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The Guanacaste Tree – A Role Model for Sustainable Wood Design in Mexico?

Guanacaste, also known as parota, throws an interesting argument into the possibilities of sustainable wooden furniture in Mexico, which is why PAROTAS works exclusively with this viable natural resource. With fast-growing properties, high reproduction rates and an incredible tolerance to varied climates and soil conditions, guanacaste could be Mexico’s model for sustainable harvesting.

Coupled with guanacaste’s soil-fixing qualities, low water consumption during dry months and useful bi-products – for example, the seeds are a good source of protein and the bark contains tannins – there are feasible arguments to better exploit the benefits of the guanacaste tree over other industrial trees are becoming threatened. As such, initiatives promoting the benefits and contributing to the preservation of guanacaste are underway for both environmental and economical purposes, helping to put this sustainable natural resource into the international spotlight.

guanacasteGuanacaste with saplings; guanacaste reproduces abundantly, making it a sustainable resource.

What Is the Guanacaste Tree?

Gunacaste is a flowering tree native to tropical zones in the Americas, particularly thriving in humid coastal zones from central and southern Mexico to Costa Rica. The abundance of this tree and its immense size have made guanacaste increasingly popular in wooden furniture and design projects, boosted by the unique colouring and patterns seen in guanacaste’s wood grain. Costa Rica also adopted guancaste as its national tree, while guanacaste reforestation projects have provided a range of environmental benefits in Mexico, helping grow the popularity of guanacaste in international circles.

Being a hardwood, Guanacaste demonstrates a decent resistance to humidy and termites. Also being a water-resistance wood, guanacaste was traditionally used for sea-going canoes and today can still be seen in window frames, doors and wooden furniture throughout Mexico.

Guanacaste wood is beautifully tinged with brown, and sometimes reddish, hues, infused into distinct grain patterns of honey coloured swirls.  The heartwood colour is sometimes referenced to United Sates black walnut (juglans) but it can show various shadings, including a thick sapwood of white to creamy yellows. Guanacaste trees are known for their large proportions, and are often found with expansive trunks and extended spherical crowns.

Guanacaste is known by many names, the most common being parota, elephant’s ear and, scientifically, Enterolobium Cyclocarpum. In Spanish guanacaste is also known as orejón, as well as a number of local names in different countries:

  • Mexico – huanacaxtle (Nahuatl language)
  • Salvador – conacaste 
  • Venezuela – caro caro
  •  Panama – corotu 
  • Costa Rica – genicero and jarina.

 

Guanacaste’s feathery leaves provide broad shade in the summer months.

Guanacaste – An Argument For Sustainability in Mexico

Guanacaste is prized for its large shady canopies, with abundant, feathery like leaves during rainy season, as well as for its numerous, fragrant flowers which appear when it goes into evergreen mode in dry season (December to February). On warm days, the fragrance can permeate the air for many meters.

What makes guanacaste a sustainable tree is its ability switch to this deciduous (leafless) mode to preserve water during the dry season, besides also adapting to endure the heavy rainy season. Guanacaste flowers are an important food source for bees, which are also responsible for guancaste’s pollination. On top of this, guanacaste trees are vital for their ability to improve soil quality.

Interestingly, however, guanacaste’s seed pods are completely ignored by animals, highlighting the guanacaste tree as an evolutionary anachronism; it is thought the seeds could have been a food source of extinct megafauna, such as giant sloths. This unique scenario adds to the sustainable properties of guanacaste, enabling its ability to remain as an effective seed-dispersing vector and produce massive, almost annual, crops of seeds. With a germination rate of almost 100 percent in humid areas, alongside aggressive growing behaviours, seedlings easily reach more than one meter in a year.

The tree’s tolerance to climate changes, droughts, plagues and poor soil conditions makes it an ideal sustainable resource and excellent option for reforestation. Additionally, the heartwood of guanacaste has reportedly good resistance to attacks from dry-wood termites and decay fungi. Its resistance also makes it ideal for bug-infested tropical areas, boosting the argument to push more reforestation projects of guanacaste trees in their native environments in Mexico and Central America.

Guanacaste flowerGuanacaste flowers are a food source for bees, and delicately fragrant during dry season.

More Benefits Than Just Guanacaste Wood Furniture

Beyond guanacaste’s sustainable benefits, it has also has played an important role in medicine and nutrition in Mexico, among many more uses.

The medical values of the guancaste tree are used in various ways in Mexican folk medicine. The sap that seeps from guanacaste’s cracked bark is believed to cure ailments such as flus and bronchitis, besides being a natural adhesive and substitute for glue. The sap from the bark can also be chewed as gum. The astringent properties found in guanacaste’s green fruit is used to treat diarrhea. Tannins are also found in the fruit and bark, which are prized in leather curing and soap manufacturing.

Guanacaste seeds can be roasted and ground for food, and are also considered excellent when whole seeds are grilled with molasses. Immature seed pods that are boiled or roasted provide a good protein source (up to 40 percent). Seedpods are reportedly a healthy food source for cattle as well. The pods, which are flat and broad, are coiled hence referencing a human ear. In Costa Rica the attractive seeds are commonly used to create jewelry.

Guanacaste is also a common hardwood used in Mexican furniture and finished carpentry. The guanacaste tree typically has a massive girth, making it possible to mill guanacaste for structural elements, such as decks, terraces and pergolas, as well as for single-piece, solid wood furniture up to several meters. Due to the tree’s rapid growth qualities, its wood is also typically light (basic specific gravity: ovendry weight/green volume 0.34; air-dry density 26 per cubic foot).

The Guanacaste tree is immortalized in both Mexico and Costa Rica through town names; the town of La Cruz de Huanacaxtle in Nayarit (Mexico’s pacific coast) derives its name from when a cross made of guancaste wood once stood there, while a coastal province in northwest Costa Rica is dedicated to the guanacaste tree that thrives in the area.

Guanacaste Wood: An Important Sustainable Resource

Guanacaste is one of the five largest groups of precious hardwoods in Mexico, aided by its resistance and fast-growing properties that enable guanacaste to grow in even difficult areas. It offers shady relief even in hot, sunny areas during summer. Its foliage also has high contents of protein, making it a useful resource for farmers in particular, who often plant guanacaste to provide shade to the cattle and an additional food source.

To preserve the abundance of the gunancaste tree in Mexico, some governments have implemented co-operation schemes to protect and control the harvesting of this species, even on private land. PAROTAS only works with certified guanacaste wood supplied by Mexican providers working under such schemes, which also aim to control sustainable management, conservation, development and reproduction of the guanacaste tree.

Aiding the care and protection of guanacaste, CONAFOR (Comisión Nacional Forestal or National Forestry Commission) is looking to invest in more reforestation programs, due to the environmental benefits as well as the economic benefit for local Mexician furniture producers.

Guanacaste treeThe extensive branch system creates intricate grain patterns.
(© Tomas Castelazo, www.tomascastelazo.comWikimedia CommonsCC BY-SA 4.0)

Qualities of Guanacaste Wood

  • Guanacaste is generally considered fairly durable, and resistant to decay even when in contact with water or soil.
  • The heartwood of guancaste is relatively resistant, although the sapwood is less so making it not fully termite resistant.
  • Guanacaste wood is typically known to be easy to work with, finishing smoothly and holding in place well, with wood consistency varying from light and soft to rather hard and heavy.
  • The large trunks of guanacaste trees are notable and are used in Mexico for dories and small boats, veneer, carpentry, interior trims, decorative panelling, wooden furniture and cabinet work.
  • Guanacaste’s wood texture is almost coarse from its open and relatively large pores occurring singly or in pairs in relatively scarce patterns. The rays are fine and crotch material is common and suitable for producing figured wood for panelling. Cross gain can occur.
  • Gravity air dry can be in the ranges of 0.35 to 0.60, weighing 22-37 pounds per cubic foot.
  • Name: devil’s ear, earpod tree, elephant’s ear, monkeysoap, bois tanniste rouge and oreille de’elephant (French), affenseife (german), arbol de las orejas, carita and corotu (Spanish).

 

Contact PAROTAS

Besides the unique beauty of guanacaste wood, its sustainability and beneficial environmental qualities inspire PAROTAS to promote this natural resource. PAROTAS produces custom wooden furniture following sustainable practices before, during and after production, down to the use of natural oils to treat all products. Parotas provides a door-to-door service, communicating with contractors and designers at each step of the process to ensure the best quality and outcome for each project.







Photo credits (CC-Licence): Avancari via Wikimedia Commons (guanacaste tree) AVM via Wikimedia Commons (guanacaste leaves) / Dick Culbert  (guanacaste seedpods and flowers).

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