Mayan themes for education

Books to help the world learn where international flowers and specific edible food really originated

Poinsettia flowers

Every supermarket has entire areas of poinsettia flowers every Christmas. The origin is from northern Mexico. But there are also wild poinsettia flowers in ravines and remote areas of the Highlands of Guatemala. I bet over 80% of people who buy poinsettia flowers have no idea where it comes from and even in Guatemala not many people realize it is also native here.

Keep in mind the bright red “petals” are really red bracts: the actual flowers are the tiny yellow things barely visible in the middle.


We assume our avocados come from California. Sorry, there are more species and relatives in north-central Baja Verapaz bordering on adjacent Alta Verapaz. Avocados are native to Guatemala (and of course to Mexico and elsewhere). So it will help kids in the USA understand the original of what they eat. And also the children in Guatemala.


Cacao is wild in may parts of the Amazon plus parts of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. But there the people eat the soft white tasty pulp: in Honduras multi-thousand years ago the local people were drinking chocolate-like concoctions made from the seeds. So were the Olmec, Maya, and the infamous Aztec emperor. The cocoa you buy today is from seeds grown in Africa but the origin is Soconusco in Chiapas, adjacent Costa Sur in Guatemala, adjacent El Salvador and Honduras on the Caribbean Sea side. Since most people around the world eat or drink chocolate it helps all of us learn the origins of the trees by writing an educational book for children.

Sophie Coe is known for her book on all the foods of the Aztecs, Maya, and Incas. James (Jim) O’Kon has recently produced a book on native plants of the Maya which are eaten around the world. Both books are worth buying.

Wheat does not come from the Americas nor Europe; potatoes come from Peru (not from Ireland). Let’s learn all the tasty, healthy foods eaten in EU, Middle East, Africa, Canada and USA that comes from Mexico and Guatemala. These local Mesoamerica foods kept the Olmec, Teotihuacan, Toltec, Mixtec, Zapotec, Aztec, and Maya people for thousands of years.

Books to help improve the health of everyone: in Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras and the rest of the world

If you eat grains, green leaves, roots instead of salt-filled, sugar-filled junk food, your health will be improved noticeably. We at FLAAR (USA) and FLAAR Mesoamerica (Guatemala) have been working on making lists of every single edible flower, stem, stalk, root, fruit, nut, vegetable of trees, bushes, vines and other plants of Guatemala.

Every month we find another native fruit or edible plant that is missing from books on Mayan agriculture, food, etc. So our series of publications: FLAAR reports for scholars, students, and interested lay people, and MayanToons for children, have the results of studies from our entire team.

SuperFoods: help health of Maya, Xinca, Garifuna and the entire world

Quinoa is the superfood of the Inca civilization of Peru. Amaranth is the superfood of the Aztecs of Mexico. Whoa… it turns out there are many many species of amaranth native also to Guatemala. Plus, the fresh leaves of amaranth (locally called bledo) are also a superfood (I eat amaranth seed (called grain but it is a seed) every day for breakfast. I eat bledo for lunch or dinner.

We have worked this entire decade to make a list of all edible plants of Guatemala. When we head to Lake Yaxha this weekend, we will begin to make a list of which edible plants grow in this area (of Peten, to the east of Tikal).

I love cookies, cake, and chips. Yuum yummy. But now that I know they are sugar+salt+enticement chemicals (to trick your brain and senses into desiring this junk food), I prefer to eat more leaves, roots (camote (sweet potato) is super healthy and is a native root crop). Plus lots of flowers are edible. And our guides in the rain forests show us all the vines, bushes, and other plants which have tasty edible parts. Our goal is to help everyone know that healthy food is also available.

So books on every major species of tree, flower, plant (especially edible or utilitarian plants of Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras)

We also work on useful plants: for example, around the world the tonnage of plastic garbage is staggering. The ancient Maya and Aztec had no plastic. So how did they wrap everything?

So we go out to the remote villages and we study how things are wrapped where the grandmothers are seated selling their products in the traditional markets.

Once we learn what is used (mainly giant leaves of heliconia and mashan (maxán) plants), we bring these plants back to grow them in our FLAAR Mayan Ethnobotanical Research Garden. So now our illustrators, animators, and graphic designers have the plants in front of them to do their books for kids and their animated videos.

We are working on making a list of every usable plant: which makes soap, which provides material with which to weave baskets, and which tree provides a fruit large enough, and hard enough, to serve as a plate or bowl (instead of plastic). You just scoop out the seeds, cut the large fruit in half, and it dries to a hard bowl permanently. When we go to remote villages, when the local people offer us cacao drink from their local trees, the beverage is served in the same identical bowls that the Maya used 2000 years ago (yes, of course the Maya royalty had ceramic plates, bowls, and cups; but the poor people out in the mountains used bowls made from tree fruits of Crescentia species trees.

So we have lots of first-hand information to put into our MayanToons books and eventual animated educational ideos.

Books on all the fascinating friendly insects: Butterflies, Moths, Beetles

As a child of course I liked lady bugs (only now as a researcher do I realize the carnivorous habits of these “cute insects”). But lots of other beetles are pollinators, as are of course butterflies and moths.

Turns out there are more moth species than butterfly species and many moths are of incredible colors and body structure. In the coming weeks while we are at Yaxha we will be working on studying moths and beetles, and of course cute butterflies.

Books to teach about pollinators (for kids, parents, grandparents)

Bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds are the most commonly known pollinators. But we have found grasshoppers wandering around in the stamens and checking out the anthers (so at least an accidental pollinator; we need more research on these grasshoppers that wander around the Ipomoea alba flowers within 30 minutes after they burst open).

Bats are also pollinators around the world; in Guatemala there are endless variety, size, and kind of bats that love to suck nectar, especially of the flowers of the national tree, Ceiba pentandra. So lots to write books on: for children, and high quality photo style for parents and grandparents.

Our goal is to make a list of every insect, and every mammal (more than just bats) and every bird that is a pollinator (more than just hummingbirds). The plants and their pollinators should be protected, so lets start by educating a new generation.

Books to help children learn not to kill animals, trees, insects, etc.

In one village the kids were stoning to death a snapping turtle since they said it was “venomous.” I explained that the bite gets infected because they don’t clean it properly. And the turtle would not bite if not teased by the kids.

In another village the people were about to hack a tarantula to instant death with a machete. I asked them to wait; I put down my hand, the tarantula tested my fingers to see whether I was dangerous, and then jumped into my palm (and then climbed up my arm).

So I was able to explain to the local people that tarantulas do not attack unless humans threaten then.

We also wish to explain not to knock down wasp nests because many wasps are pollinators. I have years of experience living close to wasp nests and never ever, not once was I stung, because I did not attack the wasps. They learned this. I would like to produce books that list all the helpful insects to suggest that we live in peace with them. If the flowers of a tree or bush are not pollinated, no seeds will be produced.

Books on Birds: incredible nest builders (and pollinators)

Since the Hellmuth family has been architects for multiple generations, I dutifully started studying Architectural Science when at Harvard. So I am interested in the “architecture” and engineering of the meter-high (sometimes over 36 inch high) pendant nests that hang from giant Ceiba trees throughout Guatemala, Honduras and elsewhere. So we study oropendola, cacique, and orioles that build nests (we study any bird species that is able to engineer and construct a nest over 15 inches high). So we go out in the forests and fields to study each species. All this is then used to write books to inspire children to learn about birds, especially pollinators (the nest building birds are also pollinators since they like to sip sugary nectar).

Books on Waterbirds, Birds of Prey, Vultures

Millions of people around the world like to look at and learn about birds. Guatemala has an amazing variety of size, shape, and color of birds. Although most people prefer cute hummingbirds, awesome eagles, and agile waterbirds, I also like to look for the king vulture. In 54+ years I have never seen a king vulture in the wild. Recently Tecco at Yaxha told us that on occasion you can see king vultures there. I really look forward to this experience.

So birds of all sizes, shapes, and lifestyles will be featured in our MayanToons educated books. The Brazilian Blue macaws in the movie Rio and Rio II are good examples; we have the experience, knowledge, and inspiration to have our Mayan characters become as well known internationally.

Books to learn ethical values and family values

Violence is featured on TV, in movies, and in animated games. No surprise that Chicago and cities elsewhere in the Americas have violence. We at FLAAR Mesoamerica feel that books and animated videos should support family values, ethical values and motivate kindness and cooperation. Plus we suggest inspiration and motivation to move forward in life.

Books to learn to protect fragile eco-systems

It helps to have books for children on how to protect the endangered species and the fragile eco-systems. Nowadays it is recognized that children often teach their parents!

In 1970-1974 FLAAR worked with FYDEP (the agency which in those years was in charge of Peten area) and the US Park’s service to have Lake Yaxha and Lake Sacnab are declared a national park for Guatemala. The park was indeed declared during our final season at Yaxha. A dozen years later other individuals and other associactions nudged the government to add Naranjo. So today’s park, Yaxha Nakum Naranjo, is dated to circa 1993, but the original southwestern core area of this park was circa 1974. So we have experience protecting eco-systems.

Books as precursor to animated video

Nowadays children learn as much from animated video as from books. So our capable team of university trained animators are doing Learning ABC’s videos and videos for learning about the remarkable native animals in Peten seasonal rain forests.

As soon as we find an animation company or a university animation department that wishes to partner with us, our storyboards can be used to have animated video series viewed worldwide.

Adventures in the rain forests

It is an adventure to be in a Neotropical rain forest or any of the diverse eco-systems of Peten, Alta Verapaz and the areas around here: Chiapas and Tabasco to the west, Campeche and Quintana Roo to the north, Belize to the east, Honduras and El Salvador to the southeast. Since Dr Nicholas has lived in remote areas of Peten for six years and led groups of professors and interested lay people during the 1970’s into 1990’s, he is an appropriate author to create storyboards for children.

People around the world have asked Dr Nicholas to write his autobiography: he now has segments of this initiated for a potential future animated movie or movie with actors.

First posted August 2018.