10 Aug 2014

The Cuipo Tree at Panama`s Km 67

By Jorge Ventocilla

When José Saramago (Nobel Prize in Literature 1998) was asked about the relationship between humans and nature and the environmental movement in general, his answer was somewhat long and worth remembering.

He talked about his grandfather, who lived in the countryside of Portugal. When his grandfather’s health started to deteriorate, his family decided they could take better care of him if he moved with them to the city. The day he left the countryside, anticipating he would not be able to return, he went to the yard and said an emotional goodbye to one of the trees, hugging it.

-“That was my grandfather...that is where I come from”, Saramago said. And he said no more.

We wanted to include an illustration of a tree that our readers may recognize. This is a large cuipo tree growing strong on the Inter-American Highway at Km 67, near Capira. If you are going from the city to the countryside, you will see it to your right; if you are going to the city from the countryside (as shown in the picture); you will see it to your left.

Its scientific name is Cavallinesia platanifolia and it is part of the Bombacaceae family. This family of trees includes species like barrigón and balsa or balso. The baobab, that huge tree native to the African desert depicted in The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry, is also part of the family. Our cuipo is, then, cousins with the baobab.

It is commonly found in the Pacific forest and the central area of the Panama Canal; at low elevations above sea level. It is not as common in the Caribbean rainforest. It can reach great heights. The cuipo at Km 67 is probably 20-25 meters high. In the canopy layer of the forest, the trunk of this tree can be as wide as 2.5 meters. The top of the tree has a relatively small size and lots of branches; the rest of the tree has little or no branches.

This tree is easily identifiable by its circular rings along the trunk every 1 or 2 meters. Knocking on the trunk will produce a hollow sound. This deciduous tree sheds its leaves during the dry season. From March to May it has both flowers (red flowers) and fruits. Its fruits, approximately 15 cm wide, are pale green and have five “wings” that are made up of a delicate membrane.

The cuipo tree does not produce any seeds during the rainy season, but it may be a good idea to pick some from the cuipo at Km 67 this upcoming dry season and help this tree reproduce. Some friends have told me how they managed to save this specific tree from been removed when the roads were expanded.

The Panama tree (Sterculia apetala), a Panamanian national symbol, resembles the cuipo tree, but its roots are tubular and exposed. As a matter of fact, some people have shared with me how they thought the cuipo at Km 67 was actually a Panama tree. This is a good opportunity for clarifying this: that one is in fact a cuipo tree.


English translation by Sara I. Melo D.

Galeria de Fotos: 
Tal vez el árbol particular más reconocido en la región central del país: el enorme Cuipo que crece a un lado de la Interamericana, en el kilómetro 67. Foto de Jorge Ventocilla-