Sapodilla - Chico Zapote - Manilkara zapota
Used in Central and South America as the primary source for chewing gum, Chico Zapote also yields extremely dense and durable wood that ranges in color from reddish brown to light orange. Often times the heartwood blends itself thru this spectrum , complimented by a surrounding cream colored sapwood.
Tapped for chicle (chewing gum) since the reign of the Mayan civilization, Chico Zapote has been a diverse resource for the indigenous peoples of Central America. From its delicious fruit, to commercial grade chewing gum, to the extremely dense and strong wood for construction, this tree has helped shape the region. The Maya prized it for structural beams because of the tremendous strength, as well as it’s resistance to termites. The tree contains triterpenoids which makes it highly resistant to insects and rot.
The sapodilla tree is highly resistant to drought and heat and is known for its extreme longevity. The ancient Maya, who referred to the tree as ha’as, prized the wood for its density and strength and used it widely, as many samples have been found in archaeological excavations. Whole seeds from the sapodilla tree have been found in middens (garbage dumps) at the ancient Maya sites of Colha in Belize and Tikal in Guatemala. Charcoal remains, presumably from firewood, have also been recovered at the Maya sites of Cuello, Wild Cane Caye, Pulltrouser Swamp, and Albion Island in Belize dating to the Preclassic (250 bc–ad 400) and Classic periods (ad 400–600).
At the Maya site of Palenque in Chiapas, the zapote tree is depicted on the stone sarcophagus (a carved stone coffin) of the king Hanab-Pakal. The sides of the sarcophagus are illustrated with a series of ten figures, representing the ancestral royal family of Palenque. Each figure is shown wearing a headdress containing his or her name and associated with a valuable tree such as the avocado or cacao (chocolate), representing an “orchard of the ancestors.” Specifically, the image of K’an-Hok’-Chitam I shows the zapote tree emerging from behind him.
The wood of the zapote tree was also used to make boxes that would have held precious objects. The reddish wood of the tree, harder than even mahogany, was also preferred for making roof beams and carved lintels (support beams) in the buildings at Maya sites like Chichén Itzá and Tikal.
The Aztecs also appreciated the hard quality of this wood, as Spanish chronicler Juan de Torquemada noted that when they made obsidian (volcanic glass) knives, workmen used hard wooden sticks to push flaked blades off the stone to make tools. The sturdiness of this wood has made it a desirable resource for constructing the pole and thatch houses of Maya commoners for centuries.