied, and whose roaring cries echo in rain and cloud forests.  The howler is reddish brown to

black and travels in bands in the treetops.  Males have a long "beard".

 

               Agouti and Paca - large rodents hunted in tropical areas.  The Agouti (called guatusa or cotusa)

is smaller (2O inches) with solid color, and sometimes feeds during the day.  The Paca (called tepeitzcuintli

or tepezcuintle) is larger (26 inches) and spotted w/ bands of white spots.  It is called a gibnut in Belize.

 

               Tapir (odd toed ungulate;  Spanish danta), has long snout, is a vegetarian weighing up to 65O

pounds. 

It is tropical, shy, over hunted, and almost extinct.

 

               Brocket deer (Mazama spp., Spanish cabrito) - very small (dog size) deer, with pointed

un-branched horns like those of a goat.  Reputed to stomp poisonous reptiles to death.

 

               Other mammals include: the coendu (Mexican tree porcupine), tamandua (Collared

anteater, oso hormiguero, chupamiel), tayra (cabeza de viejo), and grison.

 

               Crocodile, Caiman  -   Crocodiles and caymans are found in lowland Mesoamerica, and

figure in some Mesoamerican iconography.  Alligators are found in North America, but are absent from

Mesoamerica.

 

               Iguana -   dragonlike vegetarian lizard, serves as meat for people who hunt them; sold in markets.  

as food.  Two types: the tree-living and more common green iguana (Iguana iguana), and the groun-living

black iguana (Ctenosaura similis.).  The Basilisk lizard (Basiliscus basiliscus) is also a kind of large iguana,

one that runs upright, and can walk on water.

 

               Cane Toad    -  (Bufo Marinus)  also called the  giant toad, spring chicken (Belize), marine toad,

sapo grande, sapo gigante, and sapo lechero.   Poisonous secretion form paratoid glands.   

 

Bull Shark   (Carcharhinus leucas;  Sp. tiburón) Young bull sharks (cazón)  are considered

a delicacy on the Gulf coast in the Veracruz region.  They are noted for their tendency and willingness to

enter fresh water areas, going long distances up rivers.  These sharks are said to be very dangerous.

 

               Alligator Gar   (Spanish peje lagarto) A distinctive and "ancient" fish; large and with an unsual

scale pattern.   Shows up in Olmec iconography.  

 

               Sting Ray  (Spanish  pastinaca)  -  stingray spines were used by the classic Maya as bloodletting

implements, and perhaps also to tip arrows.  There is even an alleged stingray spine glyph in the Maya script.

 

               Cochineal  -  small insects (Coccus cacti, Dactylopius coccus) whose dried bodies (only the

females) make a red dye.  The insects live on Opuntia and Nopalea cacti (prickly pears).  Aztecs called the

dye nocheztli.  Spaniards called it cochinilla.  Cultivated for local use and trade in western and south-central Mexico;

it became a very important export from Mexico and Guatemala during colonial period.

 

 

 

 

Animal Pictures 

 

http://www.xcalak.info/visit/uk/mammels-uk.shtml      some pictures of Mesoamerican mammals.  Not

fully accurate.  For example the very first picture is of a kinkajou (Potos flavus) rather than a cacomixtle (Bassariscus sumichrasti)