Ceiba, the World Tree

Ethnobotanist and cultural geographer Kit Anderson made a deep study of two great tree species, Ceiba and Live Oak,  She focused particularly on  Ceiba trees in Guatemala, where Ceiba is the national tree and is legally protected. Here she visited trees that were the center of town plazas as well as wild trees and those growing among ancient ruins.  Her goal, as she says “was to learn what these trees were doing in each place and how humans and trees together create landscapes .” The following are excerpts from her groundbreaking book,  "Nature, Culture, and Big Old Trees" (by special permission of the author to ONE)

Ceiba pentandra

trees of life

A full-grown Ceiba pentandra is hard to miss: wrinkled gray elephant-skin bark covers a thick trunk up to thirty-five feet or more in circumference... Small, fierce thorns bristle here and there on trunk and branches. Enormous buttressed roots splay out in all directions, merging into the trunk a good ten feet above the ground. Above, fat branches angle skyward in contorted patterns, or form a series of horizontal whorls of three, regularly spaced along a trunk that can be two hundred feet tall. Some of the taller ceiba have only a tuft of greenery crowning a bare columnar trunk; others are more squat, with widely spreading branches that cast generous shade. …

Ceibas are opportunists. Although they can be part of mature forests, they come in during early stages, when things are not settled. They are colonizers of disturbed habitat, quickly taking advantage of open, sunny spots and of light gaps in the forest created when other species fall. Unlike many such colonizers, though, they persist for a long time, remaining as part of mature forests. In the wild these habitats are common on the edges of streams and other bodies of water..This pioneer quality  means the ceiba is predisposed to do well when people clear forests for agriculture or roads. …By age three or four, the trees start to flower…Ceiba flowers in one major burst when the tree is leafless, generally at the beginning of the rainy season. Compact, ball-shaped clusters… sprout on horizontal branches. Often only part of the tree flowers..the blossoms, which produce abundant nectar and pollen, are an important food source for a variety of animals..bats are important pollinators in all regions where the ceiba goes.

Older trees become entire ecosystems.The massive, horizontal branches are convenient homes for a vast array of epiphytes, plants that perch atop other species to reach light. Often ceiba branches are completely covered with bromeliads, many kinds of orchid, ficus species, philodendron, pepperomium, anthocereus (a cactus) ferns, mosses and lichens. ..One such tree can thus be a major contributor to the biodiversity of an area, whether forest or town.

Ceiba’s Gifts:

For the people who first settled the tropical rainforests of Middle America, trees were the source of food, medicine, wood, shade , and shelter. Ceiba supplied a number of these..their wood, being soft, was easy to shape into canoes; the young pods were edible; the silk floss of the mature fruit made an excellent stuffing material and was reportedly spun into a cloth..the seeds when boiled yield an oil useful in cooking and lighting.  Different parts of the tree have been used as medicine: leaves to treat swellings, burns and rashes, roots as a diuretic; the bark to heal ulcerations, hemorrhoids, and gonorrhea, and to start menstrual flow and expel placentas. An extract of the bark has been shown to acton the central nervous system in a manner similar to that of curare.

Shamans conducted their rituals by ceiba trees, often using incense to prepare trees for sacred ceremonies… curanderos took their patients to ceiba trees in the forest:.. The sacred ceiba is one found in the forest.. chosen because it is in a sacred location near water or a cave, or  because of its appearance.

The tree had a distinctly feminine side. One was maternal; young children who died were cared for by a ceiba, which fed them milk from its breast-like fruits. As a symbol of abundance, the ceiba was also connected to Imiz, the name of the first day of the Mayan calendar.

Ceibas also have an association with  water. In the Yucatan they often grow near cenotes, water sources within the dry karst landscapes that have long been centers of villages and sacred rituals. Their presence is in fact an indicator of water near the surface. Their frequent presence near rivers also enhances their connection to places where human life is possible. 

Ceiba, the World Tree

The main information available about the ceiba as a sacred tree is from the classic Maya period (AD 300-900) By that time it was already a highly developed symbol of the world tree, or axis-mundi  The Mayan name for ceiba is yaxche. Translated it  becomes yax=the, the first, the blue green; and che=tree. In Mayan plant classification yax, or blue-green, is the most important, the first color: its association with ceiba is an indication of its central role as a symbolic tree. 

Ceibas were places of power associated with.. both political and religious authority. .several groups claim direct descent from the ceiba, including the Lacandon and the Tzeltales.

trees of life

The ceiba as world tree was sometimes shown as a cross, an image that had important consequences when the Spanish arrived with the Christian cross. The similarities in symbolism often helped in the conversion of Mayan people, since raising the cross was similar to setting up a symbolic ceiba. In some areas, a cross painted green is still worshipped. 

Planting …ceibas at locations where ideals of perfection and power play a role, like town centers, courthouses, schools, churches, and community meeting places, recalls the ancient image of the tree as axis mundi. These places are set aside from the ordinary to allow the breaking through of truth, wisdom, insight—all qualities associated with gifts of the gods, the greater-than-human. …

What about today’s Maya? Is the tree still considered sacred?…Schoolchildren…know it was the sacred tree of the Maya and also the national tree, because this is a regular part of their education. In highland Mayan villages I found examples of young ceiba trees entirely ignored, while others were carefully marked and respected.  Large trees are more generally known and valued. The tree of Palin is carefully watched over by the women, who consider it a gift from the ancestors who planted it.

Charismatic Ceiba

Face to face with a huge old tree, the human body feels frail and ephemeral. No wonder peoples’s reactions to such trees range from worship to fear, great affection to hatred. Over their lifetimes, ceiba trees.. interact with many generations of humans, bearing evidence of those relationships in how and where they have grown and the kinds of places they help create.

Ceiba trees  are examples of what one might call “charismatic  megaflora.” Like their animal counterparts—whales and elephants—fully grown specimens capture the imagination and evoke awe among humans. Their sheer massiveness is mysterious. Bigger and older than humans, they can dwarf, and often outlast, built structures. They alter the microclimate in their vicinity and become whole ecosystems. Over the years they gather stories and legends about them. Even after they die they continue to inhabit the landscape, physically, or, once their wood is removed, as memories. Much of their lives remains hidden, conducted in secret within their huge trunks, spreading canopy, and invisible root systems. …

Essential to acknowledge is that trees are not passive backdrops for human activities, but active participants in the ongoing creation of places and landscapes, as well as personal and cultural identity. Like people, trees have qualities that help create their “personality” as human companions. ..each individual tree has its own gestalt, a combination of its growth patterns and how humans work with  and interpret it through its lifetime.“Mutualism” may be the best word available to characterize these relationships with charismatic trees…It implies an interdependence between two species, each giving something of value to the other. Mutualism, like friendship, involves two active participants, rather than one who acts, and one who is acted upon. The best outcome for both is to continue the relationship indefinitely, through changes and difficult times. If we were to consider human relationships with other species from this point of view, rather than from the more common perspective of humans as in control or acting upon nature, it could drastically alter our understanding of ourselves as a species on earth…

When you get right down to the level of experience, the contact is between and among individual beings within a larger community. What happens there is a mystery and always potentially new. 

All exerpts from: Anderson, Kit, Nature, Culture, and Big Old Trees: Live Oaks and Ceibas in Louisiana and Guatemala. Austin: University of Texas Press, January 2004

Ceiba Tree teleseminar with Ardelle Furrer is July 21, 2019. Click here for info and later recording.