Activities > Trees and Shrubs common or native to the Costa Maya


Native to the lowland tropics of South America, Papaya is now cultivated world- wide. Mayan Beach Garden has several of them on the property and you will find trees growing along the side of the roads everywhere, many towering over shorter jungle trees.

The tree grows easily from seed and reaches 20 - 30 feet quickly. The fruit can grow to be huge, dangling from the main trunk. Although the size of the fruit seems to be directly related to the amount of water it receives early in the process. Mexican papayas produce fruits weighing up to 10 lbs (4.5 kg), on much larger plants. The fruit on my wild Papaya tree was light orange, while most of the ones you purchase in the stores are much darker and reddish in color. The taste is different depending on the variety you plant.

papaya flower

Like avocados, Papayas will ripen off the tree at room temperature. Here in the Yucatan, they score the skin to speed up the ripening process. They never chill papayas until they are completely ripe. The young leaves are sometimes eaten like spinach, although I've never tried it. The unripe papaya fruit and the leaves are the source of papain, an enzyme that digests protein and that is used as a dietary supplement to aid in digestion. Papain is used as a meat tenderizer, to clarify beer, in the processing of natural silk and to give shrink resistance to wool. Who would have guessed! And it grows in the sand!

Papaya tree

Species: Carica papaya
Common Names: papaya, papaw, fruta bomba, lechosa, melon tree
Family: Acanthaceae (acanthus Family)

Papaya requires a male and female plant. Its pretty easy to tell the difference. The male has lots of small white flowers on stems while the female has large flowers along the trunk. They like plenty of sun and the fruit is sweater when grown in the sun. The Papaya plant is short lived - only producing large fruits for one year, and thereafter only small fruits.

papaya fruit

DESPEINADA PALM (Beaucarnea ameliae)

This spectacular looking palm is native to the Yucatan, but you may not see it around very much. It is a protected species and illegal to cut down or remove. It resembles a Ponytail palm that you may have seen in tropical nurseries. It is found in the Forests around Bacalar and around the lagoons in the Costa Maya and Yucatan peninsula.

It's name is ts’ipil or Dzipil in Mayan.


Sea grape is highly tolerant of salt spray and salty soils as well as strong sun and wind. It is often planted as a windbreak near beaches and as a hedge or barrier around shopping centers and parking lots. Sea grape makes a fine shade tree - we have it planted in the center of Mayan Beach Garden and it supplies a great shady spot.

You won't see too many of these unless you live in a tropical area because the tree is unable to survive frost. However, it is moderately tolerant of shade, and highly tolerant of salt, so it is often planted to stabilize beach edges and prevent erosion; it is also planted as an ornamental shrub. The fruit can be used for jam or "seaside wine) and it attracts fruit loving birds.


Known as Uva de Playa in Spanish (Uva meaning grape and Playa meaning beach, it is literally "grape of the sea." They are very hardy, can get quite tall and make great shade. You may not recognize it, however. It is a sprawling bush or small tree that is found near sea beaches throughout tropical America and the Caribbean, including southern Florida. It reaches a maximum height of 8 meters (24 feet), but most specimens are little more than 2 meters tall. It has large, round, leathery leaves with a primary vein that has a red color extending from the base, and the entire leaf turns red as it gets ready to drop from the tree. The bark is smooth and light colored. In late summer it bears purplish fruit, about 2 cm in diameter, in large grape-like clusters.

The fruit itself is grape like although a bit tougher than the ordinary grape and it has one large seed as opposed to several small ones. They remain green and hard for a long time but eventually one by one they change to their mature deep purple color. They hang in bunches, each one with a single seed, and are about the size of regular grapes. When fully mature, they become soft and have a sweet-sour taste making them great for use in jams and jellies. It is possible to make an alcoholic beverage made from the grapes, similar to wine

The large tree in the center of Mayan Beach Garden cabanas is a Sea Grape. In the dry months it sheds many of its leaves, as shown above, but in the rainy months it is full and lush.

Sea Grape Vinaigrette :
1/2 cup Pitted Sea Grapes or Red Seedless Grapes
1 cup Seasoned Rice Vinegar
1/4 cup Bottled Water
1/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 tblsp Raw Sugar
Salt and Fresh Ground Pepper To Taste
Combine all ingredients in a blender. Blend well and refrigerate. Take out of fridge 30 minutes prior to use so it will temper.

Sea Grape Recipes

Sea Grape Jelly from Gourmet Bahamian Cooking.
1 quart sea grape juice
5 tablespoons lemon or lime juice
1 package powdered pectin
5 cups sugar
To prepare juice: Wash sea grapes and measure. Put in fairly large, wide pot with half as much water (1 cup water to 2 cups sea grapes). Bring to a boil. Mash often with a potato masher and continue boiling until fruit is reduced to a soft pulp (about 25 to 30 minutes). Drain through a jelly bag or several layers of cheesecloth. Do not squeeze.
Place one quart juice in a wide kettle. Turn heat high and add lemon or lime juice and pectin. Bring mixture to a rolling boil. Stir in sugar and return to a rolling boil. Boil hard for 1 minute, stirring constantly. Remove from heat. Skim foam if necessary. Pour hot into hot, sterilized jars, leaving 1/4-inch head space. Adjust caps. Process 5 minutes in boiling water bath.

CHIT PALMS(Thrinax radiata)
Native to the state of Florida and Yucatan Coastal areas, Chit palms are also know as Thatch Palms in Florida, Wu ding zong in China and Jamaican Thatch on the Caribbean islands. These palms are found up and down the Costa Maya and are utilized for the construction of palm huts. They take 145 years to reach cutting age. Due to the uncontrolled tourist development of Quintana Roo, overpopulation on the northern coast has occurred which consequently creates a high demand of this dwindling species, thus its threatened status. It is protected by SEMARNAT, Mexico's environmental protection agency and illegal to cut without a permit.

Mayan Beach Garden has many Chit palms scattered about the grounds. Many were there natively and others have been grown from seed (below).

Listed as Threatened Plants in the Preservation of Native Flora of Florida Act Thrinax radiata are in imminent danger of extinction within the state, the survival of which is unlikely if the causes of a decline in the number of plants continue.

The natural Jungles here on the Costa Maya and around Mayan Beach Garden are thick with Chit Palms, especially north of Mayan Beach Garden - they are somewhat like a weed. Because they are plentiful, I think that many people carelessly cut them down without realizing their value as a species.

Noni - (Morinda citrifolia)-- Commonly found along sandy beach roads along the Costa Maya, especially in the Southern part of the Sian Ka'an. Noni is one of those natural wonder plant from Polynesia that has hundreds of healing properties including, colon and breast cancer, arthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure, muscle aches and pains, menstrual difficulties, headaches both mild and severe, heart disease, AIDS, gastric ulcers, sprains, mental depression, senility, poor digestion, atherosclerosis, blood vessel problems, drug addiction and more! It isn't damaged by salt water and has become acclimatized to the Costa Maya, even though it may not be a pure native. Apart from saline conditions, the plant also can withstand drought and grows in secondary soils- hence it's ability to grow in sand. Even though it grows wild along the beach, Noni fruit goes for 200 pesos a kilo (2.2 US pounds) in Chetumal

Ripening Noni fruit held by a Mayan Healer who uses it to cure everything from stomach ailments to diabetes. (Mayan Doctor pictured below left)

Che Chen (Metopium, browneii) is one of the most common trees found up and down the Costa Maya in undeveloped lots (Chechem in Mayan). Hopefully you you won't brush up against this member of the Anacardiaceae family of plants that include poison ivy, sumac, mangoes and cashews. This family of plants may be one of the most common causes of contact dermatitis in man. If you are sensitive to Mangos, it may be an indication that you are VERY sensitive to Che Chen If you click on one of the images, they link to larger pictures. I think it is worthwhile learning about this tree as it has a lot of useful traits as well.

Hymenocallis littoralis
Crinum augustum

Che Chen looks very much like a ficus, but can be identified by the dark shiny leaves, brown to red oval shaped berries (during 1/2 of the year), and bark that bleeds a black sap. Birds like Toucans and Aricaris are attracted to the berries. Since 50% of the US population is highly sensitive to this family of trees, it is not a good idea to touch the leaves or the sap of the tree. Locals are far more immune, but they too can suffer from exposure. Dogs aren't bothered by it, but if the sap gets in their fur they can transfer it to sensitive individuals

Beautiful hardwood, also known as Caribbean Rosewood comes from Che Chen Its lumber name is Poison Wood or Che Chen and is 180% as hard as red oak. Once it is dried out it is far less dangerous, except the sawdust may cause irritation to some sensitive individuals. When finished it is often some of the most beautiful wood and you will see it made into furniture and jewelry.

Updated 20-Jun-2011

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