November: Celebrating Our Independence and Our National Tree
By Jorge Ventocilla
The “Panama tree” (Sterculia apetala) was declared the National Tree of Panama, by Cabinet Decree 371 of November 26, 1969. I think we, as parents, must teach our kids how to spot the National Tree, hopefully on site, and not just in a drawing or a photo, as part of their education as citizens of this country. These trees are easy to find in Panama City.
The Panama Tree sheds its leaves during the dry season and grows leaves again early in the wet season. It is in full bloom from December to March. Many people in Panama’s country side eat the seeds; they would either boil or roast the oil-rich, peanut-like tasting seeds. In Mexico, seeds are grinded and then used for adding flavor to chocolate.
It has ornamental uses and some people have planted this tree just because of its meaning for the Panamanian people. Some of these trees have been planted, for example in Old Panama (Panama Viejo). There is a well-known, highly recognizable Panama Tree near the ruins at Old Panama, and there is a full row at the Summit Park. In addition, someone was clever enough to plant one at the top of historical Cerro Ancon.
It can reach heights of 20-35 m and a diameter of 50-100 cm. Its crown is round and has a large extension; the trunk is straight and cylindrical, sometimes with big, flat buttress roots. Its branches are horizontal and the leaves grow like a spiral, close to each other at the tip. The bark is brown-gray, with large, round lenticels.
Its natural distribution range is from Mexico through all Central America and Panama, all the way to Peru and Brazil. It has become a natural in Jamaica and Trinidad, and it has been planted in South Florida (United States), Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, and also the Virgin Islands.
Other than these and other places in our continent, it has been planted in many tropical areas as a shade tree, and also for its edible seeds and as a honey tree (bees collect nectar from its flowers). In our country, it grows in areas of low elevation and more frequently on the Pacific side. It is rare to find it in the tropical rainforests of the Caribbean.
Other names for this tree are chicha or anacaguita (Puerto Rico); bellota, castaño or tepetaca (Mexico); zunzún (Venezuela), and camajuru (Colombia). Some of the information included here was taken from “Trees of the Panama Canal Area”, (http://ctfs.arnarb.harvard.edu/webatlas/maintreeatlas.php). This is an excellent source of information about this and other trees.
Illustration: The national tree. Pen drawing by Guna artist Olowagdi.