Cuernavaca seems to alive with colorful blossoming trees the year round. But, today is the first of March, when the streets and gardens turn a beautiful shade of purple. During March and April, the bright purple-blue blossoms of the Jacaranda trees against the cerulean sky keep us in awe when they bloom. And, who doesn’t love the mild sweet honey smell of the jacaranda’s blossoms?
Cuernavaca has so many Jacaranda trees that we tend to think of the tree as native to this area. But in actuality, the tree is an import from Central South America. The name jacaranda is not Spanish as might think, but jacaranda (meaning “flagrant”) comes from the language of the Guarani, one of the main divisions of the Tupi-Guarani language family and a national language of Paraguay. The language it’s rooted in Portuguese. The natives of Paraguay gave the tree its name from the scent of the wood.
While the date of the first jacaranda trees in Cuernavaca remains unknown, we do know that in pre-Hispanic times, the seedpods of the jacaranda seedpods were used as musical instruments. One the first written descriptions of the jacaranda appeared in A supplement to Mr. Chambers’s Cyclopædia, 1st ed., (1753) as a Tupi-Guarani name given to the tree, the wood of which is used in dyeing and medicine.
In 1920, Mexican President Álvaro Obregón (1920-1924) decided to plant jacaranda trees in the main avenues of Mexico City. He commissioned Tatsugoro Matsumoto to oversee the work. Matsumoto, an imperial gardener from Tokyo, was one of the first Japanese immigrants arriving in Mexico in 1896, just one year before the first mass emigration of Japanese pioneers to Chiapas in the year 1897. Matsumoto continued to work in Mexico City until 1955 when he died at the age of 94 years.
The Jacaranda has been exported from Central South America worldwide to tropical and subtropical regions. It has been planted widely in South America, Central America, southern Mexico, southern California, and Florida in the Americas. Jacarandas are also found in other tropical and subtropical regions such as Australia, Bahamas, Cuba, Jamaica, New Zealand, South Africa, Spain, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.
There are 48 other species of jacaranda besides the blur-purpose we have in Cuernavaca. In Bolivia, they have a Yellow Jacaranda, and there is also a White Jacaranda, as well as other hues of the blossoms.
Jacaranda can be propagated from grafting cuttings or planting collected seeds, though if seeds are used, the trees take much longer to bloom. Jacaranda trees will grow in well-drained soil and they will tolerate droughts and short periods of frost or freezing temperatures.
The jacaranda tree does well with full sun and in sandy soils. Both of which explains the number of jacarandas found in warmer climates. Once the plant matures, it can survive colder temperatures down to 19˚F (−7 °C). At colder temperatures, you may notice that they tend to not bloom profusely. Younger plants are more fragile and may not survive in colder climates when temperatures drop below freezing.
Jacarandas can be either a shrub or if allowed can grow into large trees ranging in size from 66 to 98 feet (20 to 30 m) in height.
The City with the Most Jacaranda Trees
While one might think that Cuernavaca might hold that title, or Mexico City or even Asunción, the capital of Paraguay, they are even close. In 1888, J. D. Cilliers imported Jacarandas from Central South America to Pretoria, South Africa and today the city enjoys the title of the City with most Jacaranda trees in the world, where there are almost 65,000, almost 16% of all urban trees in the city. Less than an hour south of Pretoria is Johannesburg, which comes in at second place, enjoying a massive number of Jacaranda trees. In 1896, William Nelson won the contract to plant trees along the streets of the Johannesburg suburb of Kensington, and in 6 months he planted 65 miles (106 km) of streets with Jacarandas.
When driving through the neighborhoods of Cuernavaca, it is tempting to park the car and get out to take photos of the flowering jacarandas, but beware. The jacaranda blossoms, due to the oils they contain are very fleshy when the drop from the trees. They make for a very slippery surface when the streets and sidewalks are covered with the blossoms. Use caution when stepping onto or walking on the flowers. The locals are used to driving on the slippery flowers, but visitors should be especially careful.
While the jacaranda is beautiful to view and its mild honey scent is lovely to smell, the tree has long enjoyed a medicinal use, mostly in homeopathic medicines. The leaves are somewhat small, from 1 to 2 inches long. The surfaces are coated with oil-glands, which have a slight taste that is bitter-astringent. The extract of leaves acts against Staphylococcus aureus and is useful in treating bacterial infections as well as gonorrhea and syphilis. And, it is used both locally and internally in syphilitic ulcerations. Approximately, one-third of the total world population is allergic to penicillin, which is the primary drug used in fighting venereal diseases as well as other infections, the jacaranda is most beneficial to have as an option.
The method of using jacarandas varies; with some using the essential oils derived from the leaves, while others extract the oils from the bark, seeds (aka fruits, but they look like a cross between a tiny turtle shell and a nut) or the flowers of the jacaranda. Others use, instead, a water extract of any of these same parts, either by use internally or externally. The fluid extract of jacaranda is given in doses of from 15 to 30 minims, four times a day, carobin, in 1-grain doses. For local use, you will find powered jacaranda leaves available in a powdered form. The extracts are also prescribed for mental enfeeblement, voracious appetite, and epilepsy.
Having antiseptic and antibiotic qualities, extracts are used to treat hepatitis, and in the folk tradition, the bark, flowers, and leaves are used to ease neuralgia and varicose veins. It is scientifically proven that jacaranda has qualities that treat leukemia. Hot jacaranda leaf baths are used to heal wounds and skin infections, and the tree also helps in the treatment of acne.
Please note this is informational only, and you should see a licensed doctor before using jacaranda for medicinal purposes.