Chiapas has approximately 10,000 plant species (including 1,650 considered to be medicinal), more than any other state in Mexico. This is a reflection, in large part, of the state’s numerous geologic and vegetation zones, each supporting a distinct collection of flora.
Chiapas is especially notable for its extensive tropical rainforest, none more impressive than the Selva Lacandón (Lacandón jungle). At 1.8 million hectares (18,000 square kilometers, roughly three times the size of Delaware), the Lacandón jungle is Mexico’s largest and best-preserved tropical rainforest; combined with the Maya and Calakmul biosphere reserves (in Guatemala and Campeche state, respectively) it forms part of one of the largest contiguous expanse of tropical forest north of the Amazon.
Within the Lacandón jungle is the 331,000-hectare Montes Azules biosphere reserve, which contains 20 percent of Mexico’s plant species, including the country’s tallest tropical trees, 70-meter-tall mahogany behemoths. Other trees typical to the state’s tropical rainforest regions include caoba, chicozapote, mamba, and ceiba.
The latter were considered sacred by the ancient Maya—a link between the underworld, the material world, and the heavens. Even today, these huge trees are generally not disturbed, including those growing in the middle of crop or cattle fields.
The rainforest is also home to palms, ferns, lianas, and numerous epiphytes, including orchids.
Pine and Cloud Forests
Chiapas’s steep mountain slopes make for a quick succession of microclimates and habitats, and an incredibly rich assortment of plant life. This is particularly evident on the Pacific side of the Sierra Madre de Chiapas mountain range, and in El Triunfo Biosphere Reserve. Lower elevations feature common tropical trees like palo de agua and zapotillo, giving way to pine and evergreen species like pino moctezuma and pino real (the tallest pine species in Chiapas, growing to 40 m/130 ft), and finally, cool damp cloud-forest conditions along the jagged ridge tops commonly home to species including liquidambar, encino (oak), and magnolia, plus a dizzying array of bromeliads, orchids, and cycads.
Pino real and encino trees also can be found in the extensive pine and oak forests in the state’s central plateau and highlands, around San Cristóbal and surrounding indigenous villages. These forests are heavily impacted, supplying much of the highlands with timber and firewood.
Savanna-like habitat can be found in Chiapas’s hot arid central depression (where Tuxtla Gutiérrez is located), where low scrub trees like nanche and cacaito thrive. A different type of savanna covers much of the state’s Pacific lowlands, where the hotter, more humid conditions favor trees like the jícara, whose large bulbous gourds have been dried and used as containers for millennia.
Mangrove forests spread in tangled knots along much of the Pacific coast, providing vital habitat to myriad birds, amphibians, and aquatic creatures, and supplying nutrients to adjacent estuaries and even ocean ecosystems. Three species of mangle (or manglar) are most common—white, black, and red—and those in the Reserva Natural La Encrucijada are said to be the tallest in Latin America, growing to an impressive 25 meters (80 feet).
© Liza Prado and Gary Chandler from Moon Chiapas, 1st Edition