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Mayo EthnobotanyLand, History, and Traditional Knowledge in Northwest Mexico$

David Yetman and Thomas Van Devender

Print publication date: 2002

Print ISBN-13: 9780520227217

Published to California Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520227217.001.0001

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Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos

Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos

(p.79) 5 Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos
Mayo Ethnobotany

David Yetman

Thomas R. Van Devender

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter describes eight species of plants that make the Mayos Mayos. These include the Cordia parvifolia DC., Stenocereus thurberi, Agave vivipara L. and Vallesia glabra. This chapter also describes the applications and uses of these plants in medicine, culture, artifacts, construction, and as food. It also provides photographs of the grown plant of each species.

Keywords:   plants, Mayos, Cordia parvifolia DC., Stenocereus thurberi, Agave vivipara L., Vallesia glabra, medicine, culture, food, artifacts

The plants described below have key roles in the life of Mayos, so much so that we suppose that without them the Mayo way of life would be quite different. We selected these species because of their variety of uses and the Mayors' general familiarity with them. They are presented in no particular order. While none of them is endemic to Mayo lands (the jito is endemic to the Cáhita region), their wide use indicates their importance. Most of these plants are well known to virtually all Sonoran Mayos, even though not all of them are found everywhere in Mayo lands. Where they do occur, they are of inestimable importance. In four cases (etcho, jito, saya [Amoreuxia palmatifida and A. gonzalezii], sitavaro) the Mayo name has become the Sonoran common name. Forclassification of plant uses and other plants used, see chapters 6 and 7.

Other plants of general importance—well-known species such as brasil, mauto, mambia (chichiquelite, nightshade; Solanum americanum, S. nigrescens, Solanaceae), and cósahui—are not included in this list. They are widely used by other native peoples in the region and throughout Mexico. Mauto, in particular, deserves more recognition for its ethnobotanical uses, but the Mayos of today live primarily in thornscrub below the mauto-dominated tropical deciduous forests. Prior to Spanish settlement, mauto was surely an important resource for the Mayos living from the Alamos area northward to the narrows of the Río Mayo, where Guarijíos are found today, and eastward well into Sinaloa. Mauto is a widespread tropical tree found from southern Baja California and southern Sonora south to Oaxaca and Veracruz. The Mayo name for Lysiloma divaricatum is not mauto, but mayo, for which the river and region are named.

Cordia parvifolia DC. huo'ótobo (vara prieta)

Huo'ótobo is a scraggly, rather nondescript bush growing up to 3 m tall and 4 m wide. It is common on the coastal plain, rare in foothills thornscrub, and (p.80)

Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos

Pascola mask carved from torote prieto by Francisco Gámez. (Drawing © 2002 by Paul Mirocha)

absent in tropical deciduous forest. Following substantial rains it explodes with small leaves and delicate white blossoms 3–4 cm in diameter, with the texture and resilience of toilet paper. The flowers fall from the bush when barely touched. Huo'ótobo blossoms are a good indicator of recent rains or lack thereof, for the plant only blossoms in response to rain. The leaves are stiff, and the branches irregular but often arrow-straight. In very dry times the bushes shed nearly all their leaves.

Vicente Tajia notes that huo'ótobo is one of the most useful plants in the (p.81) region. Indeed, it has cultural, technological, and medicinal significance. Smaller plants are preferred for medicine.

MEDICINE: The root of the plant is crushed and boiled into a tea that is administered to infants and children. It is said to help alleviate resfríos (colds) and the pimply rash that is associated with them in children.

ARTIFACTS: Straight sticks of the shrub, called huo'ótobos, are lopped o¤ and scraped free of bark. They are then used to beat wool, cleaning it and rendering it more amenable to spinning and weaving. They are also used exclusively for the string heddle or shuttle, hachomatua, the part of the loom on which the yarn is wound, and which is passed through the warp to form a blanket. Huo'ótobos are also woven and tied together to make a tarime (bed), forming a springy mattress. Zarzos (racks or shelves suspended from the ceiling) made of woven huo'ótobo are widely used to protect cheese, drying meat, and other delectables from the depredations of dogs, livestock, and vermin.

CULTURE: Huo'ótobos are also incorporated at the beginning of the fiesta. The lead pascola holds a meter-long clean huo'ótobo in front of him and leads the other pascolas three times around the ramadón (festival ramada). The alaguássim (fiesta director) then takes the stick from the lead pascola and usesit as a probe, inserting it rudely into the baffle hole of the festival harp while the harpist looks on. The pascolas then, one by one, rather crudely sniff the end of the huo'ótobo, supposedly thus “measuring” the number of sones, or folk songs, available to sing. Onlookers find this ceremony, with its multiple layers of meaning, wildly funny.

In contrast to their earthy and playful uses in dances, the branches are harvested during Holy Week to be used in ceremonies by the alaguássim and pascolas to beat the ground as they call out “Gloria, Gloria” to the crucified Jesus.

Old-timers report that huo'ótobos were used for arrows and were especially e¤ective when feathered with plumage from the Gila or other woodpeckers.

Women still use the pliable green branches scraped free of bark as the base of a wreath to which they attach flowers, fresh or plastic, to adorn tombs or homes.

Filemón Navarete, a singer for deer dancers and a resident of the ejido of Fernando Solís, a village of dire poverty, was kind enough to relate the following song for us:

Yo huo' ótobo segua taca

From the wildlands blooms the huo' ótobo.

Seguátaca sanilócapo hueca

The branch is flowering.

Tósalise se segua

Along it burst the white flowers.

Yo huo' ótoboli taca

Near and far in the monte you see the huo'ótobo

Seguailo tátayowe bétana

From where the sun rises.

Amani huécali

There it is, the flowers opening.

Sanílo hapo huécali

Out in the wild land blooms the huo'ótobo.

Cala liuliuti segua huéhueche

Now the flower falls.

Hili yo huo' ótoboli taca

Far out in the monte you see the flowers fall.

Cala liuliuti segua huéhueche

The flowers of the huo' ótobo are falling.

Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos

Filemón Navarete, Ejido Fernando Solís. Filemón is a well-known singer of deer songs.

Stenocereus thurberi (Engelm.) Buxb. aaqui (pitahaya, organpipe cactus)

A common columnar cactus in Sonora that changes life form from a multistemmed shrub branching from the ground in the Sonoran Desert to an 8–10 m tree in coastal and foothills thornscrub. It reaches southwestern Arizona and northwestern Sinaloa and is common in much of Baja California, but its largest populations are found in Sonora. In foothills thornscrub and tropical deciduous forest it grows as tall as 14 m, with some individuals developing hundreds of arms. Larger specimens possess a thick trunk extending a couple of meters above the ground. In general, though, the arms of pitahayas branch closer to (p.83)

Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos

Vicente Tajia gathering pitahaya fruits near Coteco.

the ground than do those of etchos and sahuiras, which invariably have a discernible trunk. The arms of the pitahaya also tend to be thinner and diverge from the vertical axis at a greater angle than those of etcho and sahuira, whose branches tend to emerge horizontally from the bole for a short distance and then grow upward parallel to the main axis. The more numerous ribs of pitahayas give a smoother appearance to the branches than is the case with other columnar cacti.

A curiously crestate form of the cactus, called aaqui nábera, occurs sporadically throughout the region. It often yields no fruit. When it does, traditional Mayos warn, the fruits should not be eaten. The plant is bad, they say, and the fruit is thus contaminated. Felipe Yocupicio is adamant that the fruits should not be eaten: “Just look at the plant and you can see that it is a bad plant.”

The pitahaya visually dominates coastal thornscrub and foothills thornscrub plant communities. In some areas it is also coverage dominant, but in others it is a codominant with leguminous trees. It occurs in enormous numbers and (p.84)

Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos

Aaqui nábera (crestate pitahaya). Mayos believe the fruits of this unusual growth form should not be eaten.

in dense forests on the coastal plain south and east of Huatabampo. A walk through the greatest concentrations of pitahaya can only be compared with walking through some of the world's great forests. In places we counted more than six hundred mature plants per hectare. The individuals in these thick groves frequently exhibit a short trunk, but they do not attain the great stature of those in more mesic locales. This habitat, known locally as pitahayal (vegetation dominated by pitahayas), is a national treasure of Mexico, producing untold tons of commercially valuable fruits each year. Natives of the comunidad de Masiaca gather the fruits and sell them in local markets. Some are shipped to distant centers as well.

In spite of the commercial and aesthetic value of the pitahayal, the Mexican government is urging the Mayos to lease the lands to agricultural producers who will clear away the pitahayas and level the land for commercial agricultural production. In August 1999 a group of comuneros of Masiaca cleared a (p.85)

Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos

Pitahaya fences such as this one near Bachoco afford privacy.

forty-hectare parcel near Coteco in order to plant buffelgrass. They left behind a few solitary cacti. Most of these were scorched by fires set to burn the slash. The remainder will surely perish due to full exposure to sunlight. In December 1999 almost all of Ejido Melchor Ocampo to the south of Camahuiroa was scraped and leveled in the hope that water for irrigation would arrive.

CONSTRUCTION: The ribs of the pitahaya are commonly used for fences (chinami), walls, ceilings, and some furniture. Along the coastal plain from Huatabampo south into Sinaloa the walls of many homes are made of woven pitahaya arms, often harvested green. The dried arms woven among strands of wire provide a dense fencing that is most pleasing to the eye and at the same time affords privacy and protection. Before the 1950s, when barbed wire became available and affordable in rural Sonora, large numbers of cuttings were planted in rows along with cuttings of etchos to produce living fences, many of which can still be seen. The lower wood of the trunk and arms is surprisingly sturdy and is used in many aspects of building, such as erecting crossbeams to bear heavy weights and creating the wooden form for saddles. The dried wood is used in great quantities as fuel for ovens, for baking bread, and in kilns for firing adobe bricks.

MEDICINE: The fleshy, moist stem is singed to remove spines, then applied (p.86)

Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos

The entire pulp of the pitahaya fruit is eaten. Note the simple removal of the husk.

to the flesh directly for snake and insect bites, a remedy that we tested with positive results when an assassin bug bit Tom Van Devender. Francisco Valenzuela reported that the scorched peel of the fruit is applied directly to the anus for hemorrhoids, cautioning that it must be scorched enough to burn off the spines, which seemed prudent to us as well. Buenaventura Mendoza of Teachive reports that dried peels (aaqui begua) are boiled into a tea and taken for stomach problems and to stop hemorrhaging in women.

FOOD: The Mayos eat great numbers of the sweet, satisfying fruits (aaqui tej'ua, aaqui buasi) in late July, August, and September. They constitute an important component of the Mayo diet and a potentially valuable economic resource. Many people report that they eat more than fifty per day. Vicente Tajia says one never gets tired of eating them (“No se enfada uno”) or overfull, and we share his opinion. Formerly the fruits were also dried and preserved or made into wine, but hardly anyone does that anymore.

One woman from Masiaca reportedly still uses the fruits to make tamales (aaqui nójim) commercially. At our request a woman in Teachive prepared some, boiling the pulp until it thickened and then pouring it into cornhusks (p.87) to allow it to cool. We found them to be delectable. Reyes Baisegua says the best tamales are made from poposahui (nearly ripe but unopened fruits). These are laid on a cloth on top of a bed and squeezed to wring out the juice. Then they are boiled and the cooked pulp is poured into cornhusks.

Doña Gregoria Moroyoqui of Sirebampo demonstrated the preparation of pitahaya seca (dried organpipe fruits). She selected two dozen ripe fruits andplaced the pulp in a skillet. She added a small amount of water and brought the mixture to a boil, stirring it for about five minutes. She then strained the boiled mixture (beja buasic) through a coarse piece of cloth to remove excess miel (syrup). The remaining mass, rather slimy, she spread out to dry, covering it with a screen to keep out flies and insects. Adequately dried, the pitahaya seca would last for several months. Francisco Gámez dries the fruits in a tapanco, a raised bed constructed from pitahaya slats laid side by side and closetogether, used to protect the fruits from dogs and pigs. The surface is ideal for drying pitahaya fruits, he says.

The pitahayas begin flowering in late spring, although some plants may flower earlier. By July the earliest fruits ripen, but serious collecting seldom begins before August, when prodigious numbers of ripe fruits appear and collecting is worthwhile. Immature fruits (caboasi—“it is still green”) are avoided. Poposahuim (“between green and ripe”) are collected and left to ripen in abucket. Ripe fruits, called buásim, are often eaten then and there.

Serapio Gámez built for us an aca'ari (gathering bucket) used traditionally for pitahayas. It is a cylinder 45 cm tall and 30 cm in diameter built of pitahaya ribs lashed together with a woven bottom of deer hide. The top of the aca'ari is held rigid by a tightly lashed strip of guásima steamed into a circle. Attached to the bucket is a strap made of tásic (ixtle, fiber of Agave vivipara) worn over the shoulder. At one time all Mayos used aca'arim—large ones for men, smaller ones for women—but Mayos under forty years of age are unfamiliar with them.

Pitahaya gathering time is one of the happiest of the year in spite of the sultry heat. The best collecting begins early in the morning, before birds (doves, woodpeckers, mockingbirds, curve-billed thrashers, and white-fronted parrots), ants, bees, butterflies, and wasps have managed to wreak havoc among the ripening fruits and before the heat and gnats become overwhelming. The paloma pitahayera (white-winged dove; Zenaida asiatica) is especially attractedto the fruits.

Before gathering can begin, the collector (usually a man, although women collect as well) fashions a spear called bacote in Spanish and jíabuia in Mayo. The jíabuia is often made from a quiote (flowering stalk) of a tall cu'u (mezcal; Agave vivipara, Agavaceae) or, if that is not available, from the ribs of pitahayasor etchos lashed together. For lower-growing fruits, a long limb of jócona is (p.88)

Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos

Aca'ari (pitahaya gathering basket) made by Serapio Gámez(Drawing © 2002 by Paul Mirocha)

cut, leaving a fork at the tip in which the fruits can be wedged and wriggled off, thus preventing them from falling to the ground and getting bruised. For taller plants, a sharp point, usually made from pisi(papache borracho) is carefully lashed onto the end of the bacote. With the bacote balanced over a shoulder, the gatherer, often accompanied by children, walks briskly into the monte. He or she evaluates the egg-sized fruits and carefully impales those judged ready to be picked. These are gently wriggled from the cactus and lowered to the ground, where they are delicately removed from the spear point.

On good collecting days the bucket, or aca'ari, will be filled and left till late afternoon or overnight, during which time the spines soften, making peeling less hazardous. Usually a large number of fruits are consumed on the spot. An adult can easily down thirty fruits in a morning and as many in the afternoon. Most pickers dexterously peel the fruit without being pricked by the thorns. (p.89)

Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos

Pitahaya zarca. While uncommon, these white fruits are well known and consideredtastier than the more common reddish variety.

The pain inflicted varies from plant to plant, and the individual personalities of the cacti near villages are well known. Those whose thorns inflict the most painful punctures are treated delicately. Novices must practice with many fruits before becoming adept at peeling off the well-armed husks, avoiding both the long and short spines. By the time children are ten, they are usually dexterous in harvesting and will eat the first few dozen fruits they collect, staining their mouths, chins, and cheeks pink in the process.

The quality of the fruit varies from cactus to cactus, as does the color. The dominant color of the pulp is dark red, but the best fruits are often said to be those with purple red pulp. A few plants yield whitish pulp called zarca (Spanish) or tótosi (Mayo) with a more delicate flavor. Occasionally a pitahaya yields fruits with yellow pulp.

The number and size of fruits vary considerably from year to year. Mayos say that fewer and smaller fruits are produced in drought years; our observations over four years support that claim. In 1999, after an extraordinarily long dry spell, a few fruits ripened in early July. By early August, there were (p.90) still enormous numbers of buds and unripe fruits, but hardly any ripe fruits. Vicente Tajia attributed the anomalous fruiting sequence to the occurrence of a lunar eclipse, which he believed caused the buds to fall off the cactus. After three consecutive days of rain, the fruits ripened and the full harvest began.

Filemón Navarete was kind enough to sing the following song for us. It is posed to the fiesta audience as a riddle, which they are expected to guess as the deer dancer performs. The correct answer is “¡Aaqui!”



Jita juya tácasuti

What is that plant growing there, out in the wildlands?

Juya ani hapo hueca

What is it growing there in the great wild fields?

Tos pólolote se sehua

The white flowers grow, white above white.

Ca'a sáhuaca hueca

It has no leaves.

Ili yo júyataca

It is a great plant without leaves.

Amanise sitepólopo hueca

It grows there, among the siteporos.

The well-rehearsed deer dancer halts his dance abruptly with the last words as the enthusiastic audience continues shouting out guesses.

Agave vivipara L. [A. angustifolia Haw.] cu'u (mezcal, maguey)

This agave is widespread in a variety of habitats throughout the lower elevations of the southern half of Sonora. Its leaves are straight and daggerlike, up to 1 m long. It flourishes in the clay soils of the coastal plain, in coarse bajada soils on alluvial slopes, and on rocky hillsides. It may grow to more than 1 m tall and 1.5 m wide, but it is usually harvested before reaching that size. It is the most common agave in the region.

FOOD: The flowering stalk (cu'u varoa, quiote) is lopped off with a machete shortly after it emerges from the leaves, and the plant is left undisturbed for a year while starches concentrate in the head. At the appointed time, the long, pointed leaves (maiicua) are chopped from the head (cu'u coba, cabeza), which is then pried from the ground. After the meager roots are stripped away, the cabeza is slow roasted (tatemado) in a maya (pit) for two to three days. The head is then exhumed and the leaf remainders on the roasted head (cobata) are consumed.

Most natives agree that this process must be followed closely for the best results. First a pit nearly a meter deep is dug and lined with stones. Firewood is placed on the stones with a few branches of torote prieto on top to add flavor. The cabeza, the starchy trunk of the agave, is placed in the hole. The firewood (p.91)

Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos

Cu'u (mezcal; Agave vivipara). (Drawing © 2002 by Paul Mirocha)

(p.92) is then ignited, and the burning wood is allowed to reduce to coals. It is then covered with a few branches of joopo (palo blanco). Dirt is placed on top of the whole mass. The head(s) are roasted for at least forty-eight hours before being removed and allowed to cool. The leaf stubs, resembling artichoke phyllaries, are chewed until the sweetness is gone. The quid is spat out. During the long period between the last pitahaya fruits in early fall and the first etcho fruits in late spring, cu'u was the only sweet food available and thus filled a void in the historic diet of the Mayos.

Cooked agave is very sweet, almost excessively so, with a strong molasses-like flavor. At first we could eat but a few, but the taste grew on us. Roasted agaves are relished by the natives, but they have become a rare treat as their numbers have dwindled in recent years. Elsewhere in the Sonoran range of A. vivipara, mestizos harvest the heads to brew into the local moonshine, called bacanora, mezcal, or vino, a fiery distillate. Diminishing numbers of agaves have interrupted this time-honored practice, immensely popular since distillation was introduced by the Spanish. Maguey azul, the tequila agave, is a southern cultivated variety of A. vivipara. Tequila and its wild variants constitute a common alternative to brews based on cane sugars.

MEDICINE: In addition to its food and fiber value, A. vivipara has medicinal properties. The pulpy head is chewed and the mildly purgative juice swallowed to “cleanse” the stomach. For scorpion stings, a leaf is scalded in a fire and then squeezed, the drops falling into hot water, which is drunk. The leaves are also used for veterinary purposes, according to several consultants. If a heifer will not bear a second calf, a leaf is roasted and squeezed, and the expressed juice is dripped into the young cow's mouth. Thus she is believed to be rendered more amenable to repeat fertility.

ARTIFACTS: The uncooked leaves are also scraped to make tásic (ixtle in Spanish), a fiber that is twisted into twine, especially for sewing the cocoons of ténaborim and making morrales (handbags) and rope. Doña María Teresa Zazueta of Choacalle still produces cord from agave leaves. She reports the best rope of all used to be made from ixtle, and that she and others still make it from time to time.

Don Reyes Baisegua of Sirebampo demonstrated the technique for making ixtle. First he donned a strange apron made from burlap and inner tube, which he said would protect his chest and arms from the agave's irritating juice. He then placed the pencas (long agave leaves) on a burro, a wooden tripod slightly more than a meter high, with the apical leg larger than the others. This largest leg was a curved mezquite log perhaps four feet long and four inches thick, slightly flat on the working surface. Reyes bent the agave leaf, secured it so it would not slip, and then held the other end flat on the surface of the working (p.93)

Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos

Don Reyes Baisegua with a mass of ixtle (tásic in Mayo) ready to be woven into cord.

leg of the burro. He scraped the leaf with a knife, using a downward motion, until all the succulent green matter was removed and only the fibers remained. He then flipped the penca and repeated the process with the other end until only a long mass of white fibers remained. After he repeated the process with another penca, the fibers were dried thoroughly in the sun.

The production of the cord, the basic thread for weaving, begins with twisting the fibers into mecate (twine or rope) using a malacate (spindle) consisting of a small wagon wheel as a flywheel through which a smooth metal shaft about 40 centimeters long protrudes. Reyes's wife, Gregoria Moroyoqui, wound a piece of twine twice around the shaft and rapidly pulled it back and forth, twisting the attached fibers, while Reyes slowly backed away from the malacate, feeding fibers into the spinning mass of cord. When the mecate reached a length of roughly ten meters, they doubled the cord twice to make it thicker. Reyes then wove the cord into a morral, starting by stretching the cord between two pegs of guayavillo until the edging was strong enough to suport (p.94)

Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos

Morral woven by Don Reyes Baisegua. (Drawing © 2002 by Paul Mirocha)

port the weaving. He then transferred this warp to the loom, working in the shade of a giant mezquite.

The loom Reyes used was vertical, attached to a barbed-wire fence. He stood or sat while he strung the warp and wove the cord back and forth, tamping the woven material frequently with a sasapayeca (tamping stick) made from joopo. The resulting morral took about a day for him to finish and sold for about $5. With each morral requiring about fifty pencas, a healthy population of A. vivipara is crucial.

The procedures and tools used by Don Reyes vary little from those described by Beals (1945), who in 1930 noted widespread weaving of morrales in Masiaca, exclusively by men. Erasmus (1967) found considerable weaving of morrales (p.95) rales in Las Bocas in the mid-twentieth century. Don Reyes made a couple of fine morrales de ixtle for us in 1995 and 1996 and continued to produce them through 1997. In 1997 men in Cucajaqui de Masiaca were once again making ixtle handbags and morrales. Until recently, several people in Teachive were making morrales, but in 1998, Reyes Baisegua was the only weaver in the region making morrales of historic high quality. They were a clean straw color with stripes of interwoven fibers dyed red and green. Sturdy and tightly woven, they would last for years. Poor people formerly used morals to carry bundles and provisions on their journeys to and from the markets, the woven strap slung over a shoulder, but now they use cheaper plastic handbags.

Mayos have expressed some concern about declining populations of A. vivipara. If their heavy exploitation of wild populations continues, some cultivation will be necessary. Fortunately, most agaves respond well to cultivation and require little watering once established. Local Sonoran governments and individuals have begun experimenting with plantings.

Pachycereus pecten-aboriginum (Engelm.) Britt. & Rose. etcho

The etcho is nearly as important for Mayos as the pitahaya. It is scattered throughout coastal and foothills thornscrub but is much more common than the pitahaya in tropical deciduous forest. The Mayo name for this important cactus, etcho, has often been confused with the unrelated Spanish word hecho (“fact” or “deed”).1

This stellar tree—which can exceed 10 m in height and have numerous arms—is greatly esteemed by Mayos, who named one of their major settlements, Etchojoa, after it. Unlike other columnars of the region, etchos may flower at any time, even though late winter into spring is the most common. The developing fruits appear to form large golden clusters on the arms, giving the giant cacti an attractive appearance. In the searing drought of the late spring, etchos are often the only trees on the hillsides retaining a vestige of dark green. (Pitahayas frequently turn a sickly yellow.)

ARTIFACTS: The fruits are covered with a thousand yellow spines, each about 5 cm long, that appear vicious but are relatively harmless and seldom penetrate the skin. These prickly fruits are said to have been used by Indian women to comb their hair, hence the species name pecten-aboriginum, which translates as “native comb.” Vicente Tajia made one of the combs by scraping one side of the fruit clean, forming a handle, and then singeing the spines on the other side to remove the sharpest points. We theorize it would be passably useful in an emergency.

CONSTRUCTION: The strong lower portion of echo ribs is used in house construction and in making looms and other household artifacts. The sturdy (p.96)

Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos

Vicente Tajia with etcho cactus near Camahuiroa. This specimen, well known in the region, is a fine fruit producer. Note the buds on the upper branches.

though light wood of the arms and the trunk is carefully sawed and shaped into boards for building benches and beds or for roof beams. María Soledad Moroyoqui of Teachive has used the same sasapayeca made of etcho wood in her loom for nearly thirty years. Cornelia Nieblas uses a tarime of etcho that she claims is more than a hundred years old.

MEDICINE: Juice from the flesh is squeezed from a section and drunk for mal de orín (bad urine) and as a remedy for la prostatitis. To stop bleeding, a few drops of juice are dripped onto the wound and a gajo—a piece from a cross (p.97)

Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos

Etcho fruit. The spines, though daunting, are weak and avoidable.

section—is placed directly on the wound. The same method is said to work for insect stings and bites. A little piece of the flesh is chewed for toothache, according to Luciano Valenzuela of Los Muertos. Felipe Yocupicio of Camahuiroa, who has a wide reputation as an herbal healer, recommends squeezing a drop or two from the flesh into a glass of water to treat ulcers.

FOOD: In late May and early June, etcho fruits ripen in large numbers, revealing themselves as the spine-laden husk splits open, exposing the dark red interior. As the fruits mature, the spines gradually fall from the fruits, piling up menacingly (but harmlessly) at the base of the cactus.

The harvesting of etcho fruit requires a somewhat different technology from that used to harvest pitahaya. A bacote is fashioned from an agave stalk, and a spike of tough wood (pisi is preferred) is lashed to it. Lashed on both sides of the point is a wide piece of carved wood in the shape of a w. This secures the impaled fruit so that when the bacote is withdrawn, the fruit will not fall off.

The fruits (jíconim) are eaten raw or cooked and are made into wine and jelly. They can also be dried and preserved. The black seeds are roughly half as big as citrus seeds, far larger than those of the pitahaya. According to Doña María Gonzalez, born in 1905, the raw seeds were often ground into flour and (p.98)

Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos

Living fence of etchos, sahuiras, and pitahayas near Güirocoba.

dissolved in water to make a gruel that was eaten as an atol (a thick mush) or drunk as horchata (a gruel-like sweetened drink). Both of these practices are now rare because the labor required to concentrate the seeds is considerable.

Many Mayos told us that etcho seeds mixed with a small amount of corn flour make excellent tortillas (etcho tajcarim). Older Mayos recalled regularly eating etcho seed tortillas as children. Fausto López of Nahuibampo said that he was raised on them. Doña María Teresa Moroyoqui of Teachive made us some tortillas from the seeds that her husband had collected and cleaned, and their flavor was reminiscent of sweet pancakes with the texture of buckwheat. At the same time she prepared atol that had the texture and flavor of cream of wheat. She also boiled the flesh remaining after the pulp is removed into sitori (miel, syrup). María Teresa said that her grandmother made cooking oil from the seeds, and that before there was lard, the old people would crush some seeds to oil a comal (griddle). They even squeezed oil from the seeds. She also said that two generations ago people regularly made wine from the fruit, but they have not for many decades. (p.99)

Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos

Overgrazed pasture with etchos. The removal of other species has exposed these fine plants to heat stress.

Filemón Navarete claims that atol made from etcho seeds has aphrodisiac powers but must be eaten without sugar or other sweetening to be effective.

Small etchos, or perhaps stem cuts, are planted as fence rows and grow quickly (within ten years) into an impenetrable barrier, a practice that long predates the introduction of barbed wire into rural Sonora. Their strong trunks and spreading habit also make etchos valued as shade trees, an uncommon virtue for a cactus. Many times we have taken refuge from the fierce sun in the shade of an accommodating etcho, and one can get downright comfortable leaning back and resting on the thick, spineless trunk. At such times one can easily forget that the shade tree is a cactus.

Vallesia glabra (Cav.) Link. sitavaro

A common, often puny shrub (sometimes a small tree) bearing tiny, whitish opal-like fruits the size of a pea, sitavaro is one of the best-known plants in the region, growing in abundance along arroyos. It ranges from southern Sonora to southern Mexico south to Argentina. It retains its green leaves through the spring drought, one of the few plants to do so. Under the right conditions (p.100) sitavaro grows into a spreading tree nearly 6 m tall. Plants this size are known from the arroyos in the foothills of the Sierra de Alamos and from Sinaloa, where it is a shade tree in the yards of many homes. Nearly every Mayo is familiar with it, and a town in the Mayo Delta is named after the plant. It appears to be confined to silty soils in the vicinity of arroyos.

MEDICINE: The milky sap is highly recommended for cloudy or infected eyes. The sap exudes from broken leaves or branches and is carefully applied to the corner of the eye. When one of us had an eye infection, Vicente Tajia demonstrated its use and inquired afterward if it had helped, but all we could tell him was that it hadn't done any harm. Seferino Valencia of Las Bocas recalled that his father toasted the leaves over fire, pulverized them, and applied the powder to sores that would not heal. Thus prepared it is also said to cure infections rapidly. Francisco Valenzuela of El Rincón said that tea from sitavaro branches is used to wash sores or boils not only to help them heal, but also to prevent pathogens from the dead from entering through them into a living body. Certain vague diseases are thought to originate with death, and sitavaro is believed to be a powerful anti-infective against supernatural pathologies.

INDUSTRY: Do?a Lidia Zazueta of Teachive wove a small woolen cobija (blanket) that bore figures dyed with sitavaro root, which is boiled to produce a mustardlike color.

CULTURE: Sitavaro is a favorite source of greenery for covering the fiesta ramadas during Holy Week, a tribute to its spiritual power as well as its evergreen decorative qualities. (If Holy Week occurs in April, most of the greenery is gone from the monte.) Large armloads of the branches are gathered and spread on roofs and ramadas as insulation. Sometimes the branches are covered with an additional layer of dirt.

The branches and trunks, though thin, produce a light and resilient wood, ideal for producing the penetrating thump of the drum. Balbina Nieblas of Teachive fashions sticks for this purpose.

On Good Friday, Vicente Tajia cut a branch and gently tapped each member of his extended family, saying, "May harm and sickness stay away from you." He explained that he uses sitavaro for this because the branches and leaves are soft and will not scratch or otherwise injure anyone during the ceremony. We asked him to scourge us as well.

Jatropha cordata (Ort.) Müll. Arg. sato'oro (papelío, torote panalero)

Sato'oro is a striking, irregularly branched, narrow tree reaching 8 m tall, with soft wood and a green to yellow to beige trunk from which peel large sheets of exfoliating tan bark with a yellow cast. In July the dark green leaves are accentuated by delicate bell-shaped pink flowers. It is common in thornscrub and tropical deciduous forest, where it is an aesthetic boon to the region, leafing (p.101)

Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos

Sato'oro (Jatropha cordata) in thornscrub near Teachive. The tree is leafed out more than the surrounding monte.

out early and turning green whether or not it rains, bringing some measure of consolation to the natives in times of summer drought. The turning of its leaves to golden yellow marks the end of las aguas and the beginning of the tropical fall season.

Livestock do not touch the plant. Hence, it is very common, especially in those parts of coastal thornscrub where pitahayas occur only sporadically. The tree may be confused with torote, for both have succulent stems and exfoliating bark. Torote has compound leaves with small, narrow, pointed, dull leaflets, while those of sato'oro are cottonwood-like, simple, wide, shiny, and oval. Trunks of sato'oro tend to be straight, and the bark has etchings that encircle the tree. Torote trunks are craggy, and the bark has only random markings.

INDUSTRY: According to Mayos of Teachive, large rectangular sheets of bark were carefully cut from the live tree and used to wrap freshly gathered (p.102)

Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos

Close-up of sato'oro showing shiny bark.

honeycomb (panales) from wild bees for transporting and storage. The bark is still said to preserve freshness in the honey as long as a year.

ARTIFACTS: Sato'oro is used on occasion as a living fence post but must be supported along the line by more durable posts. Mayos of the coastal plain use the wood to construct a tool called chapa for harvesting tunas, the fruits of the prickly pear cactus. A branch of sato'oro roughly 5 cm thick and 1.3 m long is cut, and the end is split with a machete for a length of about 20 cm. The crack made by the machete is wedged open with a short length (about 10 cm) of pisi bound into the crack with a length of güinolo bark. This leaves an opening about 3 cm wide in the end of the tool. The harvester works the tuna into this open crack and wiggles it about to detach the fruit from the prickly pear. The tuna remains gently wedged in the chapa until the harvester empties it into a container.

The sap is a powerful astringent and staining agent.

(p.103) MEDICINE: A tea made from the bark is rubbed on the abdomen to relieve sore kidneys. It is also applied to bee stings and drunk at the same time, which is said to instantly alleviate the discomfort. Some maintain that if stung while in the monte, one should suck on a piece of the wood.

Filemón Navarete sang us the following song about the sato'oro.


Jita juya tácasu

There is a tree in the plain.

Sani laupu huécari

There it is, blooming in the monte.

Siquili si sesehua

The flowers, a soft red.

Amanisu sani laupu huécari

There it is, the only tree blooming

Sihueli léjajati sesehua

in the monte.

Amani seguauylo ta'ta amaong

The branches move, the red flowers tremble.

hueche bétana

Where the sun sets, there it is.

Amani lihueeca síqueli léjajati

It is moving, the soft red flowers moving too.

Amoreuxia gonzalezii Sprague & Riley saya, saya mome

A. palmatifida Moç. & Sessé

This little plant is an herbaceous perennial found in clay soils of thornscrub and more open soils in tropical deciduous forest. The plants emerge each year from a tuberous root the size of a carrot, sometimes larger. Certain locations are known to harbor numerous plants, but these may bear leaves one year and not the next. Throughout the dry months the storage root lies dormant. In mid to late summer, when the rains arrive, people and animals alike (especially tayasu [javelina, jabalí; Tayassu tajacu, Tayassidae]), rush to harvest the sayas, which are conspicuous by their showy yellow-orange flower, about 7 cm in diameter. Harvesting kills the plant, but the root system is complex, and apparently small tubers remain in the ground to sprout the following year. Saya is much sought after throughout the region. Although not rare, it is found only sporadically.

FOOD: Natives relish the camote (tuber), roasted or raw. Most prefer it roasted, however, because when raw it may taste bitter. The tuber's flavor is greatly enhanced with lime juice. The fruit capsule is also edible when it is green and tender. Some folks reportedly eat the entire plant, roots, flowers, and all. The black spherical seeds of A. gonzalezii (about 6 mm in diameter), well known to many natives, bounce off the ground when dropped. Seeds from both species dehisce from a capsule, and at that time they can be ground into a meal that produces a coffee substitute of purportedly excellent flavor.

Saya would appear to be an excellent candidate for domestication; it must have remarkable powers of propagation to endure the heavy harvesting that goes on in late summer. (p.104)

Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos

Saya (Amoreuxia palmatifida). The root is eaten raw or roasted, and the roasted seeds are ground and brewed into a beverage.The plant is invisible much of the year.

Filemón Navarete sang us the following riddle about the saya, often sung at fiestas by the musicians and singers who accompany the deer dancer. The audience calls out guesses throughout the song. The deer dancer follows the words and the rhythm with precision, teasing the audience.


Jita juya tácasu

What greenery is that?

Saníloa pueca

There, out in the monte.

Síaleja jate je'eca

The wind blows through, making it green

Yldi yo júyataca

Through the fields and the forest.

Juya ániapo

The root shoots down with the first rain

Ca'a chuj nahua momayo

And the flower bursts forth.

Amani júbaute bulia yúcata

With the first rain, it bursts forth.


The yellow flower

Júsale lijti se segua

The yellow flower, moving

Ylidi yo júyataca

In the field and the forest.

Jusali lijt se séhualo

The yellow flower moving.


Eight Plants That Make Mayos Mayos

A male jito (Forchhammeria watsonii) tree in flower near Huebampo. Note the shape, which gave rise to its English name, lollipop tree.

Forchhammeria watsonii Rose jito (palo jito; lollipop tree)

This gnarled, strong-trunked, symmetrical tree grows up to 9 m tall, sometimes more, often resembling a lollipop in shape. It is endemic to southern Sonora and northern Sinaloa and is common in coastal and foothills thornscrub. It retains its dark green color throughout the year, leafing out anew in late spring a brighter green. As Gentry 1942:117) says, "The tree has a very individual appearance, suggestive of old olive trees in ancient Judea. In the burning days of late spring it is about the only tree that o¤ers shade to weary beasts and man." The trees stand out clearly in the late spring, showing up as patches of vivid dark green, almost black, against the monotonous gray brown of the leafless forest.

Individual trees are recognized and respected. A remarkable example near Teachive is more than 10 m tall with a trunk of more than 1.5 m in circumference. Known as “El Jitón,” it is widely renowned, and the shady ground beneath it is a resting place for foot travelers.

Vicente Tajia believes that jitos live to be a thousand years old. He has known (p.106) El Jitón nearly seventy years, and he said it has not grown appreciably in that time. Unfortunately, jitos apparently cannot be dated by tree-ring analysis (Thomas Harlan, pers. comm., 1995) because they are tropical trees without a distinct growing season: some years produce many rings, while other years may produce none. The dense foliage gives refuge to owls, which often perch on the upper branches, nearly invisible from below. Owls are often persecuted by Mayos, who attribute malevolent powers to them.

Recruitment of new individual jitos has been severely restricted due to heavy grazing, which results in the emerging seedlings being trampled. We have looked far and long for seedlings and found few, if any, more than a couple of years old and it is commonly said that “there are no young jitos.”

Jito is not well known in Sinaloa, near the southern limit of its range.

FOOD: Jitos are dioecious. Each year the female trees yield several kilograms of fruits, which are boiled with sugar when tender and greatly enjoyed by natives. The fruits are boiled for about an hour to remove a bitter agent that rises to the surface of the boiling mixture as froth and is skimmed off.

These are only a few of the many plants Mayos use. A familiarity with them invariably leads (as it led us) to other plants and more uses. To these we now turn.


(1.) In southern Sinaloa the common name is cardón, the same Spanish name given to numerous arborescent cacti. In Baja California it is referred to as pitahaya barbona. In northwest Argentina at least four species of columnar cacti are referredto as cardón.