North­land

Ce­cropia trees are strange and won­der­ful tropical rain­for­est trees from Cen­tral and South Amer­ica.

NZ Gardener - - CONTENTS -

Rus­sell Fran­sham de­mys­ti­fies ce­cropia

Fif­teen years ago, I planted a tiny seedling of Ce­cropia peltata in the gar­den and within two years it was 6m high with a hol­low trunk, no branches and big pal­mately lobed leaves about 60cm across. And now at 10m, it has an um­brella-shaped canopy and the smaller, seg­mented side branches are filled with gloopy mu­cilage while the snake-like roots run across the lawn bulging above the soil. One of its many com­mon names is snake­wood tree.

There are about 60 species of ce­cropias through­out tropical Amer­ica.

They are pi­o­neer plants (like New Zealand’s manuka) which colonise bare ground, then die away once they’re shaded out by larger trees.

They are a dom­i­nat­ing pres­ence in tropical Amer­ica‘s hu­mid forests. Their im­prob­a­bly fast growth is their win­ning for­mula in the race to get above any com­pet­ing trees when­ever open space is cre­ated by a dis­tur­bance such as roads, land­slides or fallen canopy trees. So they tend to live fast and die young(ish), and in their race against time, will start to flower and fruit as soon as the can­de­labrum-like branch­ing sys­tem starts in the sec­ond or third year.

Ce­cropias are dioe­cious, which means the sexes are on sep­a­rate trees so at least one of each sex is needed to do the busi­ness.

Bizarrely, they are most closely re­lated to net­tles which are a branch of the fig and mul­berry fam­ily Mo­raceae, and their dis­tinc­tively sculp­tured leaves have an un­mis­take­ably figgy look.

While many of the ce­cropias are fully tropical, Ce­cropia peltata comes from the cooler al­ti­tudes of the An­des moun­tains where it is an im­por­tant com­po­nent of the cloud for­est. Tol­er­ant of cool tem­per­a­tures, it grows read­ily in Auck­land and North­land though its big sculp­tural leaves are eas­ily dam­aged by frost.

Ce­cropias are known as myrme­co­phytes, which is fancy talk for “ant trees”.

Most of the lo­cal names for ce­cropias re­fer to their re­la­tion­ship with ants.

There are sev­eral species of preda­tory Azteca ants in tropical Amer­ica that can live in­side the hol­low sec­tions of their trunks.

The tree even pro­vides sup­ple­men­tary food for the ants in the form of pel­lets of glyco­gen called ‘Mül­le­rian bod­ies’, se­creted by hairy glands on the leaf bases. These hairs (tri­chomes) are just like sting­ing net­tle hairs mod­i­fied to se­crete this sug­ary ant food in­stead of sting­ing acids. Glyco­gen is the prin­ci­pal stor­age car­bo­hy­drate found in an­i­mals and is ex­tremely rare in plants. In re­turn for these ser­vices, the ants de­fend the trees from other leaf-eat­ing an­i­mals such as leaf-cut­ter ants, lo­custs, birds and even mon­keys. They will even at­tack vines that try to climb their ce­cropia host.

The only an­i­mals the ants can’t per­suade to jump ship are sloths whose main food is ce­cropia leaves as they seem to be un­af­fected by the ants’ fran­tic bit­ing.

Here in my gar­den, the wood pi­geons have dis­cov­ered that young ce­cropia leaves are very palat­able.

They strip the ten­der green parts, leav­ing the leaf veins in­tact when their usual foods are in short sup­ply. Of course, the fear­some ce­cropia ants are not here in New Zealand, so these trees are a great standby for lean times in kereru world.

For those of us who as­pire to plant­ing a back­yard food for­est, Ce­cropia peltata pro­vides fast cover for other sub­trop­i­cals and pro­duces rather tasty, if un­usual fruit. They are vaguely banana-shaped and yel­low-brown when ripe, with an outer crust of tiny seeds cov­er­ing a softer cus­tardy in­te­rior. These are eaten fresh or made into a de­li­cious brown jam that looks and tastes like fig jam.

In Latin Amer­ica, ce­cropias are fa­mous for their mul­ti­tude of medic­i­nal uses.

Ev­ery part of the tree is used to treat a wide range of dif­fer­ent hu­man ail­ments, from car­diac, liver and lung dis­ease to Parkin­son‘s and di­a­betes.

Its anti-in­flam­a­tory and an­tibi­otic prop­er­ties are so leg­endary, it is con­sid­ered an es­sen­tial medicine chest in ru­ral ar­eas through­out the forested ar­eas of the con­ti­nent.

The bark is also made into durable rope while the rings of hard white wood are made into mu­si­cal in­stru­ments, boxes, toys and rafts, and the ma­ture leaves are used as sand­pa­per.

And to top it off, if you like smok­ing things, you could even smoke the dried leaves which ap­par­ently taste like a smooth, slightly stim­u­lat­ing tobacco… with­out the nico­tine! ✤

Male Ce­cropia

peltata with flow­ers and wood pi­geon dam­age.

Ants eat the glyco­gen pel­lets, called MÜl­le­rian bod­ies, se­creted by the hairy brown gland at base of the leaf.

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