The Ahuehuete, Mexico’s National Tree

By Julie Etra

Designated the National Tree of Mexico in 1921, officially confirmed in 1924, the evergreen ahuehuete tree has a complex linguistic background. Taxodium mucronatum, the ahuehuete tree or Montezuma bald cypress, is called ahuehetl in náhuatl, which means “water drum” or “old water” (atl = “water” and hueheutl = “old”). The “old” part refers to the epiphytes that festoon the ahuehuete tree; these are lichens or bromeliads often attached to and hanging from the branches.

The ahuehuete also has numerous common names associated with the indigenous language of the particular area where it is growing; for example, in Oaxaca it is known as tnuyucu or t-nuyucul in Mixteca and yagaguichiciña in Zapotec. It is related to the giant sequoias of northern California as well as the bald cypress found in the southeastern United States. The Spaniards named the tree sabino as it resembled a pine from their mother country.

The ahuehuete grows throughout Mexico, but its complete range runs from southern Texas to Guatemala; it is found in a wide range of climates, from the semi-hot to temperate to cold. It is associated with water – riparian (riverbank) areas, springs, or high groundwater, and is remarkably fast growing. Rate of growth can be up to six feet per year on good soils, but will grow fast even under drought conditions. It has an unusually thick trunk toward the base, even on young trees. In maturity, it has a broad-topped, spreading shape.

Perhaps some readers of The Eye have had the opportunity to visit the Tule Tree (El Árbol del Tule), the enormous specimen of Mexico’s national tree in Santa María del Tule on the outskirts of Oaxaca City (see Alvin Starkman’s article elsewhere in this issue). At 48 meters (over 157 feet) in circumference, its trunk is the largest of any known tree in the world, although the tree is only 43 meters (about 141 feet) in height. It is also one of the oldest trees on the planet, at about 2000 years old according to carbon dating.

But where is the water it’s supposed to need? Like the ancient Lago del México, the location of modern CDMX (and ancient Tenochtitlan), there used to be a lake at Santa María del Tule; it was surrounded by marshes, supporting lush growth of bulrushes and cypresses. Hence the name “Tule,” the common Mexican name for the long-gone bulrush. In recent archaeological excavations at Tlapacoya II, in the state of México, an ahuehuete trunk was located in a layer carbon-dated as being 23,150 +/- 950 years old, indicating ancient riparian forests that no longer exist.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards and the subsequent conquest, the Mexica group of Aztecs cultivated the trees as ornamental and shade plantings in the center of their chinampas (floating agricultural systems) and along pathways throughout the Basin of Mexico, which included six lakes.

Designated the National Tree of Mexico in 1921, officially confirmed in 1924, the evergreen ahuehuete tree has a complex linguistic background. Taxodium mucronatum, the ahuehuete tree or Montezuma bald cypress, is called ahuehetl in náhuatl, which means “water drum” or “old water” (atl = “water” and hueheutl = “old”). The “old” part refers to the epiphytes that festoon the ahuehuete tree; these are lichens or bromeliads often attached to and hanging from the branches.

The ahuehuete also has numerous common names associated with the indigenous language of the particular area where it is growing; for example, in Oaxaca it is known as tnuyucu or t-nuyucul in Mixteca and yagaguichiciña in Zapotec. It is related to the giant sequoias of northern California as well as the bald cypress found in the southeastern United States. The Spaniards named the tree sabino as it resembled a pine from their mother country.

The ahuehuete grows throughout Mexico, but its complete range runs from southern Texas to Guatemala; it is found in a wide range of climates, from the semi-hot to temperate to cold. It is associated with water – riparian (riverbank) areas, springs, or high groundwater, and is remarkably fast growing. Rate of growth can be up to six feet per year on good soils, but will grow fast even under drought conditions. It has an unusually thick trunk toward the base, even on young trees. In maturity, it has a broad-topped, spreading shape.

Perhaps some readers of The Eye have had the opportunity to visit the Tule Tree (El Árbol del Tule), the enormous specimen of Mexico’s national tree in Santa María del Tule on the outskirts of Oaxaca City (see Alvin Starkman’s article elsewhere in this issue). At 48 meters (over 157 feet) in circumference, its trunk is the largest of any known tree in the world, although the tree is only 43 meters (about 141 feet) in height. It is also one of the oldest trees on the planet, at about 2000 years old according to carbon dating.

But where is the water it’s supposed to need? Like the ancient Lago del México, the location of modern CDMX (and ancient Tenochtitlan), there used to be a lake at Santa María del Tule; it was surrounded by marshes, supporting lush growth of bulrushes and cypresses. Hence the name “Tule,” the common Mexican name for the long-gone bulrush. In recent archaeological excavations at Tlapacoya II, in the state of México, an ahuehuete trunk was located in a layer carbon-dated as being 23,150 +/- 950 years old, indicating ancient riparian forests that no longer exist.

Before the arrival of the Spaniards and the subsequent conquest, the Mexica group of Aztecs cultivated the trees as ornamental and shade plantings in the center of their chinampas (floating agricultural systems) and along pathways throughout the Basin of Mexico, which included six lakes.

The trees lined the canals and were planted in the pre-Hispanic parks and gardens, which were abundant – Mexico has had a long and storied love affair with gardens, and particularly trees.

Ahuehuetes were a major feature of the gardens of Moctezuma, and before him Nezahualcoyotl (see the 100-peso bill). And it undoubtedly sheltered Hernan Cortés on the Noche Triste, the Night of Sorrows, where he supposedly wept as his invading army of Spanish conquistadors and their native allies were driven out of the Aztec capital at Tenochtitlan (not for long). As the lakes have been drained and paved, many of these trees have succumbed to loss of habitat and altered hydrology.

Pre-Hispanic Mexicans prepared various parts of the tree for medicinal purposes. They burned the bark for an astringent, to heal burns, scars, and skin ulcers. Other medicinal ailments were treated through the preparation of resin, leaves, buds, stems, fruit, and bark included edema, heart conditions, diarrhea, and hemorrhoids. The wood was used for furniture and beam construction, and burned as fuel. Ahuehuete trunks, due to their hardness and resistance to rot, were used to make canoes.

Ahuehuetes also had spiritual and mythic significance, and were considered ancestors, brothers and/or gods associated with creation stories. The Mixteco chiefs of Apoala (northwest of Oaxaca City) believed that the gods and the first chiefs originated from the branches of majestic trees growing adjacent to rivers. The “broken tree” (arbol quebrado) myth of the Mexica, which is portayed in the Codice Boturini, represents the birth of the Mexica people as an independent nation. In general, pre-Hispanic texts reference the religious, magic, and cosmic properties of trees, particularly those species that grow close to rivers and springs.

Another legend about the ahuehuete is related to its use as temporary housing. By divine mandate a husband and wife took shelter in the hollow trunk of an ahuehuete in anticipation of a flood. The gods drained the land and the couple survived. Currently, among the people of the Huasteca (a geographical and cultural region of the Meso-American Huastec people – it runs along the Gulf coast and inland to include parts of five states in central Mexico) – the tree plays a role in the holiday celebration of the initiation of planting, in accordance with the agriculture calendar. Other current religious rites consist of petitioning the gods for rain by wrapping a statue of San Antonio de Padua in braided roots of the ahuehuete, then burying the statue in a well dug near the river. Archaeobotanical studies have revealed that branches of the ahuehuete were used as offerings in a variety of religious ceremonies, particularly in the Basin of Mexico.

Through its continued traditional and religious uses, therapeutic qualities, versatility in construction, and use as a fuel, the ahuehuete maintains is its place in contemporary Mexican culture.

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