With its multitude of uses, February’s Tree of the Month, the Brosimum alicastrum, is perhaps one of the most important native tree species in Panama. Known commonly as the berbá, the cacique, or the ojoche, Brosimum alicastrum is found in southern Mexico in subtropical forests, throughout Central America and Northern South America, and in some Caribbean islands (Cuba, Jamaica and Trinidad). But on the Azuero, the Brosimum alicastrum population is highly threatened. Today, it seems that only community elders recognize the name of this important and versatile tree.
Brosimum alicastrum is a tree with an incredibly wide range of uses. Every part of the tree can be utilized in one way or another. In fact, the name Brosimum itself comes from the Greek “brosimos,” which means “edible.”
Both its leaves and fruits serve as feed for native wildlife and livestock. Brosimum foliage stays green in the dry season, serving as an excellent resource for feeding goats, cows , sheep and pigs. Cattle are particularly fond of Brosimum foliage, which is high in protein. The Brosimum is also one of the most crucial food sources for the critically endangered Azuero spider monkey. With fruits from the tree representing up to 60% of the diet for these animals, the preservation and restoration of the local Brosimum population is important for the continued survival of the spider monkey.
A variety of foods can be produced using the seeds of the Brosimum alicastrum. With support and training from the Maya Nut Institute, groups of women throughout Central America have begun harvesting the seeds, commonly known as “Maya nuts,” which are often ground into a flour that is used to make breads, cookies, tortillas, and more. The Maya nut can also be used to produce jams and even a type of coffee. In recent years, thousands of Brosimum trees have been planted for food production throughout Central America. Maya nuts, which are rich in proteins, B-vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, are even used in school lunches in Guatemala.
Like other trees in the Moraceae family, such as figs, mulberry, and chilamate, the Brosimum fruits several times over the course of the year. This frequent fruiting provides an evolutionary advantage for the Brosimum, allowing it to spread and reproduce during parts of the year when there is little competition from other fruiting trees. Thanks to the tree’s staggered seeding, Brosimum fruits and seeds are uniquely reliable food sources for people and wildlife.
Lumber from the Brosimum alicastrum is of high quality, being used for general construction, cabinetry, chairs, decorative plates, desks, domestic flooring, and fine furniture. With prices for Brosimum wood near $3.25/board foot in the United States, logging is one of the principal threats to the already endangered species.
Restoration efforts have been hindered by the recalcitrant nature of Brosimum alicastrum seeds. The seeds do not survive normal drying and cold storage processes and cannot be effectively stored for long periods of time. As such, young seedlings must be harvested from natural regeneration areas and stored in planting bags for later use.