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Hot on the Jocote Trail

Written by: Allison Miller
Ph.D. candidate, Washington University, St. Louis, MO
In the summer of 2001, I traveled through Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama in search of cultivated and wild jocotes (pronounced ho-CO-tays) (Spondias purpurea L.; Anacardiaceae) and other closely related species (S. mombin L. and S. radlkoferi Donn. Sm.). Jocotes are medium-sized trees native to Mexico, Central America, and northern South America. They are cultivated for their fruits, which look and taste something like a baby mango. For my dissertation research at Washington University, I am studying changes in genetic variation associated with domestication. Jocotes are an ideal system for examining the domestication process because within Spondias purpurea, several different types of domesticated populations are represented: orchards, backyard trees, living fences, and trees cultivated in forests. Jocotes also exist in wild populations, although they are rare.
Cultivated jocotes in Guatemala Cultivated jocotes in Guatemala
I went to Central America with the goal of collecting as many jocote populations as possible, in addition to multiple populations of Spondias mombin and Spondias radlkoferi. For the first eight weeks of the Central American adventure, I traveled with two undergraduates from Washington University, Anna Paschke and Erin O’Mahoney Cubbison. These students were a great help in the field: they had a real knack for spotting jocotes from afar and made beautiful herbarium specimens. In addition to assisting me with my work, Erin and Anna conducted independent study projects related to their own academic interests (architecture and anthropology/biology respectively) for which they received university credit. Erin documented the types of plants used in the construction of homes, and how people used plants to alter the space around them. Anna focused on the ethnobotany of various Spondias species. Erin and Anna’s participation in this field trip was funded by a grant from the Danforth Foundation to the biology department at Washington University.
Erin at Lago Atitalan Erin at Lago Atitalan, Guatemala
We began our trip in Guatemala City. After meeting with Analu and Chuck MacVean at the Universidad del Valle, we traveled to Antigua for a few days of intensive language school; this served as our "orientation week". Antigua was the original capital of Guatemala; the colonial city, with its cobblestone streets, four hundred year-old churches, and quiet plazas, provided a relaxing and enticing introduction to Central America. This calm orientation lasted until our fifth day in Guatemala, when 78 prisoners escaped from a maximum-security prison in Escuintla, 30 miles from Antigua. The police eventually caught twenty-five of the armed escapees. The remaining 53-armed convicts sought refuge in nearby forests. Needless to say, we avoided these areas and still managed to collect several jocote populations. We traveled west to Lago Atitlan, and then drove Rio Hondo, Puerto Barrios, El Estor, and Coban in eastern Guatemala.
Antigua, Guatemala Antigua, Guatemala
Following Guatemala, we journeyed to El Salvador for a brief but worthwhile stay. San Salvador is a lovely green city with some of the best food in Central America (pupusas (grilled masa de maiz and cheese) – mmmm!). We visited the University of El Salvador to meet with Nohemy Ventura, our primary collaborator. We continued our search for wild jocote populations with Nohemy in two national parks Bosque El Imposible and Bosque de Cinquera. At Bosque El Imposible, we found jocotes cultivated in the forest, in addition to other "native" jocotes (locally known as jocote de iguana). In a small homestead near Pueblo Caluco (Dept. Sonsonate), one family was growing four varieties (Jocote de chapin, jocote tronador, jocote de succaron, jocote turco). Back in San Salvador, while our plants were drying, we squeezed in a day trip to Costa del Sol, one of El Salvador’s finest Pacific beaches. From San Salvador, we hopped the King Quality bus for Tegucigalpa.
Spondias seedling in Santa Rosa Nat'l Park, Costa Rica Spondias seedling in Santa Rosa National Park, Costa Rica
In Honduras, we had the pleasure of working with excellent students from the University of Honduras and the Escuela Agricola Panamericana at Zamorano. We collected plants near Zamorano, Juticalpa, Comayagua, and Choluteca with various representatives from the University and Zamorano. We stumbled upon perhaps the most exciting jocotes of the summer in the mountains above Choluteca, in southern Honduras. We had meandered up a nearly impassable rocky road to a place known as El Plan del Jocotes. We drove past a school where the students were outside at recess. They ran to our car, jumped on it, and hung on or chased us on foot as we continued up to Briza del Sur, where the road ended. The students helped us locate several unusual jocote plants: the fruits were small and very acidic. Despite repeated attempts to eradicate the wild jocotes, the plants were very hardy and were still hanging on. We collected everything we could, and headed back to Tegucigalpa to dry and ship the plants before heading for Nicaragua.
Students and residents of Briza del Sur, Honduras Students and residents of Briza del Sur, Honduras
Nicaragua is the land of lakes and volcanoes – and jocotes! Pablo Pedro Moreno of Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Nicaragua in Managua met us at the Ticabus station and guided us throughout our stay. With detailed collection data from Doug Stevens and others, we were able to locate several unique jocote populations throughout the western half of the country. Near Volcán Masaya, one man was growing jocote guaturco, jocote verde dulce, jocote coser, trompa de pero, and jocote tronador outside his home. In addition, Pablo Pedro took us to his brother’s farm in the northern department of Nueva Segovia, near the Honduran border. It was there, near the town of El Jicaro, that I drove across my first large river (fortunately, it wasn’t that deep). From Nicaragua, Erin returned to St. Louis for resident assistant training at Wash U. Anna and I proceeded on to Costa Rica to continue the search for jocotes.
Jocote de iguana, El Salvador Jocote de iguana, El Salvador
In our first two hours in San Jose we saw more U.S. tourists than we had seen for the previous two months. Anna and I visited the offices of the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) and the National Institute for Biodiversity (INBio), before renting a car and cruising to Puntarenas, and up through the Nicoya Peninsula to the Area de Conservacion Guanacaste (ACG). We spent two days in the research station at Santa Rosa National Park before journeying to the capital so that Anna could return to St. Louis to start the fall semester. I stayed on in Costa Rica and traveled with Reinaldo Aguilar, the reknown INBio botanist, to the Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park. Reinaldo hosted us at his home near Rincon, where he cooked tortillas and inadvertently cooked a rat that had crawled under the stove burner and died. He tossed the dead animal on the floor – the smoking ratone provided a unique ambiance while we enjoyed our tortillas and cervezas. Once we arrived at Corcovado, Reinaldo located several populations of jobo (Spondias mombin) along the trail to Sirena Biological Station. These Spondias trees were 35 meters in height - he used his sling-shot/fishing line/rope chain saw to procure several excellent samples.
My friend Anna with a jocote seedling My friend Anna with a jocote seedling
Following Costa Rica I traveled on to Panama, my final Central American destination. I met Mary Merello at the Hotel Acapulco in Panama City. We visited the herbaria at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and the University of Panama herbarium, and made plans to collect plants at Barro Colorado Island, the Azuero Peninsula, and north into Chiriqui and Bocas del Toro. Mary and I traveled with Beatriz Wong, a student from the University of Panama for most of our trip. Panama differed from other Central American countries in that we found no evidence for any wild jocote populations. However, we encountered multiple living fences and the several cultivated varieties.
Mary Merello with Spondias at Barro Colorado Island Mary Merello with Spondias at Barro Colorado Island
All in all, the trip was a great success! We encountered wild populations, jocote living fences, jocotes cultivated in forests, in people’s yards, in small fincas, and in larger orchards. We collected leaf material from nearly 600 individuals: 418 jocote accessions (Spondias purpurea) and 154 accessions of Spondias mombin, S. radlkoferi, and S. cyatherea. We found multiple varieties of cultivated jocotes, and recorded 40 different common names for Spondias purpurea. We were able to travel largely without incident through these six countries, learning not only about jocotes but also about Central American agriculture, lifestyle, and culture. We were very fortunate to have excellent contacts and guides in every country, without whom none of this work would have been possible. However, by far the greatest joy of the trip was interacting with Central American residents and farmers. The local people were extraordinarily enthusiastic about sharing both their plants and their extensive agricultural knowledge. They contributed significantly to my research project by helping me to collect material, but more importantly, by allowing me to better understand the cultural context of jocote domestication.
Me (Allison) learning near Rio Moramulca in southern Honduras Me (Allison) learning near Rio Moramulca in southern Honduras

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