Among the cornucopia of plant life are 8,000 varieties of plants, including more than 600 types of orchids. Of these, nearly 200 are unique to Guatemala. The rugged cloud forests of Sierra de las Minas, meanwhile, boast the presence of 17 distinct species of pine trees found nowhere else on earth. Endemic orchid species include Guatemala’s national flower, the rare monja blanca, or “white nun.” It is found in the cloud forests of Las Verapaces region.
Guatemala means “land of the trees” in the ancient Mayan-Toltec language. According to 2005 figures, 37 percent of Guatemala remained covered in forest in 2005, down from 40 percent in 2001. Among the different types of forest present in Guatemala’s varied climate zones are tropical rainforest, tropical dry forests, evergreen forests, and cloud forests. In some cold, mountainous parts of Guatemala there are temperate forests whose broadleaf trees’ leaves briefly change color before falling to the ground, though not at all to the extent of the displays of fall foliage present in parts of North America.
The forests of Petén are officially classified mostly as tropical moist and tropical wet forests. Guatemala’s only true rainforests, strictly speaking, are found in the Cerro San Gil along the Caribbean Coast.
Most of Guatemala’s remaining forest cover is found in Petén, especially the northern third of the department in a huge park known as The Maya Biosphere Reserve. The Verapaces, Izabal, Quiché, and Huehuetenango also have significant amounts of forest cover remaining. Many of these forests are on remote mountains that have remained inaccessible and have therefore escaped the ravages of the advance of the agricultural frontier. Significant wetlands, including four of international importance, are found in Petén, Izabal, and the western section of the Pacific Coast plains near the Mexican border. Mangrove forests are found on the Pacific and Caribbean Coasts.
Among the plants you’ll find in Guatemala’s tropical forests is the towering ceiba (Ceiba pentandra), which is Guatemala’s national tree and was considered sacred by the Mayans. It has a wide trunk and buttressed roots with branches found only at the very top. The ceiba can reach heights of 60 meters. You will often find them in cleared fields—one of only a few trees left standing amid grazing cattle. The most famous example is along the footpath at the entrance to Tikal National Park, where visitors are often photographed standing next to the tree’s colossal trunk.
Another common tropical forest tree is the chicozapote, from which chicle is extracted for use in the manufacture of chewing gum. Chicleros cut V-shaped notches in the tree’s trunk, allowing the sap to drip down the tree to a receptacle placed there for its collection. These days chicle goes to Japan, which still favors the traditional base for making gum. During the early 20th century, most of Guatemala’s chicle went to the Wrigley Company.
The ramón, or breadnut tree, is found throughout the tropical flatlands and was widely used during Mayan times for making tortillas and drinks, among other things. Archaeologists have linked the increasing consumption of ramón seeds to decreasing food-production cycles during Mayan times, speculating that it served as a replacement to more traditional staples during periods of drought.
One of the most curious plants found in the tropical forests is the strangler fig, or mata palo (Ficus obtusifolia), which wraps itself around its host, eventually killing it. It has thick roots and looks much like a wooden rope wrapped around a tree. It’s easy to spot and you’ll recognize it when you see it.
Guatemala’s forests contain excellent hardwoods, the most prominent of these being cedar (Cedrela angustifolia) and mahogany (Swientenia alicastrum). Much of the Petén forest has been logged, legally and illegally. Peasant forestry cooperatives operate in the multiple-use zone of the Maya Biosphere Reserve sustainably harvesting ecocertified hardwoods. Guatemalan mahogany is highly prized in the making of furniture. Also important as a forest product is xate palm (Chamaedorea spp), which is harvested in the forests using sustainable methods, though overcutting is entirely possible. The bright green palm leaves are used in floral arrangements throughout the United States and Europe.
© Al Argueta from Moon Guatemala, 3rd Edition. Photos © Al Argueta www.alargueta.com