Friday, January 20, 2012

The Sapodilla Tree

Author's note: this post was partly modified on 11/25/17
Part of a sapodilla. W.D. Brush, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database.

The sapodilla (Manilkara zapota) is one of a variety of trees the ancient Maya viewed as useful. People know it by many names, including sapote, chicozapote, zapote and chico sapote. Native to South America and Central America, it grows the best in north Guatemala, north Belize and in the Yucatan Peninsula.

The Sapodilla is a very drought resistant, long-living tree that grows to be 40 to 60 feet tall and has reddish, strong and long-wearing wood so dense it sinks in water. An evergreen, the sapodilla possesses leathery, dark green leaves that, unlike maples and oaks, it never looses.

The tree produces edible, egg-shaped fruit that has brown skin similar to a kiwi’s and grows to be 2 to 3.5 inches across. The fruit’s grainy-textured flesh -- not unlike a pear’s texture -- ranges from orange to brownish in color. The fruit also contains seeds that are black, smooth and shiny.

Ancient Maya Uses
The ancient Maya made good use of the sapodilla tree. They used the tree for its wood, its latex (known to us as chicle) and its fruit.

Sapodilla fruit was a food source for the ancient Maya (as well as the Aztecs and Nicarao). In order to have a source of fruit all year round, the ancient Maya would dry sapodilla fruits.

Ancient Maya shaped the wood of the sapodilla tree into carved lintels and into roof beams for temples. Some of these ancient wooden artifacts are still with us, showing how long lasting the wood can be.

Also, archaeologists have discovered that -- at least in the Preclassic and Classic periods -- the sapodilla’s wood would sometimes be burned. Charcoal found at sites such as Albion Island, Pulltrouser Swamp, and Cuello are thought to come from sapodilla wood. Therefore it is possible that the Maya used sapodilla for firewood.

The ancient Maya used sap from the sapodilla for both their religion and their everyday lives. Chicle was their gum and was used as an ingredient in incense.

A Consideration: In the Art of Pakal's Sarcophagus
The sapodilla shows up more than once on the sarcophagus of Pakal,  a ruler of Palenque. According to Chicle, the tree on his lid is a sapodilla. You can find the tree on the sides of the sarcophagus too -- Pakal's ancestor, Ix Yohl Ik'nal is next to one.

Modern Uses
People still use the sapodilla for some of the same purposes that the ancient Maya used it for. One purpose -- though not as common as it once was -- is for chicle, which is used for gum.

The second purpose that people still cultivate sapodilla trees for is the fruit, which was exported back across the Atlantic by the Spanish Conquistadors. Sapodilla cultivars are found in tropical regions around the world, from Mesoamerican countries to countries such as India, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the Philippines. Locally grown and marketed sapodilla fruit can even be found in southern Florida.

A third way people still use the sapodilla tree like the ancient Maya did is for its timber. People turn sapodilla wood into floors, handles for tools and into furniture.


"Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, From the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley"; Jennifer P. Mathews, Gillian P. Schultz; 2009

The University of Texas at Austin University of Texas Libraries: "Framing the Portrait: Towards an Understanding of Elite Late Classic Maya Representation at Palenque Mexico"; Kaleyy Rae Spencer; May 2007

Purdue University: Sapodilla: A Potential Crop For Subtropical Climates

The Free Dictionary: Encyclopedia: Sapodilla

Rainforest Alliance: Sapodilla (Manilkara zapota)

Image Credit:

USDA: National Resources Conservation Service: PLANTS Database: Image Gallery:Achras zapota L. - ACZA2

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