Photos and text by J. Robertson Miller
This tree is easy to recognize once you know what to look for. It grows in Central and South America and the Caribbean islands.
Panama, the name of our country, may have come from the indigenous word for this tree. However, not everyone agrees on this. Theories abound. The tree has other common names such as the comoruco, manduvi or anacaguita. Its scientific name is Sterculia apetala.
The name “Sterculia” comes from the Latin word “stercus” which means “excrement” because the strong odor of its flowers and leaves. In other words, they stink!
As a shade tree it is excellent. Typically it grows between 20 and 40 meters high (65 to 131 feet). Leaves have 5 lobes, something like a hand with fat fingers. They grow in dense clusters at the end of the branches. Flowers are yellow with maroon stripes. Trees typically flower and bear fruit between December and March.
There are several full grown trees at Summit Park. You will see orchids and bromiliads growing on its branches. They are clearly labeled.
To recognize this tree, look for a very tall tree with a straight trunk that has buttresses. These narrow plank-like growths stick out from the base of the tree to help keep it stay upright in shallow or waterlogged soils and giving it support against strong winds.
Wildlife such as agoutis, monkeys, squirrels, deer, and parrots eat the seedpods but the orange stinging hairs called trichomes, make the animal discard the pod before eating all the seeds. In this way they unknowingly help spread the seeds over a wide area.
People use these trees to make crates, canoes, tool handles and other domestic and commercial wood products. Seeds can be eaten by people or used as animal food, after they are boiled or roasted. Sometimes the seeds are used to flavor chocolate.
Traditional medicine used the bark to treat malaria, skin & respiratory conditions and flowers as a treatment for coughs.
Panama City has some of these lovely shade trees planted road medians. Now you can recognize the National Tree of Panamá. Most people can’t.