RLG Has a Monkey Pot Tree!
By Jane A. Lyons
Vice-president, Las Gralarias Foundation
One of my favorite trees at Reserva Las Gralarias (RLG) has always been a hugely strong and what I call "moss-resistant" tree laden with bromeliads which are full of rain frogs (at elevation 2060 m). I have wondered what species of tree it is ever since 2002. The flowers and bark are quite different from any other trees I have found on the reserve but I never have been able to ID the tree – until now.
One day recently walking below the tree, I saw a brown clay pot hanging from a branch of the tree. I said something like “What the heck is that?” to the group I was with. We all mused about what it was and what might be inside and then we noticed a second hanging pot in the same tree. I thought some human must have left clay pots in the tree and for some odd reason I had never noticed them. Kathy Krynak thought the pots might have some kind of bees, wasps, ants or other social creatures nesting inside. Not knowing what might be living inside, we left both pots alone.
I considered the lidded pots could perhaps be a sort of seed pod of the tree or of an inquiline in the tree, similar to our cloud forest mahogany tree fruits. So I checked my Gentry guide and eventually found nice illustrations of the tree family Lecythidaceae (the Brazil Nut family), with illustrations of some of the pot-like seed capsules found in some of the trees in this family. Although the descriptions did not fit exactly our tree, they were close enough to make me think this was the family our tree belonged to and that, indeed, these were its seed capsules.
"Lecythidaceae" is a word that comes from Latin meaning "vessel" or "flask" (common English name is sweetgum), and the clay-pot-looking fruit is called a pixidium ("monkey pot"). In Spanish, our Monkey Pot Tree is Árbol de Ollas.
One of the pods was slightly cracked open and it fell to the ground on 31 May. It weighed slightly less than one pound. When the bottom portion came off of the pot, I felt as though I had found a pot of gold! Inside there were six large "seeds" sitting cozily within a thin, sticky caramel-colored goo.
Considering that this tree is about 60 m from my house and at the start of a frequently walked trail, I have to think the tree has not borne any such fruits since at least 2002, at least none that I nor any visitors to RLG have ever seen. Now after at least 15 years and at the end of one of our rainiest rainy seasons, it has produced a grand total of TWO pixidium fruits/pot-like seed capsules. And with these it has given away its secret identification.
We have planted the six seeds of the first pod and are awaiting the second pod’s grand opening. According to some references, these pot-like fruits take 10 months to ripen. According to the New York Botanical Garden, “Neotropical Lecythidaceae are among the most spectacular plants in the world because of their showy flowers and large woody fruits.” With the help of experts at the New York Botanical Gardens and the University of Guayaquil we have identified the genus as Eschweilera and are trying to determine the exact species of this tree. Stay tuned!
Reference: A Field Guide to the Families and Genera of Woody Plants of Northwest South America. 1993. Alwyn H. Gentry. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago.