Cecropia or Snakewood
A tree which always pleases those who like huge palmate or umbrella-like leaves, the Cecropia (Cecropia palmata) from Central and South America and the West Indies) has leaves up to 1 metre across on younger trees. As the tree starts branching the leaves become a little smaller. In its homeland it is one of the first trees to establish when a forest giant falls. In its own right it is a relatively short lived tree. In the tropics it can grow to 15m plus high, though it is much slower and smaller in New Zealand.
Cecropias are named after Cecrops the builder and first king of Athens which was originally named Cecropia. In their native lands many of the species are in a symbiotic relationship with fierce biting ants which cut a hole into the hollow stems where they make a comfortable home. The tree also supplies them a nourishing exudation from a special area. at the base of the leaves. In exchange the ants keep away all other insects from eating or cutting the leaves particularly Leaf Cutting Ants. The only animal that ignores these ants is a sloth who feeds almost exclusively on this trees leaves, buds and fruit. No ants live in the plants in New Zealand.
These trees are separately sexed so male and female plants have to be planted to get viable seed.
The stems are very curious in their construction when they are young and vigorously growing. They consist of a series of wooden “tin cans” set end to end then wrapped in a layer of bark. (A stem which was killed by frost finally fell to pieces to show us all its “tin cans”). This gives great strength and lightness. As the stem gets older the wood then starts to thicken.
For the garden this is a quick growing tree with huge leaves, the back of which is silver. This silveryness stands out as the leaves move in the wind. As the tree tends to have a tall trunk it can be gardened under quite happily.
It is very frost tender and also needs free draining soils. Come and have a look at the two growing in our garden.