The national tree of Costa Rica is the Guanacaste tree, or scientifically termed as Enterolobium Cyclocarpum. It was declared as the national tree of the country on August 31, 1959. It comes from the legume family and is a large deciduous canopy tree found in tropical regions. It is also one of the most majestic trees of Costa Rica, known for its large proportions, spherical crown, and its ear shaped seed pods. In addition, the seed pods of Guanacaste resemble an elephant’s ear, and thus it is also known to be the Elephant Ear Tree in English. Very few dare to eat its seeds, let alone its leaves. But in the southern region of Mexico, they do. By cooking the immature pods as vegetables, they take advantage of their excellent nutritional and medicinal properties. It has also been discovered that their pods contain up to 41% protein, comparable to the nutritional values of beans, wheat flour and fish, in addition to containing iron, calcium and phosphorus, among other minerals. In some regions, the pods are toasted (like peanuts) and also ground to produce a coffee substitute.
Enterolobium cyclocarpum is native to Costa Rica, central Mexico to northern Brazil. This tree is known locally by its Mayan name as pich (pronounced “peach” by English speakers). It has been widely introduced throughout the tropics where it is cultivated mainly as a roadside or garden tree. In its native range, Enterolobium occurs in a wide range of different forest types from tropical, dry deciduous forest to tropical moist forest. It becomes a climax tree only in the dry forest, being restricted to disturbed areas in wetter forest types. Enterolobium cyclocarpum is a lowland species occurring from sea level to 1200 m elevation and has only very limited tolerance of frost. Other common names include Devil’s Ear and Earpod tree.
Enterolobium cyclocarpum is one of the largest trees in the dry forest formation, reaching up to 40 m in height and 3 m in diameter, with a huge, spreading crown. Older E. cyclocarpum trees develop small buttresses and produce large roots that run along the surface of the ground for 2-3 m. Sidewalks, roads, or foundations may be cracked or raised by E. cyclocarpum trees growing close by. The bipinnate compound leaves of E. cyclocarpum have 5 opposite leaflets. The small white flowers occur in compact, round heads. Seeds contained in distinctive, thickened, contorted, indehiscent pods that resemble an ear in form; seed 20 x 15 mm, ovate, compressed, dull, reddish-brown, with 100% pleurogram, marked with a yellowish band on each face, punctiform apical hilium concealed or not by whitish funicle; adult trees produce about 2000 pods, each with 10-16 seeds.
Large quantities of highly palatable and nutritious pods containing a sugary pulp are produced by the tree, and are consumed readily by livestock. The foliage is also palatable, though to a lesser extent than the pods. The wood is resistant to attack by dry-wood termites and Lyctus, and can be used in house construction as well as in interior elements, including panelling. The white sapwood is susceptible to insect attack. The wood may also be used for boat building, because of its durability in water.Tannin from the pods and bark is used in soap making. Bark extracts are used medicinally against colds and bronchitis. In addition, the gum from the bark can be used as a natural adhesive and a great substitute for glue.