Sunday, January 22, 2012

Tajonal, The Secret Mayan Plant

We have traveled extensively in the Yucatan and as a botanist I'm always interested in local uses and cultural depictions of plants. One of the plants that really interests me is tajonal, the secret plant of the Mayans.

The tajonal plant covers the roadsides and empty fields all over the Yucatan. A large shrub covered with bright yellow flowers, it might be nothing more than pretty if it didn't have so much cultural significance.

The Pre-Conquest Mayans used two species of stingless bees to produce honey for them. The honey was important as a food, medication, and for religious sacrifice. Contemporary Mayan people still gather honey from these semi-domesticated bees.

Tajonal plants are abuzz with bees during the flowering season. These same bees are the descendants of the species used for thousands of years by the Mayans.

When you travel to archeological sites in the Yucatan you can see evidence of the value tajonal had to the ancient Mayans.

The design was picked up and used in colonial structures such as churches...

...and it was adopted in the 20th century in modernist designs like this:

I'm still looking for a photo I took of Tajonal shampoo that I bought in Carillo Puerto, but I can't seem to find it in my over 1500 flickr photos from Mexico!


  1. I would have to agree that this is a beautiful flower. I really like the bright yellow colour that it has it makes it really stand out. Looking at the plant up close I noticed that in the center there are small little flowers growing as well. I found that so interesting because I have never seen that before. I also found that the plants growing on the side of the road was interesting. Such a beautiful plant so close to cars and the gases they give off. I also wonder why this plant is such a secret to the people in Yucatan. It doesn't seem like its such a secret because it seems like it is such a popular plant. I am curious to know why it is such a secret. Well this is a beautiful flower and it was cool how it was depicted by so cultures. I enjoyed learning about this flower it's very interesting.

  2. I'm wondering if it is secret, or if "forgotten" might be a better descriptor. I couldn't find much online about tajonal, but I did find an entry at that links tajonal to a revival of beekeeping and production of honey and honey-based products in the Yucatan. Entrepreneurial women are finding ways to support themselves by reviving a traditional industry that until recently become unprofitable: "With the support of the United Nations Foundation and our dedicated partners at every stage, members of the Mayan community like Lizbeth are reviving traditional activities such as beekeeping and creating sustainable livelihoods for themselves and their families. Through ongoing training, the women of Flor de Tajonal have learned new techniques to certify their products as organic; created honey-based soaps, candies, and other cosmetic and medicinal products to maximize each hive’s productivity; and discovered innovative ways to make their products viable in the consumer market." Very cool to see sustainability, conservation, tradition, economic independence, and interesting organic products linked to this beautiful little flower.

  3. I think it's really interesting that the tajonal is depicted on colonial structures. Thanks for sharing these pictures.

  4. I really think that this flower is nice and interesting. I think it’s great that we are able to see plants now that have influenced people’s lives, and helped them in ways to cure issues that they might have. I also think that it’s interesting how this plant is in a lot of locations but no one really “knows” about it. Why is this plant something that no one wants to talk about when asked about it? If it’s such a great plant then people should be raving about it…right?

  5. It is interesting that this flower would be a secret. Do you know if it is called by any other name? It was hard to find any other information about the Tajonal flower on the internet. I was curious to see if it grew anywhere else other than the Yucatan. Does it have any relation to Coreopsis?

    I never heard of stingless bees before. What do they use for a defense mechanism? Do they have any advantages over standard honeybees besides the obvious?

  6. The integration of plant forms into architecture has a rich history going back to the papyrus columns in Egypt.

    Frank Lloyd Wright was thought to also have been influenced by the architecture of the Mayans.

  7. I've never really connected culture with plants, that's an interesting thought. I can see the correlation between the plant and the Mayan built environment whether decorative or in a symbolic gesture. I don't think I would've noticed the plant from just looking at the overall view of the landscape image. It's amazing how subtle plants can be.