Bignoniaceae, Crescentia alata, Calabash tree, Tecomate, Jicaro – Mexico
Below are some photos I took of Crescentia alata, commonly referred to in English as the Calabash tree, and as Tecomate, Jicaro, or Jicara in Spanish. The tree native range spans from Mexico to Costa Rica, although a number of varieties of C. alata and C. cujete can now be found growing near human habitation throughout the tropical world. I took these on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. I have seen them growing in Florida, throughout C. and S. America, in S.E. Asia and W. Africa.
C. alata grows to 8 m in height (26 ft). It is cauliflorus, bearing a round fruit (calabash) with a very hard, brittle shell. The fruit is full of a dense pulp embedded with numerous edible seeds. The seeds are high in protein and have a sweet, liquorice-like taste, often used to make a horchata (beverage). The fruit of different varieties can range in size and shape, from bowling ball sized fruits to much smaller ones, such as those photographed below, about he size of a tennis ball. I have seen round, oval and tear-drop shaped fruits.
Interestingly, I was informed by the Wikipedia site on Crescentia alata that, although one might suppose the thick, strong shell around the fruit developed to counter seed predation, the shell is so hard that seeds cannot germinate survive without the shell having first been broken. However, there are no animals in this tree’s native range that eat the fruit or break the shell. The only animal that has been found to step on, and occasionally eat the pulp of the calabash are horses, which were relatively recently re-introduced to the Americas. And because Crescentia spp. evolved hard shells much earlier then the introduction of horses, one might wonder how and why the species evolved such hard shells. Daniel Janzen suggested that Gomphotheres (extinct elephant-like animals) may have been responsible for the dispersal of C. alata seeds. (“Neotropical anachronisms: The fruits the gomphotheres ate.”).
I believe the development of a hard shell could, at least in part, be the result of human domestication. The fruit are principally hollowed out, dried and used as containers by people, and considering that the species can be easily propagated from cuttings (in other words cloned), humans may have cultivated them them over thousands of years, selecting for larger fruit with harder shells.
In S. American traditional agroforestry systems the Calabash tree is reportedly grown in conjunction with Mauritia flexuosa, Myrciaria dubia, Grias peruviana, Spondias mombin, and Genipa americana. The hard, smooth shell polishes well and is carved and used for ritual use in some regions of tropical Africa.
In Hawaii the whole dried calabash filled with seeds is used as a hula rattle.
In the wild the tree is often host to a variety of epiphytes, such as bromeliads and orchids. .
Two photos of leaves below…
A close – up photo of a mature fruit and the lower branching structure of the tree.
And a photo of the entire tree.