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Bignoniaceae, Crescentia alata, Calabash tree, Tecomate, Jicaro – Mexico

February 27, 2013

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…

Bignoniaceae, Crescentia alata

Bignoniaceae, Crescentia alata

A close – up photo of a mature fruit and the lower branching structure of the tree.

Crescentia alata, trunk, fruit

And a photo of the entire tree.

Crescentia alata, tree

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 27, 2013 10:08:03 am

    What an amazing looking tree! I have heard of calabash before but always associated them with the Middle East for some reason. It is interesting to hear that they are native to the America’s. I can see how useful the hardened exterior of the fruit would be, somewhat like gourds, and it is interesting that the plant may have developed a harder shell because of species selection by it’s human cohabitors. Thank you for sharing this post with us :)

  2. March 2, 2013 10:08:39 pm

    Horses and camels evolved in the Americas, and then crossed into Eurasia via the land bridge during the last Ice Age. There would have been horses and camels here to eat the fruit.

    • March 2, 2013 10:08:42 pm

      Thanks for the comment Barry, it got me interested in reading a bit more about the evolution of horse in N. America. From what I understand, there was a three toed proto-horse, the size of a small dog, that evolved in N. America, during the Eocene (50 million yrs ago). During the Miocene they evolved into a somewhat larger few-hundred pound animals. By the time when, as you mentioned, they migrated to Africa and Eurasia by way of the Siberian land bridge, they were more akin to what we associate with modern horses.

      I couldn’t find any information on how far down in the Americas these early horse relatives lived but here is a relevant summary from the Janzen article that I provide a link to in the above post, Neotropical Anachronisms: The Fruits the Gomphotheres Ate
      Daniel H. .Janzen and Paul S. Martin:

      “Frugivory by extinct horses, gomphotheres, ground sloths, and other Pleistocene megafauna offers a key to understanding certain plant reproductive traits in Central American lowland forests. When over 15 genera of Central American large herbivores became extinct roughly 10,000 years ago, seed dispersal and subsequent distributions of many plant species were altered. Introduction of horses and cattle may have in part restored the local ranges of such trees as jicaro (Crescentia alata) and guanacaste (Enterolobium cyclocarpum) that had large mammals as dispersal agents. Plant distributions in neotropical forest and grassland mixes that are moderately and patchily browsed by free-ranging livestock may be more like those before megafaunal extinction than were those present at the time of Spanish conquest.”

  3. March 6, 2013 10:08:35 am

    Yes, indeed, that’s exactly it.

  4. March 6, 2013 10:08:47 am

    BTW I have one of these (C. alata) planted at a local dog park, as well as about 20 other odd species. After hurricane Wilma, most of the trees in the park went down, and I asked the city if I could repopulate it. Currently planted at Poinciana Park:

    Crescentia alata
    Hildegardia populifolia
    Pterospermum acerifolium
    Terminalia arjuna
    Sterculia appendiculata
    Kirkia acuminata
    Uncarina grandidieri x 4
    Fernandoa spp. Lavranos “Road to Cap de Ambre” x 2
    Sterculia urens
    Pterygota brasiliensis
    Sterculia foetida
    Erythrina madagascariensis
    Ceiba pentandra x 2
    Berrya cordifolia
    Artocarpus spp. Flamingo Gardens
    Araucaria cunninghamii ssp. glauca (“Magnetic Island Hoop Pine”)
    Ceiba parvifolia
    Cavanillesia platanifolia
    Elaeophorbia drupifera
    Moringa concanensis
    Ceiba boliviana
    Schinziophyton rautanenii

    If you’re ever in South Florida, give me a shout and we’ll go check out the dog park.

    • March 7, 2013 10:08:08 am

      Barry,

      Sounds like a fantastic collection, I would be very happy to get a chance to check it out when I’m in the area. I will surely get in touch if I get to S. Florida soon, which is likely. I’m the meantime I’m heading back to Cuixmala area and will keep an eye out for Jatropha chamelensis seed.

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