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Henequén

 
 
Henequén (Agave fourcroydes) is a fiber-producing plant native to Yucatán. It is also known as sisal, sosquil, and in Maya, kih.

A member of the Agavaceae family, the henequén plant is comprised of concentric rows of long, spiny leaves known as pencas. During the plant’s 7-10 year lifespan, it will produce some 200 – 250 leaves. When the leaves are cut from the plant, pounded and scraped, pulp and water are extracted, leaving long strands of approximately 1000 coarse and extremely strong and durable green fibers. These fibers are hung to dry in the sun, and in the process soon turn the characteristic pale golden color. The dried fibers are then ready to be spun into twine, cord or thick rope depending upon the final use of the product.

The Maya developed the technique for pounding and scraping the leaves, thereby extracting the sisal fiber, and for centuries used it to create clothing, sandals, bags and a variety of domestic products.

In the early years after the Spanish conquest, huge parcels of land were appropriated from the indigenous peoples and turned over to Spanish interests for cultivation and the production of cattle. These tracts of land were known as haciendas, and their wealthy owners hacendados. For several centuries, the haciendas produced everything from cotton and corn crops, to beef and dairy products. But by the early 1800s, the concept of the commercialization of henequén swept through Yucatán, and fortunes were built by the sale of rope and burlap sacks for the ever-expanding maritime commerce between the Old and New Worlds. Soon, the majority of haciendas in Yucatán abandoned their old production and converted to the production of henequén – thereafter known as oro verde, or “green gold.”

Smokestacks sprang up across the jungle landscape as testimony to this new industry. Coal fired enormous steam engines that served to pound and scrape the pencas; and the Maya people who had originally done this labor by hand were now hired to cut the leaves and feed them into the teeth of these strange roaring beasts. Toward the end of the 19th century, henequén was in such demand that hacendados purchased powerful new diesel engines, and production soared. So did fortunes, and the number of millionaires in Mérida climbed until they outnumbered those in any other world capital.

Agrarian reforms in the 1910 Mexican revolution caused the reappropriation of native lands from the Spanish landed gentry. This was the first strike dealt to the henequén industry, and haciendas were gradually abandoned. The final blow occurred when DuPont began the first commercial production of nylon in 1939, causing an immediate impact on what was left of the henequén trade. Fortunes collapsed, more haciendas were abandoned, and by the 1960s virtually all henequén production in Yucatán had ceased.

In a desperate attempt to reclaim what had been lost, hacendados sold plants and technology to foreign countries as far afield as Tanzania and Brazil. In fact, today Brazil is the world’s largest producer of sisal, shipping some 125,000 tons annually. It is not uncommon to see trucks on Merida’s highways stacked high with bales of the pale golden fiber from Brazil – now imported for commercialization into clothing or household items.

Sisal products such as placemats or runners, key chains, area rugs and hammocks are common features of living in Yucatán; they are durable and extremely resistant to insects and moisture, and add a warm touch to tropical settings.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Limestone 

One of the most beautiful features of architecture in Yucatán is that it almost always incorporates one of our most beautiful natural materials: limestone.

The entire Yucatán peninsula was formed as sedimentary deposits – over 2300 meters deep (that’s 750 stories!) – in shallow seas that covered the region throughout the Cretaceous era. During the Oligocene era, this entire slab of limestone began to be slowly lifted up out of the sea, and formed what is now the peninsula of Yucatán. This limestone is known as karst – meaning that it is porous and soluble by the waters (in fact, vast underground rivers) that pass through it. It is this geology that has formed our famous cenotes – water-filled sink holes that were sacred to the Maya. The limestone is quarried at various sites throughout the region, and for centuries it has served as platforms, plinths and sacrificial altars for holy Mayan sites, columns for regal haciendas, and massive steps for cathedrals and churches. Its popularity continues in the many restoration projects being effected in Colonia Centro. Yucatán limestone is also a favorite export material and forms the poolsides and balustrades of many homes in the United States and Europe. But nowhere is it as plentiful and affordable as it is here.

The limestone of Yucatán comes in a variety of colors and textures.

Conchuela is an off-white stone with very visible patterns of shell or coral fossils. It is excellent for outdoor paving, especially around pool decking, since like the sands of Cancun it holds virtually no heat from the rays of the sun.

 

 

 

 

 

Coquina is similar to conchuela but is finer in appearance, with smaller shell details. Not really durable enough for high traffic areas, it is wonderfully suited for carving, moldings and other sculptural elements.

 

 

 

 

 

Macedonia is in the same color range as conchuela and coquina. However, it is much finer, harder and less porous, and with its dramatic veining resembles some grades of white marble. Because of its hardness and durability it is well suited for high traffic areas.

 

 

 

  

 


Ticul has all the same characteristics as macedonia, but is a terra cotta color, ranging in tone from warm umber and gold, to orange, red or yellow. All of these limestones are available in finishes ranging from rustic, to smooth, to highly polished.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are a variety of expressive ways that stone is used in Yucatán. Stone chinks can be placed in wet stucco in decorative patterns – a technique brought from Toledo, Spain. A variation on this theme is rajuelado – stone chinks butted close together to form a highly textural surface impervious to settling and cracking.

 

 

 

 

 

And piedra labrada is simply larger pieces of rough hewn limestone frequently used in walls and walkways.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Issues – Stone is timeless, for the ages. However, for the client who has troubles with the natural variation of more rustic materials, stone may prove problemmatical. Like pasta tiles, polished stone can “blossom” with a film of mineral deposits. In highly trafficked areas, the lighter colors can become stained with fine dirt that is virtually impossible to remove. And stone in shady or damp areas outdoors can also serve as a growing ground for verdín – bright green moss or algae that can permanently stain the stone. Further, all stone is a natural material and therefore may be susceptible to color and tonal variations. Again, these characteristics will be appealing to some people, horrifying to others!


Mosaicos de pasta

Of French and Spanish origin, mosaicos de pasta – the highly decorative tiles that cover the floors of haciendas, colonial mansions in Mérida’s Colonia Centro and old factory rooms alike – were originally brought to Yucatán as ship ballast.

These tiles (also known to local masons as ladrillos) are made of colored cement, formed in molds that resemble cookie cutters, and then dried – they are not fired. Once laid, they are polished to a gleaming brilliance. Since cement has always been plentiful in Yucatán – and fine clays rare – the tiles became the sine que non for all buildings of importance during three centuries. At the turn of the 20th century, a Yucatecan entrepreneur named Rafael Quintero established the region’s first factory for producing pasta tiles. His legacy continues in operation at Materiales Traqui in the tiny pueblo of Ucu.

Nowadays produced primarily in Latin America and Morocco, the tile is such a popular export item for use in Craftsman and Spanish Revival homes in southern California that it is being sold for up to $35.00 USD per square foot not including installation. In Yucatán, prices are closer to $5.00 USD per square foot.

Issues – Since these tiles are cement and therefore porous, they “breathe” and, like walls, may also leach water up from the ground. This can cause the formation of white patches which in fact are thin films of mineral deposits. Be patient: this issue comes and goes. If it persists for more than a few months, you may wish to have your floors repolished – a good idea every two or three years anyway. Because they are buffed to a gleam, pasta tiles are not best suited for outdoor use, since when wet they can become treacherously slippery.


Wood

As Mexico's last tropical forest frontier, the Yucatan peninsula has long been a cradle of ecological diversity, with many exotic tropical hardwoods forming dense rain forests that cover thousands of square miles.

During the span of centuries, the Maya discovered the many uses of these trees: they ate the fruits they produced; they used their barks for infusions, remedies and even dyes; they learned which were the hardest and most durable and used those for construction; they burned others as firewood; and they even used the leaves of certain trees for sandpaper!

The Maya learned to live with the forests, cultivating or “encouraging” certain species that benefited them; at other times they practiced slash-and-burn methods for clearing space for their milpas, or cultivated farmland. The levels of influence that ancient farmers and their practices had on the composition of present-day tropical forests, as well as whether or not these practices were instrumental in instigating any sort of “collapse” of Mayan civilization, have been a source of debate and sometimes contention among academics for many years – and the jury is still out. Recent programs – such as the national Ferrocarriles initiative that purchases timber for railroad ties from indigenous cooperatives – have further threatened deforestation. Thankfully, it is still possible to find scores of exotic tropical wood species in Yucatán jungles, as indicated in the following list of the species used in the railroad tie program:

Bojon
Boop
Catalox
Chak ya
Chakte-kok
Chakte-viga
Chechen
Chico zapote
Chintok
Dzalam
Granadillo
Jabin
Jas che
Kaniste
Kaskat
Kulin tsis
Pasaak
Pichiche
Piim
Pucte
Sak paj
Sak yap
Siricote
Subul
Tastap
Tsitsi ya
Uayum kox
Yax ek
Yaxnik

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wrestling with the ethics of whether or not to purchase tropical hardwood for your home is not easy. The issues are complicated by many facts, including the reality that many indigenous peoples still earn an income by harvesting these woods. In fact, cutting down trees to make furniture does not in any way represent a real threat to forests – at least according to some conservationists. The real threat of deforestation comes from clearcutting to make space for increasing populations, resort areas and ranch and agribusiness lands. Many conservationists argue that creating a value for the lumber is the only way to save forest lands. The mahogany (caoba) conservation program in Quintana Roo – the state in which are located Cancun and the ceaselessly expanding Riviera Maya – is a hopeful note in what could just as easily be an ecological disaster. Instead of clearcutting for more development, this government program focuses on teaching indigenous peoples replanting techniques so that their livelihood from tropical hardwoods will continue well into the future.

Resulting from dialogs begun during the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) was established in 1993 to address the compelling question: “What is sustainable forestry?” Now headquartered in Bonn, Germany, with a chapter in Washington, DC, FSC standards represent the world’s strongest system for guiding forest management toward sustainable outcomes. These standards have now been applied in over 57 countries around the world. Many indigenous Yucatecan woods are FSC certified.

If you specify custom-designed furniture for your home, we would like for you to consider one of the many sustainable tropical hardwoods that are indigenous to the region. Not only will you appreciate the exotic beauty of the wood, but also you will be helping the environment and the indigenous peoples who earn from the stewardship of the forests.

Following are a few of the more commonly available Yucatecan woods, their characteristics, history and uses. All are available with FSC certification:


Caoba (Swietenia macrophylla)

The tree

Indigenous to tropical Mesoamerica and northern South America, broadleaf mahogany is now cultivated in many tropical regions of the world. The tree reaches 45 to 60 meters in height. The open, rounded crown has thick, rising branches and dense foliage. Whether the tree is deciduous or evergreen depends on water availability. The species grows at elevations from sea level to 1400 meters.

The fruit

The broadleaf mahogany produces a fruit containing seeds, the purpose of which is exclusively the cultivation of new trees.

The wood

Broadleaf mahogany is known worldwide for its excellent wood, which ranges in color from pale pink to deep red. It is the most valuable and extensively traded of the three American mahogany species. Valued for its uses in carpentry and furniture, it is highly resistent to parasites, such as termites, and is so water impervious that it has long been used in the manufacture of boats. The specific gravity of the wood ranges from 0.40 to 0.85, and is easy to work using hand tools. An infusion made with the bark is used by the Maya to treat diarrhea and fevers. 


Cedro (Cedrela odorata) 

The tree

Often called “Spanish cedar” in English-speaking commerce, cedro is a native of the New World tropics and is distinguished from “true cedar” or the cedrus genus. Cedro appears in forests of moist and seasonally dry subtropical or tropical zones and is always found naturally on well-drained soils. It is often – as in Yucatán – found growing on limestone. In fact, the abundance of cedro regrowth on ancient limestone ruins in areas with a strong dry season suggests that cedro may be a calciphile. The tree has long been been highly valued for its wood. On the Yucatán Peninsula, an individual mature cedro is often found outside private homes because the owners consider it a kind of “savings account” for the future. Cedro has been selectively cut for at least 250 years, both for domestic use and for export. Cutting has been so extensive in many countries throughout its native range that numbers have been reduced to the extent that in some areas it is considered threatened.

The fruit

The fruit of cedrus is not edible, but rather exists solely for reproduction. The fruit is a capsule containing many winged seeds that are spread when the fruit ripens and splits open. Prior to fruiting, the tree produces a lovely flower which is an important source of nectar and pollen for honey bees. So important is the cedro flower that the tree has been part of a reforestation program by Proyecto de Manejo de Abejas y del Bosque (PROMABOS) for the purpose of beekeeping.
 

The wood

One of the most popular and plentiful tropical woods – and therefore one of the most endangered – cedro is the most commercially important and widely distributed species in the genus. The pleasant fragrance of Cedrela odorata is the source of its botanical name. Cedro acquires its fragrance from an aromatic resin, making the wood preferred above all others for lining cigar boxes. It is excellent for use in tropical regions because it is naturally termite- and rot-resistant, making it a good choice for outdoor applications. Cedro is lightweight, is easy to work with and makes excellent plywood and veneer. Its attractive grain takes a fine polish, making it second only to mahogany in popularity. Throughout the Maya region, the bark of cedro is used as a febrifuge and tonic, and as an infusion to treat oral cankers. It has also been used as a traditional medicine for the treatment of malaria as well as diabetes.

Chakte-kok (Sickingia salvadorensis)

 

The tree

Also known as Red Heart, this hard tropical wood species grows mainly in continental tropical America, starting in the Yucatán Peninsula and extending southward to Brazil and Paraguay. Of a small to medium size, chakte-kok can reach up to 65 feet in height with a trunk diameter of 15-20". While some farming of the wood isn't sustainable, many governments are working to regulate farming and harvesting to ensure that the popular chakte-kok remains a healthy renewable resource.

The wood

When sold as timber, chakte-kok is also known by a variety of trade names including "Cuban mahogany", "Dominican mahogany", "Gateado" and "Jamaica mahogany". Its density and durability have made chakte-kok the time-tested choice of the Maya people for doors and windows in traditional home construction. The Maya also used the wood and bark to create a rich red dye, which is still produced for commercial applications. Freshly cut, chakte-kok varies in color from bright red to pink or violet with dark streaks, and darkens on exposure to light. If left unfinished, it will oxidize to a golden tan. Present-day uses include boxes, inlay, trim, and organic body jewelry such as ear spools. The sawdust from chakte-kok can irritate the sinuses.

Chechen, chechem (Metopium brownei)

The tree

Also known as Black Poison Wood and Caribbean Rosewood, the chechen tree grows up to 50 feet in height with a trunk up to 21 inches in diameter. Chechen is part of the Anacardeiaeae family, which includes cashews, poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac. The tree exudes a poisonous sap that produces irritating skin inflammations in many people, In fact, the Mayans still tell stories of poisoning the water supplies of Yucatecan soldiers with chechen during the Guerra de las Castas in the mid-1800s.

The wood

This wood is quite hard, dense, tight-grained and rot resistant, making it the preferred species for railroad tie fabrication in the region. It is also prized for its beauty, presenting a range of colors and contrasting streaks. It is often used as a substitute for Rosewood since the two are similar in coloration. With care, a beautiful, lustrous finish can be obtained making it an excellent wood for furniture. It has also found popular application in snare drums and some other musical instruments. Care must be taken when working the wood since sanding dust can cause dermatitis and respiratory problems.

Katalox (Swartzia cubensis)

The wood

The sapwood is a yellowish color with red and brown streaks, and is prized for its own beauty. The heartwood ages to a dark purple or brown, toward black. Its density and beauty have been compared to those of ebony and rosewood – both of which are threatened. Many in the music industry have turned to katalox as a replacement for threatened tropical hardwoods in musical instruments, such as fingerboards and bridges of acoustic guitars. In fact, the rock musician Sting has recently teamed with Martin Guitars to create an “ecological guitar”, with katalox as a key component. It has also recently been “discovered” as a building material in trendy eco-resorts in the Maya Riviera.
 

Granadillo (Platymiscium yucatanum) 

The tree

Granadillo is indigenous to tropical zones of Mexico. It is found in the states of Veracruz and Oaxaca, as well as in the Yucatán Peninsula states of  Tabasco, Chiapas, Quintana Roo, Campeche and Yucatán. It is frequently mixed with other majestic trees such as cedro and caoba. It can grow to 40 meters in height and features dense, dark green foliage. It flowers between February and May and fruits between May and July.
 

The wood

Often used as a substitute for the endangered Rosewood or Cocobolo, granadillo wood is an intense, deep violet to dark red to brown with frequent streaking. It is hard, dense and very heavy with a tight grain and very fine texture. It works easily, takes a fine polish and is very durable. In history it was often employed for axles of carts and wagons. Present-day uses include fine furniture and cabinetry, as well as flooring and musical instruments. Perhaps the most unusual use of the wood is in the marimba – the xylophone-type instrument that originated in Africa but that is now used widely throughout Mesoamerica, especially in Chiapas and Veracruz. For this reason, granadillo is often called la madera que canta (“wood that sings”). In traditional medicine, the root and the bark have been used to treat stomachache and snakebite.

Tzalam, dzalam (Lysiloma bahamensis)

The tree

Native to the tropical Americas and the Caribbean, tzalam is also known as Cuban or Wild Tamarind. The tree grows moderately quickly and reaches heights of up to 40 to 60 feet with a spread of 45 feet. Its slender, short trunk topped with long, arching branches forms an umbrella silhouette. The fern-like leaves are a showy red when
young and pale green when mature, making a striking contrast when new and older growth appear together.

The fruit

The small, white flowers appear in late spring as fuzzy globes and are followed by four- to six-inch-long, thin, flattened, red/brown edible seedpods that resemble tamarind. In Yucatán, the young branches and leaves of tzalam are used as one of the most popular fodders for cattle. In Haiti, the leaves are crushed and used in baths for treating skin infections.
 

The wood

The wood of tzalam is marketed as Caribbean Walnut, Mayan Walnut or Aztec Walnut. It is of medium density and is fairly fine-textured with a straight open grain and colors that range from light brown to chocolate, sometimes with streaks of red or brown. It is easy to work and takes a fairly high natural polish. Its applications include flooring, furniture and non-structural construction, such as paneling. The wood will exhibit a considerable degree of color change over time. When freshly cut, tzalam is a variegated medium to dark brown wood, which can have reddish to purplish highlights, but it will quickly soften to a more narrow range of medium brown tones, which will then continue to darken over time.

Ziricote (Cordia dodecandra)

The tree

Ziricote, a dense hardwood, is native to the New World. It grows in the wild in Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Cuba and Belize. A deciduous tree of up to 30 meters in height, the tree grows in the Yucatán Peninsula in calcium-rich soils with outcropping rocks, forming part of the tropical forest. Now cultivated, the tree is frequently used in backyards and is valued as a shade and ornamental tree in streets, parks, and gardens.
Curiously, the leaves – both green and dried – have a rough, sandpaper-like texture, and were once used to smooth and polish limestone in Mayan ritual cities. They are still used today to clean household utensils.

The fruit

In Yucatán, the ziricote tree blooms with honey-bearing flowers March through May, and fruits May through July or August. The fruits are conical in shape, 3 to 4 cm long, and orange-yellow in color when ripe. Their flesh is fragrant and bittersweet, and are eaten fresh, or turned into preserves and jams. They are also used as food for pigs.
 

The wood

The hard and resistant wood of the ziricote has multiple uses. Its trunk is used as support beams and columns in rural houses. It is also used for firewood. Due to its beautiful coloration, the wood is valued in the manufacture of furniture, handicrafts, veneer for plywood, and turned articles. It is even used as a component in the fabrication of classical guitars. Like Brazilian Rosewood, ziricote has some spiderwebbing in the grain and is heavier than most Rosewoods, more like Ebony. The bark and the wood are thought to have medicinal properties as well: the tea obtained from their infusion is used in traditional medicine to treat coughs, diarrhea, and dysentery.
 
 
 
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