The Mesoamerican Christmas tree: Pinabete (Abies guatemalensis Rehder.)
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The Mesoamerican Christmas tree: Pinabete (Abies guatemalensis Rehder.)

Abies guatemalensis Rehder is a species of pine (family Pinaceae) that commonly receives the name of Pinabete, Romerillo, or Pinabete of Guatemala; In Mayan languages, ​​it is known as Pashaque, Tz’in chaj, Pajchac, and Paqtxaq (INAB & MARN, 2017; INAB, 2019).

Its natural distribution includes México (Jalisco), Guatemala, El Salvador and part of Honduras (Lempira). In Guatemala it is possible to find it in humid forests of altitude in the departments of Totonicapán, Huehuetenango, Quiché, Quetzaltenango, San Marcos, Jalapa, Chimaltenango, Chiquimula and Zacapa (INAB & MARN, 2017; INAB, 2019).

Botanical description

It is a fairly tall tree that can grow up to 50 m in height and its stem measures up to 4 m in diameter at chest height. The crown is pyramidal, in young trees regularly and more flattened in adults with a whorled arrangement (segments of several branches at the same height on the trunk). The bark in young trees is gray and smooth; in adults brown, furrowed, and split into shallow plates. In old trees, resinous buds 5 mm long can be observed. They are acicular in shape, 15 to 55 mm long and 1 to 2 mm wide, they are lustrous green on the upper surface and white to greyish on the underside. They are rigid and are inserted in two comb-shaped rows, on the twigs. The cones or “fruits”, botanically called strobili, are unisexual. The female ones are 85 to 130 mm long and 45 to 50 mm wide, red to purple in color, and cylindrical in shape. The males are 15 to 22 mm long and 27 to 30 mm wide, blue in color, oval in shape, and have squamiform leaves. They are characterized by falling apart disintegrating when opened (INAB & MARN, 2017; INAB, 2019).

Source: Herbario UVAL, Guatemala.

The problem in Guatemala

This species is used for ornamental purposes, its beauty and characteristic aroma are the main reasons why it is highly valued for the Christmas season. Its foliage is used as decoration, mainly for births, while the young trees are used as Christmas decoration trees. Due to its high demand, its commercialization and illegal logging put this species in danger of extinction, as of 1979 it was included in appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora -CITES-, at the be considered a species in danger of extinction and therefore its protection was ordered (CONAP,2019).

In 2008, CONAP carried out a diagnosis for the National Strategy for the Conservation of Pinabete, where it was estimated that Guatemala has an area of ​​27,548.29 hectares of Pinabete forest in 94 sites, 50% of the forest is within the Guatemalan System of Protected Areas –SIGAP-, its natural distribution is located from 2,400 to 3,500 meters above sea level (masl) in the aforementioned departments. One of the measures taken as part of the Strategy has been the establishment of controlled plantations of Pinabete so that people can continue to acquire their Christmas trees in a legal, conscious, and less damaging way for the forest; That is why it is very important not to buy small trees or decorations that do not come from these plantations (CONAP, 2019).

In 2019, this strategy was updated in order to reinforce the conservation of the species and the degraded areas to be recovered and restored, through monitoring and control of their illegal trade. Approximately 2,500 people from different institutions, NGOs, municipalities, and civil society were involved in these activities (CONAP, 2019).

Photo by Victor Mendoza, (Abies guatemalensis) Pinabete. (January, 2019)

Interview to María René Álvarez

Degree in Biology graduated from the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala. In charge of the Tissue Culture Laboratory of the UVG Plant Protection laboratories from 2008 to 2012. Coordinator of the laboratories of the Department of Biology (UVG) from 2008 to 2014. Botanical consultant for environmental impact and taxonomy studies. Researcher in projects related to botany, ethnobotany, and Forest ecology. Curator and Researcher of the UVAL Herbarium of the Center for Environmental Studies and Biodiversity (CEAB) of the UVG since 2015. Professor in the Department of Biology, since 2008, Botany 1 and 2, Ethnobiology, Forest Ecology, Life Sciences, among others.

We have found different varieties of the species, could you explain the differences to us?

  • Varieties are not approved on either or By now, two species are taken into account, Abies guatemalensis and Abies religiosa, the second is found in México. Regarding these 2 species, there is still much to discuss, since it has not been confirmed if they are truly different species or are varieties of the same one. A. guatemalensis has a stronger odor and its leaves fall apart less, unlike A. religious, so the differences are very subtle to determine with the naked eye, a genetic study is necessary to form a conclusion. INAB, the Instituto Nacional de Bosques, is interested in carrying out a long-term study to verify if they are two different species. This would be very interesting because if A. guatemalensis is a real species, it would be endemic to the area where it is currently distributed, which includes the Huehuetenango, Totonicapán, San Marcos, Quetzaltenango departments and the tips of the peaks of some eastern departments such as Jalapa, Zacapa, and Chiquimula. It can also be found in areas of Honduras, El Salvador, and Jalisco, México. In other words, it would be an endemic species from North Mesoamerica. If it turns out that the same species are varieties, their distribution area would be extended.

Where can we find the natural forests of Pinabete?

  • Many natural populations have already disappeared due to logging, in addition to climate change because arid areas are expanding and the Pinabetes need a fairly cold and humid habitat to grow.
  • Natural forests can be found in the eastern and western peaks, mainly in communal reserves. Some communities are protecting them, but they are very remote areas where people do not reach them. These forests can be found in the Cuchumatanes, in the departments of Huehuetenango, San Marcos, and Totonicapán. In San Marcos there are very well preserved reserves and it is even possible to find Pinabete in ravines.

How does the marketing of Pinabete affect its conservation? Is it worth buying Christmas trees?

  • The Pinabete crops are very well managed, they started from scratch, because before there was no forest there. For the Christmas trees they cut the shoots, that is, they are not cutting the real trees, so it is less invasive and better controlled. It is more sustainable to buy pine trees with a mark because they are certified by the INAB, it is not advisable to buy trees that do not have the mark because we would be contributing to illegal traffic and the destruction of their habitat.
  • On the other hand, when the twigs are cut for ornamentation, the reproduction of the species is being altered; As in all Pinnacea, the male cones are at the tips and these contain the pollen, while the female cones are distributed in the center of the tree. This means that when they grab the branches from the top (because they smell more, they are greener, they are more beautiful) they prevent the pollen from reaching the female cones, affecting their reproduction.

Do you know any interesting facts that we can learn about the Pinabete?

  • Something very interesting is that its smell is a defense mechanism, probably for pests, since it only comes off when the foliage is touched. The difficulty in conducting research is that the trees are very tall and you would have to climb to the tops to do the studies.
  • There are some reforestation efforts for Pinabete, but it has been very difficult because they need other mother trees, that is, trees that grow faster and provide the necessary conditions for slow-growing trees, in this case, the Pinabete. In San Marcos they had been using Arrayan as a nurse tree.
  • They have found an alga (biofilm) in Pinabete that has wreaked havoc on plantations and even natural forests. This algae covers the leaves and does not allow them to photosynthesize correctly, which has caused their death. Its leaves turn yellow and die.
  • The Pinabete is quite tall, in its natural habitat it can reach up to 45 meters.
  • The genus Abies is distributed in the northern hemisphere, so the incredible pine forests that we find in Canada or the United States include species of this genus.


National Strategy for the Conservation of Pinabete

Written by: Vivian Hurtado, 2021


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