El Chaka – A Yucatecan Tree with Papery Bark

The Chaka (chah-KAH) tree is found everywhere in the Yucatan and can be identified by its papery, red colored bark which seems to be suffering from some sort of skin disease as it is constantly shedding. Many locals consider it an ‘acceptable’ tree to leave on ones property when clearing in preparation for building a new home. While the other endemic varieties such as chukun, catzin and even the honey-producing dzidilche are considered ‘undesirable’ because they either have thorns (like you are going to be climbing these trees every afternoon) or produce garbage (in the form of leaves, the horror), the chaka is left because it has neither thorns nor a huge amount of leaves and many think it is attractive (which it is). So, when coming upon a cleared lot you will often find that the chakas have been left standing as solitary reminders that some native trees are more desirable than others and testament to the owners – or in many cases the architects – somewhat tepid desire to preserve at least some of the local vegetation.

Unfortunately, the chaka is a soft wood whose root structure seems to be largely superficial and in my time here in the Yucatan, which has included observing the passage of more than one major hurricane, I have noticed that the chakas, when left surrounded by their more hardy, deep-root, neighboring trees, survive strong winds much more handily than when left alone to fend for themselves. Standing alone, they easily succumb to a strong gust of wind which snaps their branches and if the gale strong enough, uproots them entirely.

You can read up on the chaka here (en español) but in a nutshell it says that the tree is indigenous to the area, and its leaves are used for medicinal purposes (curative baths for fevers, according to this site), its wood for carving (although most wood carvers will use other, harder wood varieties) and as an ornamental tree in parks and gardens.

I have several in the backyard and here are some photos of their trunks and bark, which I find quite interesting.

9 thoughts on “El Chaka – A Yucatecan Tree with Papery Bark

  1. I know the chaka is not a relative of the madrone or manzanita, but they all certainly remind me of each other. I really have an attraction to peely-bark trees. Weird, huh? I’ll be on the lookout for them when I visit in July (pre-Shakira). Thanks for posting this. Never would have paid attention otherwise.

  2. Also known as ‘The Gringo Tree’, cause it’s always red and peeling… 🙂

  3. The bark can be used as a tea and reportedly helps you sleep but can cause fantastic dreams. In Key West, they call it “the tourist tree’.

  4. Hi somebody told me that Chaka tree logs by themselves, if we planted… it will grow easily.
    I will try it and I will tell you what happen.

  5. Yes, this is true. Often you will see them used as fenceposts and they are sprouting branches and leaves, making them living fences! Good luck!

  6. We have this tree here, we call Almacigo, the same name as cuban use.
    Looking for more, i found this tale:
    Since ancient times, the Mayas called this tree chakáh and also used it to cure skin irritation caused by chechén (Metopium brownei), which almost always grows near the first one. There are several Mayan legends regarding the origin of both trees, one of them tells that in ancient times two warriors, one kindly named Kinch and the other wicked named Tizic, fought to the death for the love of a young woman named Nicte-Há with a fatal outcome. for both. The gods granted them the grace to return to the world of mortals turned into trees to contemplate their beloved: Tizic would be a chechén and Kinch a chacáh. Finally Nicte-Há would die of pain and the gods would turn her into a flower.

  7. Cierto! There is also the story from the Guerra de Castas, where Mayan warriors lured their pursuers into the forest. Unbeknownst to them, the Mayans had previously prepared the area, cutting branches from the Chechén tree so there was sap secreting everywhere. When the soldiers entered the area under the dripping trees, they were burned by the highly toxic sap and as they struggled and try to rub it off, the Mayans would kill them off one by one from their hiding places just outside the Chechén grove.

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