The Wonder And Mercies Of Nature
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The forests and jungles of the West Indies and Central America are beautiful and diverse.
But be careful where you wander, because not only do you need a machete and a compass to navigate the undergrowth, you’ll need a little bit savvy in the local flora.
Chechém and Chaka
Growing in these dense forests is the chechém tree or more accurately the metopium brownei, aka Black poisonwood tree. Called that for the black colored sap which flows beneath and leaking through the greyish colored bark.
If the color of the sap sounds a little iffy to you, you’d be right. The sap produces urushiol, an oily substance which is on the bark and the leaves which is of course toxic much like poison ivy. Once it’s on your skin it may cause severe dermatitis which has been described as tichy, burning, and can even lead to scarring.
That’s a nasty rash. Definitely worse than anything I ever got from poison ivy as a kid.
But nature has a way of being merciful, for if there is a poison there must be an antidote.
Meet the chaka tree, or Bursera simaruba, or Gumbo-Limbo, which can stop the toxic chemical reaction to the chechém tree.
Nearly identical in appearance there are some subtle, or not so subtle differences. The chechém tree has greyish bark and black colored sap with urushiol that can be seen on the bark as well as the leaves.
The Chaka tree has a reddish bark which will curl on older trees. The absence of the urushiol substance is probably the biggest tail.
And here’s the kicker, they often grow within feet of each other, and sometimes they can be so close their roots and trunks may even intertwine.
But why would nature provide the chechém and chaka so close together?
There is a Mayan Legend about two brothers. Both were strong and mighty warriors but there, like the trees above, the similarities ended.
Kinich was the younger brother and his kindness and loving ways were felt by all who knew him.
His older brother Tizic was filled with hate and anger, which too was felt by all who knew him.
They both fell in love with a beautiful maiden named Nicte-Ha. This love would prove their downfall.
A challenge was issued and they fought a mighty battle, each trying to be the victor who would then claim the maiden’s hand.
In the end neither won, and they died in each other’s arms.
Feeling remorse for their choices they begged the gods to allow them to watch over Nicte-Ha. The gods consented and they were resurrected as trees, where they could watch over their beloved until her death. She then became a beautiful white flower.
The chechém tree reflects the black toxic emotions of Tizic, which can still be felt by all who brush into it.
While the chaka tree reflects the love of Kinich, this too can be felt by all who have the pleasure of knowing it.
The Reason and The Remedy
I love that story. The imagery, the sadness, and the hope that go with it.
However, the real reason these trees grow so close together is not so romantic. Birds eat the fruit of the trees and drop their seeds in similar locations. The seeds then take root and voila, we have two trees growing close together. One that has chemicals that are toxic to humans and the other that has beneficial properties to humans,
But how does the chaka tree work exactly?
It has been found by scientists to have anti-inflammatory properties which may be one reason it is able to neutralize the body’s reaction to the toxic sap of the chechém tree. It’s sap has also been used to treat gout and the tea from the leaves is used to flush toxins from the body.
In the event you get a chechem rash, application is simple, simply slice off some of the red bark of the chaka tree and apply the sap to the dermatitis. You can also brew tea from the leaves, or boil the bark and leaves togther make a salve.
However this application needs to be made fairly early after the rash appears or you may need to apply a cortisol cream or even go see a doctor.
As noted above the black sap of the chechém tree can cause severe dermatitis and even scarring as one Reddit contributor learned. They also mentioned that while it is illegal for resorts to have the chechém trees on their property they may be present anyway. So be on guard if vacationing in an area where it may grow.
There’s more to these trees…
How the chechém and chaka trees relate to each other are amazing but that’s not all.
The Chehem tree is a hard wood tree and is quite valuable in the lumbar industry and is used to make furniture, cabinetry, flooring, as well as wood art. Part of its popularity comes from it being a more affordable imported wood.
Chaka has a fast growth rate and while it is considered a soft wood it is an excellent wind break as it is resistant to strong winds, drought, and neglect. In fact it is such a hardy growing plant that its wood is often used as living fence posts as once set into the ground it will grow roots and branches.
Chaka trees also make wonderful stand alone trees for a property or even street trees and once established need minimal care.