Imagine a tree that is a feeding ground for 40 different species of migratory birds, in a part of the world that is a key migration stop between North America and wintering grounds in South America. Such is the case for Cymbopetalum mayanum, or ‘Muc’, a tree native to Central America.
The species is categorized as Endangered (assessed in 1998) on the IUCN Red List largely due to expanding agricultural practices. This has led to a situation where small clusters of trees persist in scattered fragments of habitat throughout Guatemala and Honduras.
The flowers can be as large as up to 6cm across and it is the light green, fleshy petals that give the tree its Spanish name, ‘orejuelas’ or ‘ear flower’. Traditionally, the dried petals of Cympopetalum species are used to flavour drinks, including ‘pinol’ as well as chocolate, throughout Central America. The flowers are fragrant and attract both insect and bat pollinators. Following pollination, the tree produces fruits that contain seeds with a high energy, fleshy coating called an ‘aril’. The arils are known to be favoured by migrating birds thus, the tree is ideal for prioritisation in habitat restoration projects.
A good thing then, that its native range has been found to be larger than initially thought (when the species was assessed in 1998). Since that time, new individuals have been found in Mexico, Guatemala and Belize. For example, fieldwork carried out through the GTC project ‘Building Capacity for Tree Conservation in Belize’ has revealed >2000 individuals within the protected area network of Belize, a promising boost for the species. The species protection and current exposure to threat in other range countries however, remains unknown. These new populations mean the assessment status needs updating; something that often happens with tree species where little information is known.
Practices such as ‘slash and burn’ agriculture and the conversion of land to commercial crops threaten tree species throughout tropical Central America. Our partner, the Ya’axché Conservation Trust, based in Belize, works with farmers to promote sustainable agriculture practices in southern Belize. Cymbopetalum mayanum have been grown in the Ya’axché nursery and will be provided to farmers. Planting these trees will help farmers to support biodiversity on their agroforestry farms and could be valuable for restoration of converted lands.
The fact that the known range of Cymbopetalum mayanum has increased in Central America indicates a promising future for the species. It is hoped that the species can be further reinforced through its potential use in the restoration of migratory bird feeding habitat. The global assessment of the species needs to be updated to determine its current state in other range countries and ensure appropriate conservation action is being taken for this important tropical tree species.
This profile was written by Jean Linsky, based on information compiled by Gail Stott and photos by Steven Brewer.
- Foster, M. S. (2007) The potential of fruit trees to enhance converted habitats for migrating birds in Southern Mexico. Bird Conservation International, 17: 45-61.
- Nelson, C. (1998) Cymbopetalum mayanum. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 1998: http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.1998.RLTS.T30674A9564812.en. Accessed: 13/11/15.
- Standley, P. C. & J. A. Steyermark (1946). Flora of Guatemala. Fieldiana: Botany. 24: IV, 282.
Did you know?
Over exploitation of the huarango tree led to ecological devastation and the consequent downfall of a pre-inca civilisation, known as the Nasca.