BATS, THE CHICLE TREE, CHEWING GUM and SWEET SAPODILLAS

 

I DO NOT BELIEVE THERE CAN BE ANY CONNECTION BETWEEN BATS AND CHEWING GUM.

You can believe there is a connection between bats and chewing gum. You can also believe there is a connection between bats, the wooden lintels and beams of ancient Mayan temples in Mexico and between bats and the famous Mexican president and general, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.(1)

THIS WILL HAVE TO BE A VERY GOOD EXPLANATION.

All right, here goes. The Chicle Tree grew first in Mexico and Central America. The Mayan and Aztec people who lived there thousands of years ago discovered that when you cut the bark of the tree with a machete in zigzag lines, a white liquid oozed out. When you carefully boiled that liquid in a big cauldron over a wood fire, a thick mass developed. When you pulled that mass out of the pot and kneaded it, you could form it into a block.(2) When you cut the blocks into pieces and put a small bit of the large block in your mouth, you could chew it. Chewing gum!

Seba's Short-tailed Bat
Carollia perspicillata

In order for all that to happen the Chicle Tree flowers have to bloom, be pollinated and produce fruit with fertile seeds that are planted in the ground.

Enter the bats, several different kinds. Some bats, including Seba's Short-tailed Bat and the Yellow Epauletted Bat not only drink nectar from the flowers and pollinate them; they also carry off the delicious sapodilla fruit and drop the seeds.(3)

Yellow Epauletted Bat
Sturnira lilium


WHO IS GENERAL SANTA ANNA?


In 1836 General Santa Anna led his Mexican troops against the legendary North American frontiersman, Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and 178 other men in the Battle of the Alamo in what is now the state of Texas, U.S.A. The General won that battle, but he lost the next one and he also lost his job as President of Mexico.

While in exile from his country he took a trip to the United States. In his pocket he had some pieces of chicle to chew. He met a man named Thomas Adams and shared his chicle with him. Thomas Adams thought he could make false teeth from chicle. That was a failure. But when he mixed some flavouring into the chicle, rolled it into chewing-size balls and put it up for sale, that was a BIG success. The production of chicle and the manufacture of chewing gum became major industries.(2)

Ancient Mayan temple in the company of Chicle Trees

 

MAYAN TEMPLES AND BATS?

The Chicle Tree has strong wood. It is used today for railway cross ties, flooring, carts, archer’s bows and furniture. The Mayans built fabulous temples in Mexico and they used the wood for lintels over the doors and as supporting beams in their temples hundreds of years ago. That structural Chicle Tree wood is still sound. (1)



SO WHEN I CHEW GUM NOW, I’M CHEWING BAT GUM!

Probably not, unless you are spending quite a bit of money and buying a “natural” chewing gum. The bat chewing gum boom lasted until the 1940’s. Then the discovery was made that we could all chew a petroleum chewing gum and not know the difference. It is cheaper and requires a lot less human work. The chicle has to be hand harvested from individual trees. So the market for chicle in the world collapsed.(5)

Fortunately the Chicle Tree is still highly valued for its fruit. Some of the trees can bear hundreds of fruits in a year. When the juicy fruit is ripe, it tastes like a pear. It can be picked and shipped before it is ripe, so it is a good traveller and can reach the fruit markets of the world.

Sapodilla Fruit

The chicle industry may have a revival. Some people think chewing on petroleum products may not be healthy. Some people think that we may not be able to count on having easy access to petroleum forever, for things much more important than chewing gum. Some people want to return to natural products instead of using synthetics.(5)

There is a growing market now for chewing gum made from the bat-pollinated and bat-planted Chicle Trees. These companies protect the livelihoods of thousands of chiclero farms and protect the forests where the Chicle Trees grow.(6)

Sapodilla Fruit

 

ARE THERE CHICLE TREE JOBS FOR PEOPLE?

Yes. The Chicle gum is collected from wild trees in the forest. A worker, called a chiclero may climb as high as 50 feet in a Chicle Tree to start making the zigzag cuts the releases the rubbery chicle or latex from the tree. The chicle runs down the tree and collects in containers.(2)

The Chicle Tree often grows near bat-pollinated and bat-planted allspice trees, so the chicleros may collect allspice berries as well as chicle latex in the forest to make their living.(4)

There are jobs in the promising natural chewing gum business(6) and there are also jobs collecting and marketing the delicious Sapodilla fruit.

SPECIAL NOTE: To read more about the history and processing of raw chicle, visit http://www.mexicolore.co.uk. On the home page, click on Aztecs, on the Aztec page click on Aztec Artefacts, and Strictly Tzictle on the next screen. Take time to explore more of this website, a treasurehouse of information on Mexico and the Aztecs.

 

References:

(1) Morton, Julia. 1987. Fruits of Warm Climates; Sapodilla, pages 393-398;http://www.hort.purdue.edu/newcrop/morton

(2) Herron Scott, The Economic Botany of Manilkara zapota (L.) Van Royen, Ethnobotanical Leaflets; http://www.siu.edu/~ebl/leaflets/zapota.htm

(3) New York Botanical Gardens Bat/Plant Databases http://www.nybg.org/botany/tlobova/mori/batsplants/database/dbase_main.htm

(4) Going, Going, Gum - Guatemala, October 2002; http://www.tve.org/ho/doc.cfm?aid=890

(5) Neill, Amanda, Chicle:a Sustainable Rainforest Crop, December 1997;http://www.csdl.tamu.edu/FLORA/Wilson/pp/su98/chicle.htm

(6) Chicli Project, Speakeasy Natural Gum Rainforest Chicles; http://www.aarrgghh.com/cloudninecandy/gumFlyer.htm

THE PLANT

The Chicle Tree

Order: Ebenales
Family: Sapotaceae (Chicle, Gutta-percha and Sapodilla)
Genus: Achras, Manilkara
Species: Achras zapota, Manilkara zapota

THE BATS*

Jamaican Fruit Bat (Artibeus jamaicensis)
Big Fruit Bat (Artibeus literatus)
Seba 's Short-tailed Bat (Carollia perspicillata)
Long-tongued Nectar Bat (Glossophaga soricina)
Pale Spear-nosed Bat (Phyllostomus discolor)
Yellow Epauletted Bat (Sturnira lilium)
Southern Long-nosed Bat (Leptonycteris curasae)
Greater Nectar Bat (Glossophaga longirostris)
Egyptian Rousette Bat (Rousettus aegyptiacus)

New York Botanical Gardens Bat/Plant Databases http://www.nybg.org/botany/tlobova/mori/batsplants/database/dbase_main.htm

Text and illlustrations by Mary Louise Alley-Crosby
Updated 9 March 2006

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