Most all of the 430,000 residents of Vallarta are familiar with the Burseraceae family, however the majority of visitors to the area are oblivious to their existence.
The oldest lineage of the Burseraceae family has resided in the tropical dry forests of Western Mexico for over 30 million years and can been traced back to the Oligocene and Miocene eras during which time the Sierra Madre Occidental and Neovolcanic ranges were being formed. Over millions of years, this majestic family of trees has evolved into at least two groups; the Bullockia genus and the Bursera genus. The Bursera genus in turn has evolved into as many as 80 unique species which represent only a small fraction of the more than 1,200 plant species that thrive in the rich Jalisco tropical dry forests that lie between the Mexican Riviera along the Pacific Ocean coastline and the western side of the Sierra Madres. These 80 unique species have been separated into four groups with the Simaruba group being the most dominant in the Puerto Vallarta area.
Because the Bursera Simaruba trees have the distinct characteristics of succulent trunks, gnarly twisting branches, and spectacular brightly colored bark that exfoliates as reddish brown papery sheets or flakes, they are often referred to as “tourist trees” or “naked Indian trees”. In fact, the Aztecs called them Cuajiote trees, which in their vernacular meant “leprous trees”. Today’s common name for this endangered Mexican specie is the Papelillo or “paper tree”. In other parts of the tropical Americas, they’re referred to as Gumbo-Limbo trees.
These trees have been the source for various medicines for many centuries. The Maya first used the bark and resins to produce incense. Later, the American Indians concocted tannin rich potions by boiling Papelillo bark with leaves, making a tea to treat gastritis, colitis, and ulcers. They also produced balms and salves to relieve inflammation from sprains, muscle aches, gout, and various skin irritations. It is still used topically as a contraceptive by women in certain remote areas of Central America!
Okay, now that we know a little about the Papelillo or tourist trees, let’s consider their current importance in the region. First, it should be known that not only are they majestic in appearance, rising to as high as 100 feet and having quite oddly shaped and abruptly twisting branches, but their berries provide critical nourishment for migratory birds coming from the U.S. and Canada. Additionally the resin from the trees is used for making varnish and turpentine, and has also been used as cement for ivory, glass, and porcelain.
To most of us, the Papelillo trees are just amazing to look at. We are fortunate to have a huge Papelillo tree on our property that climbs and twists approximately 80 feet into the air; a haven for parrots and all kinds of colorful tropical birds that live in the Vallarta area. When guests visit our house, their first comments are of the spectacular 180° view of Banderas Bay and the city below, but then they seem to zero in on the majestic Papelillo tree. The size, shape, and color of this miracle of nature are truly something to behold.
Puerto Vallarta’s climate, being sub humid and averaging 73°F for the seven month “high season” of November through May, is ideal for the tropical dry forest vegetation seen in the region. Soils are rich from volcanic rocks and being on hillsides, generally drain quite rapidly during the rainy season. The local mountainside forests surrounding Puerto Vallarta are considered to be among the richest tropical dry forests in the world.
To Vallarta’s visitors, the lush Sierra Madres offer a wealth of magnificent landscape to view in contrast with the Pacific Ocean shoreline. To residents, they offer some of the world’s best home sites with panoramic vistas of the hillside jungle meeting the Banderas Bay. The flora and fauna in these tropical forests are among the most diverse and colorful that you’ll find anywhere in the world.
In summarizing, the next time you visit Paradise, take a little time out to explore the surrounding jungles. There are dedicated jungle safaris that provide you close-up and personal visits inside these rare and beautiful forests with their wide array of tropical plants, palms, flowers, colorful birds, and unusual wildlife. Oh, and when you visit Vallarta, wear plenty of suntan lotion; we don’t want you to return home looking like a Papelillo tree!