Maya Nut forest in Jamaica. 95% of the stems in this photo are Maya Nut! Erika Vohman

What Is Maya Nut?

Maya Nut is the seed of a huge tropical rainforest tree, Brosimum alicastrum, in the fig family (Moraceae). It was the staple food for prehispanic cultures throughout the neotropics, who probably ate it boiled and protected it because it attracted their favorite game species (deer, wild pigs, tapir). Maya Nut was one of the most common tree species in the neotropics, ranging from central Mexico to northern Brazil. In some sites, such as the Pacific coasts of Mexico and Central America, and almost all of Jamaica and Cuba, Maya Nut was the dominant species in vast tracts of forest covering huge swaths of land from the mountains to the lowlands. These were important “food forests” for hunter-gatherers and hundreds of species of birds and mammals.

We estimate that only 5% of the original Maya Nut forest cover remains. What remains of the Maya Nut forests is critically important for biodiversity, water quality and supplies and as a source of nutritious, climate-change resistant food for humans. In Central America and Mexico, Maya Nut forests provide the last refuges for Jaguars and Ocelots, whose prey depends on Maya Nut seeds for food. For humans also, Maya Nut retains an important role as seen in recent history when thousands of villages survived drought, war and famine by eating Maya Nut when no other food was available. It is truly a “lifesaving” tree.

Farmers burning Maya Nut forest to plant corn in Peten, Guatemala. Erika Vohman photo

Food, Fodder and Ecosystem

Today, however, the food value of the Maya Nut is largely forgotten and rural people cut it for fuel and to plant corn and other annual crops. Free ranging cattle voraciously devour Maya Nut seedlings, creating “standing dead” forests with no young trees to replace the older trees as they die. For these reasons Maya Nut is locally extinct in many areas, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to find healthy Maya Nut forests in Latin America. Loss of these forests jeopardizes the wellbeing of human and wildlife communities by loss of valuable ecosystem services, food and habitat.

Maya Nut Institute works to rescue the lost indigenous knowledge about the Maya Nut for food, fodder and ecosystem services in rural communities throughout the historic range of the Maya Nut tree.

“My grandparents ate Maya Nut, they told me about it, but they never cooked it for me. I never had it until you came and taught us recipes. Im really glad to know about it, its really good food, really nutritious..” – Lucia Rodriguez de Flores, Guatemala

“We had a drought here that lasted 7 years. The corn just withered and died. Even the platanos (bananas) dried up and did not produce. We went to the forests and gathered Maya Nut and we ate that, some weeks it was all we had, just boiled Maya Nut and maybe some corn. Without Maya Nut we all would have died.” Jose Lira, Cosiguina Nicaragua

“During the war my father couldn’t plant the corn or anything. He couldnt even go outside, none of us could, it was too dangerous. My grandmother went out at night and collected Maya Nut seed from beneath the big trees by the river. We had to eat them raw because a fire was not possible. We survived almost a month on the Maya Nut and other things my grandmother scavenged at night. She saved our lives, Maya Nut saved our lives.” Elvia Sanchez, Morazan, El Salvador