The Panama Tree

Pablo A. Cuadra

To Gloria Guardia

    In the Sterculia clan, this is the oldest brother of the cacao and the

       cola tree,

gigantic kinsman of Australia’s chestnut tree, its trunk shaped like a


    and of the venerated Chinese parasol tree, beneath which

          Tu fu had his strange dream about Li Po.

In our land, it preferred calcareous and sandy earth,

and the nearby murmuring of fresh water.

Here it grew, with a trunk fortified like a heavy door,

buttressed and resisting the wind like the feet of the colossal pharaohs of


This immense green lamp lights the faces of those who gather

    beneath it with their simple lives.

You hear the muffled noise of the boat, hauled by the fishermen onto the


voices that come to life in the shadow of the great tree.

The fishermen pull the net ashore and the women

laugh, counting and sorting the fish.

The sabalo still flops around. The guapote writhes in agony.

The machaca, the guaviana, the bagre mouth the strange air.

The colorful mojarras are impaled on sharp green branches.

The scales of the gaspar fly, and blue smoke

rises. The children

scrounge for seeds from the tree and the toast them over a fire.

Then you remember the old saying: “The most beautiful

gifts from the gods are always free.”



One large, white bird carried the seed that became this tree.

One solitary and ungainly bird, coming from the sea or the moon.

Around the bonfire, people tell of the night

when Jaguar stalked the son of Gaspar as he slept between the trees’


Jaguar thought he was dead and covered him with leaves,

leaving him there so he could summon his mate for the feast.

But the compassionate tree shut the door and hid the body inside its


That’s why, when the tree eventually fell and fisherman wanted to use

    its wood,

a voice ordered him: “Don’t cut here, cut higher.”

And again the voice commanded: “Not here, cut lower.”

And the voice kept guiding him

and ordered him to dig out the trunk and hollow it with fire.

And the man slid the trunk into the water and saw how it navigated like

    the gaspar fish.

And the man had built the first canoe.


Study this tree: Sterculia apetela

             Sterculia carthaginensis.

Study the green hand of its palmate leaves with their three pronounced


Study its tiny campanulate flowers, which are yellow with purple spots,

and which smell like manure and a corral.

Study the five pale-green follicles of its fruit, open like an elegant little


and learn how to extract its five brilliant black seeds

wrapped in a yellow velvet whose bristling hairs will sting

             your fingers like nettles.

Its name is panamá, after the Nahuatl for

             apothecary or medicine store

because the Indians discovered the peanutlike taste of its toasted seeds,

    their usefulness as food and for healing,

the delicate oil that comes from grinding them,

and that the minced and boiled shell of its fruit is an effective emollient

against rheumatism and the hard blows of war.

Much later, in experiments with this fruit, scientists discovered cortisone.

                Granada, Gran Lago, 1977




Cuadra, Pablo Antonio, Greg Simon, and Steven F White. "The Panama Tree."Seven Trees against the Dying Light: a Bilingual Edition. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2007.

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