The ‘Guanacaste’ – More Than Just a Tree!
The term ‘Guanacaste’ is a derivative of the word ‘guahnacaztlan.’ This is the word that native Chorotega people used to describe the tree.
Although ‘Guanacaste’ is now used as an umbrella term to describe all trees within the genre, the name actually dates back to a single tree growing in the 7th century at the intersection where the road to Nicoya and Bagaces splits. The catholic church in Liberia marks the spot where this famed landmark once grew.
Guanacaste was once one of the most densely forested locations in the Americas. Rising export demand for quality hardwoods meant that a huge portion of the trees were cut down, leaving the provinces forests a shadow of their former selves. The end result was grasslands, which scientists claim is the reason for increased rainfall.
In 1959, the Guanacaste tree was declared the national tree of Costa Rica. The shade it provides
was said to be symbolic of the Costa Rican government’s attitude to protecting the country and its inhabitants.
The Guanacaste tree is nicknamed the ‘Elephant’s ear tree.’ This namesake is due to the fact that it’s seed pods, which begin to appear in December as ruffled discs look like an elephant’s ear. Although the seed pods grow within the interior, their exterior outline gives the pods their unique shape. These pods reach maturity around February, and begin to ripen around March and April.
Guanacastecans claim to be able to know when the seed pods ripen because of the noise made by the huge flocks of parrots who show up to eat the fruit.
Amazingly, the fallen seedpods cannot germinate unless they are independently busted open so as to release the seeds. Their opening is often due to being trampled by cattle, or eaten by birds and other wildlife.
What seeds remain are known to grow rapidly and aggressively, with an estimated germination rate of 100 percent. It’s been suggested that the rate and speed at which they grow could provide an effective reforestation solution for parts of Guanacaste where trees are in short supply. Guanacaste trees are also known to greatly increase levels of nitrogen in soil, improving fertility and making them widely prized by coffee growers in the region.
The reddish brown, lightweight, water resistant wood from the Guanacaste tree is highly prized by wood-workers and furniture makers. Its unique properties make it a craftsman’s prime choice, and it can be used for everything from doors, window frames and cart wheels, all the way up to the hulls, decking, and masts of boats and ships.
Just because it’s highly prized does not necessarily mean that Guanacaste wood is highly accessible. The Guanacaste tree is strictly protected by the Costa Rican government. Consequently, a permit is needed to remove one. Even the cutting down of an old, dead Guanacaste tree requires permission from the government.