November’s Tree of the Month: El Árbol Panamá

The national tree of Panama, Sterculia apetala, known simply as the Panama tree, is a tall, straight-growing tree noted for its smooth and upright trunk. There exist several theories regarding the origin of the name “Panama,” but most agree that the name comes from one or more of the indigenous languages spoken in the region during the 16th century. The Panama tree was officially recognized as the national tree of the Republic of Panama in 1969.

A Panama tree near Playa Venao c. Edwina von Gal

Once considered a member of the Sterculiaceae family, the Panama tree has recently been reclassified as a part of the family Malvaceae. Found throughout Central America and in the northern half of South America, the Panama tree is highly adaptable, growing both on roadsides and on cattle ranches, on steep hills and on flat lands, in dry zones and in areas with poor drainage. The trees reach their fullest potential when located along rivers, though they grow extremely well in dry zones as well. The Panama tree is also adaptable to a variety of different soil types, though it prefers deep red or black soils with substantial clay content.

Leaves of the Panama tree c. Edwina von Gal

Because of its adaptability, the Panama tree can be used effectively for reforestation projects, erosion control and for restoration of riparian and coastal zones. The tree provides excellent shade, and thus is effective as part of a live fence or as an ornamental tree in urban spaces. The Panama tree can also be useful species for landowners wishing to create windbreaks.

In the Azuero, the Panama tree flowers during the summer months (Dec-Apr). Its flowers, small and light yellow with purple or red borders, are considered important sources of raw material for honey. Bees visit frequently to collect nectar from the flowers, later converting it into honey.

Flowers of the Panama tree c. Carlos Navarro

Both the flowers and the fruits of the tree attract a wide variety of other animals besides bees, including squirrels, birds, and monkeys. The heart-shaped fruits of the Panama tree are mostly hollow, and they split open while still attached to the branches of the tree. Seeds are best collected just after the fruits split. Most seeds remain attached to the inside halves of the opened fruits, where they are easily visible. Insects will quickly devour seeds that fall to the ground.

The Panama tree can be propagated from seed or via the use of cuttings. However, low germination rates make propagation from seed difficult.

The seeds of the Panama tree have a wide variety of uses. The seed itself is edible, and can be eaten raw or cooked. When toasted, the seed has a nutty flavor. Ground Panama tree seeds are used as flavoring in chocolate.

The seeds and hollow fruits of the Panama tree c. Edwina von Gal

The seeds of the Panama tree have high oil and starch content, and oil from the seeds is used both as an ingredient in soap and as a lubricant for fine machinery.

Various parts of the Panama tree are important in traditional medicine. An infusion made from the leaves and bark is said to be useful in treating colds. Tea made from the flowers is used for coughs and insomnia, and tea made from the leaves is used to treat rheumatism.

The lightweight wood from the Panama tree, though not especially durable, is sometimes used for making furniture, packaging, and even canoes.

One thought on “November’s Tree of the Month: El Árbol Panamá

  1. The following sentence appears in the text above: “Among its relatives are found the carate (Bursera simaruba) and the corotú (Enterolobium cyclocarpum).”
    Neither of these trees are related to Sterculia apetala; Bursera is in the family Burseraceae, and Enterolobium is in the bean family (Fabaceae).

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