Leguminosae: Papilionaceae (Fabaceae) (Legume Family); Subfamily Papilionoideae: Dalbergieae, Lonchocarpinae Tribe
Forms and Subspecies
It is possible that the tree the Lacandon cultivate is a variety or an as yet undescribed subspecies.
Lonchocarpus longistylus Pittier
Lonchocarpus maculatus DC.206
Lonchocarpus violaceus H.B.K.
Lonchocarpus yucatanensis Pittier
Lonchocarpus violaceus Rth. (Pool 1898; Neuwinger 1994, 623*); described for India but is likely a different species, and the name is probably obsolete
Baälche, bá’alché’ (modern Yucatec Mayan), ba’che’, balche (Mayan),207 balche’ (Lacandon, “thing of wood/essence of the forest”), balché, balche’baum, lancepod, lance-pod (Trinidad), palo de patlaches (Mexico), patachcuahuitl (Nahuatl), pitarilla (Spanish), saayab, sakiab, samea (Chiapas), sayab (Yucatán),208 violet lancepot, xbalché (colonial-period Mayan)
The tree was known to the pre-Columbian Maya, who used it for ritual purposes. It was first mentioned in early colonial sources from the Yucatán (Diego de Landa’s Relación de las cosas de Yucatán, Mayan dictionaries). In 1665, de Rochefort described one member of the genus for the Antilles (Allen and Allen 1981, 396*). Balche’ was first scientifically described in the nineteenth century.
The main range is the tropical rain forests of southern Mexico (Chiapas, Yucatán; cf. Steggerda 1943, 209*) and the neighboring Petén region (Guatemala). The tree also grows on Trinidad and Tobago (Graf 1992, 558, 1033*) and has been described as native to Puerto Rico, the Lesser Antilles, Isla Margarita, Venezuela, and Colombia (Morton 1995, 44*).
Several species of the genus grow wild in the forest209; they are called matabuey in the local Spanish (Berlin et al. 1974, 277*). The very similar species Lonchocarpus santarosanus Donn., which is known in Huastec as ehtiil i thal te’ (“like the thal tree”), is found on the Gulf Coast (Alcorn 1984, 691*).
The Lacandon (Chiapas, Mexico) know the tree only in its cultivated form. They propagate the tree primarily through cuttings, which are started from thin branches (approximately 30 cm long) that are set in the ground. The seeds can be germinated and planted as well. The tree requires a moist, tropical climate. It grows very quickly and will even grow back after the trunk or branches have been removed.
Balche’ is a midsized tree that can attain a height of up to 10 meters in cultivation. It has a smooth, light bark that is often covered with lichens (Rätsch 1994). The leaves are lanceolate. The violet flowers are in panicles. The fruits, which contain only one or two seeds, are flat pods 8 to 12 cm in length. The plant flowers in May, and the fruits ripen in January and February.
The tree is easily confused with the common fish-catcher (Piscidia piscipula [L.] Sargent [syn. Piscidia erythrina (Loefl.) L.]), which is frequently encountered in the rain forests of Mexico. In Lacandon, the fish-catcher is known as ya’ax balche’ (“first balche’ tree”) and is regarded as a very toxic wild relative of the true balche’ tree.
The wonderfully scented panicle of the balche’ tree, Lonchocarpus violaceus. (Photographed in Naha’, Chiapas, Mexico)
The typical spearlike fruits of Lonchocarpus violaceus. (Photographed in Naha’, Chiapas, Mexico)
—Fresh bark, more rarely the fresh flowers
Preparation and Dosage
The bark is knocked off the freshly cut trunk by beating it with a piece of wood. To prepare the ritual drink that is also known as balche’, the Lacandon add two to ten pieces of bark (1 meter long, 10 to 20 cm wide) to approximately 180 liters of water. The more fresh bark that is added to the balche’ drink, the more potent are its psychoactive effects. Fresh flowers are sometimes added to the finished balche’ drink.
The drink that is prepared from the bark is consumed communally only in ritual contexts (offering ceremonies, harvest festivals, initiations, the treatment of illnesses) (see balche’).
Strangely, the tree has not been identified in pre-Columbian Mayan art. Only drinking scenes, drinking vessels, and ceremonial offerings of the drink were depicted (e.g., in the Codex Dresdensis). It is quite possible that some Mayan art was inspired by experiences with balche’.
The Lacandon use a multitude of ritual and drinking vessels, some of which are carved with decorations and other ornaments.
Mayan recipe books from the colonial period contain a number of recipes using balche’. Crushed fresh leaves were rubbed onto lesions caused by smallpox, a disease introduced from Europe. A tea made from the leaves was drunk for “loss of speech” (Roys 1976, 216*).
The bark and the seeds contain rotenone210 (which can be clearly recognized by its scent; cf. Morton 1995, 44*) as well as several rotenoides or sapo-nines, flavonoids, and tannins (Delle Monache et al. 1978; Menichini et al. 1982; Neuwinger 1994, 623*). Also present in the bark are the prenylated stilbenes A-, B-, C-, and D-longistyline (Delle Monache et al. 1977; de Smet 1983, 140*). The fruits (pods and seeds) appear to contain the highest concentrations of rotenone (Morton 1995, 44*). It is sometimes thought that an alkaloid is also present. An initial analysis of a balche’ drink made with Lonchocarpus violaceusdid not detect any alkaloids (Hartmut Laatsch, pers. comm.).
The seeds of the closely related Lonchocarpus sericeus (Poir.) H.B.K., which are thought to be poisonous, have been found to contain 0.5% enduracidine and a related acid (Fellows et al. 1977). Whether these substances also occur in Lonchocarpus violaceus is unknown.
The longistylines are chemically related to kavains and kavapyrones (cf. Piper methysticum) and to hispidine (see “Polyporus mysticus”) and likely elicit similar effects. Rotenone is found in a number of plants, including the tuba root (Derris elliptica [Sweet] Benth.211; Fabaceae); it is regarded as an abortifacient and is thus dangerous to ingest during pregnancy (Roth et al. 1994, 298*). The effects of the balche’ drink are likely due to the presence of the longistylines:
Chemically, the structures of the longistylines leave some room for interpretation. Thus, for example, it may be that an aminisation in the body (similar to that of myristicine from nutmeg [cf. Myristica fragrans]) into mescaline-like alkaloids is responsible for the effects. But the structural similarity with the styryl pyrones of Piper methysticum suggests that the drink is more likely on the same level as kavakava, which also agrees quite well with the effects that you have described. (Hartmut Laatsch, pers. comm., July 1, 1987)
Rotenone (chemical structure C23H22O6; synonyms derrin, tubatoxin, 1,2,12,12α-tetrahydro-2α-isopropenyl-8,9-dimethoxy-benzopyrano-(3,4-β)furo (2,3H)benzopyran-6(6αH)-on) belongs to the group of pyrano derivatives (Roth et al. 1994, 912) and is regarded as a potent fish poison. In humans, the lethal dose (LD50) is estimated to lie around 0.3 to 0.5 g/kg (912*). The toxic effects are said to be more pronounced when the constituents are inhaled rather than ingested. Symptoms include numbness of the mucous membranes, nausea, vomiting, tremors, tachypnoea, and respiratory paralysis; “rotenone excites the nerves; spasms occur, which result in nerve paralysis, finally leading to exitus” (299, 912*). Rotenone does not appear to be responsible for the psychoactive effects (at least not by itself).
In South America, Lonchocarpus species with high rotenone contents (L. rariflorus, L. floribundus, known as timbó or barbasco) are used as fish poisons (im Thurn 1967, 234; Heizer 1958; Schultes and Raffauf 1990, 244f.*). One species (Lonchocarpus utilis) is even used as a curare substitute (Schultes and Raffauf 1990, 308*). Rotenone is the primary active component of the common fish-catcher Piscidia piscipula (L.) Sargent [syn. Piscidia erythrina(Loefl.) L.; Fabaceae] (Roth et al. 1994, 573*), known in Lacandon as ya’ax ba’che’ (“first balche’ tree”):
“Toxic symptoms: Following consumption of too large a quantity of the alcoholic [rotenone] tincture, vomiting, salivation, sweating, numbness, and shaking were observed” (Roth et al. 1994, 573*).
“And so it shall remain for the creatures of the earth. For always shall it be so for them. They shall receive the seeds of the tree and plant them. Oh, it is true, only when it is planted does the tree grow, the true balche’ tree. Not all balche’ trees are good, only this one here. With it, the creatures of the earth will not die. They will plant it always. The creatures of the earth shall plant it. . . .
“And so is it until today. They make the balche’ drink. They drink it. As my father told me, if the gods had not shown us the proper tree, we would have died. But so, as Hachäkyum the original ancestor showed, so it has remained until today. We make the balche’ drink for our lords.”
FROM THE LACANDON CREATION MYTH
IN EIN KOSMOS IM REGENWALD [A COSMOS IN THE RAINFOREST] (MA’AX AND RÄTSCH 1984, 72)
Commercial Forms and Regulations
See also the entry for balche’.
Delle Monache, F., F. Marletti, G. B. Marini-Bettolo, J. F. de Mello, and O. Gonçalves de Lima. 1977. Isolation and structure of longistylines, A, B, C, and D, new prenylated stilbenes from Lonchocarpus violaceus. Lloydia 40:201–8.
Delle Monache, F., L. E. C. Suarez, and G. B. Marini-Bettolo. 1978. Flavonoids from the seeds of six Lonchocarpus species. Phytochemistry 17:1812–13.
Fellows, Linda E., Robert C. Hider, and Arthur Bell. 1977. 3-[2-amino-2-imidazolin-4(5)-yl]alanine (enduracididine) and 2-[amino-2-imidazolin-4(5)-yl] acetic acid in seeds of Lonchocarpus sericeus. Phytochemistry 16:1957–59.
Gonçalves de Lima, O., J. F. Mello, Franco Delle Monache, I. L. d’Albuquerque, and G. B. Marini-Bettolo. 1975. Sustancias antimicrobianas de plantas superiores. Communicaçao XLVI: primeras observaçoes sobre os efeitos biologicos de extractos de cortex do caule e raizes de balche. L. violaceus (syn. L. longistylus Pittier) a planta mitica dos maias do Mexico e da Guatemala e Honduras Britanica. Rev. Inst. Antib. Recife.
Heizer, Robert F. 1958. Aboriginal fish poisons. Anthropological Papers, no. 38, BAE, bull. 151.
im Thurn, Everard F. 1967. Among the Indians of Guiana. New York: Dover.
Kamen-Kaye, Dorothy. 1977. Ichthyotoxic plants and the term “Barbasco.” Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University 25 (2): 71–90.
Ma’ax, K’ayum, and Christian Rätsch. 1984. Ein Kosmos im Regenwald: Mythen und Visionen der Lakandonen-Indianer. Cologne: Diederichs. Repr. (revised edition) Munich, 1994.
Menichini, F., F. Delle Monache, and G. B. Marini-Bettolo. 1982. Flavonoides and rotenoides from Thephrosiae and related tribes of Leguminosae. Planta Medica 45:2434.
Pool, J. F. 1898. Nekoe, ein indisches Fischgift. Chemisches Zentralblatt 1:520.
Rätsch, Christian. 1994. Lichens in northern Lacandon culture. In Yearbook for Ethnomedicine and the Study of Consciousness 1994 (2):95–98. Berlin: VWB.