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The truth behind the legend of the Chechen and Chaká Mayan trees

In the dense jungle of Quintana Roo, in Mexico, it is relatively easy to find two imposing trees that often appear close to each other. One with light bark with bleeding black spots, called ‘chechen’ in the region ( Metopium brownei ); the other, with red bark, which peels off naturally, revealing its green wood, the ‘chaká’ ( Bursera simaruba ).

A Mayan legend says that in the dense jungle of Quintana Roo lived two warrior princes, blood brothers, Kinich and Tizic . Kinich was a kind young man, who took care of his people, while Tizic was a despot, ruthless and arrogant. They both fell in love with the same maiden, Nicté-Ha , a young girl with a pure heart.

Tizic then challenged Kinich to a duel for the girl’s love. The two brothers fought and fell in battle , one in the other’s arms. But his love for Nicté-Ha was so strong that they both asked the gods to return to earth to see her, ignoring that she had died of sadness over what had happened.

The gods granted their wish and they returned to the world in the form of trees. Tizic, the cruel and ruthless warrior, became a hostile and dangerous tree , which causes serious damage just by touching it or resting in its shade: the chechen. For his part, Kinich, the kind, took the form of a tree whose sap —according to legend— cures all the damage caused by the Chechen, the chaká.

And, according to legend, if you walk through the jungle and find the dangerous Chechen, bearer of Tizic’s evil, rest assured that there will be a chaká nearby, through which the good Kinich will heal the damage caused by his brother.


Lintel of Mayan warriors in Yachilan, Mexico

Legends aside, the Chechen and Chaká trees are real . Both share the same environment, so where their distribution ranges overlap, it is common to find them close to each other, although the native distribution of the Chaká is much wider than that of the Chechén, and in many regions only the former appears.

The Chechen lives in the states of Veracruz, Chiapas, Tabasco, Campeche, Quintana Roo and Yucatán, in Mexico, and also extends through the jungles of Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

For its part, the chaká lives in all the regions where the Chechen exists —except Haiti—, but it also extends through Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean islands, and part of South America, up to Peru and the northern half of Brazil.



What the Mayan legend says about the toxicity of Chechen has a real basis. This tree, up to 35 meters high, has an active principle, urshiol , a family of oleoresins that is also present in the skin of fresh cashews or in poison ivy —genus Toxicodendron—. In the Chechen its concentration is so high that it can cause alterations in the skin only with its contact.

The most common reaction is eczema , which in some cases can lead to dermatitis . Urshiol is a potential allergen, so a first contact with the plant can sensitize the unfortunate sucker, and subsequent contacts end up with much more serious conditions. In some cases, it can also present effects of photosensitivity .

But, not only do you have to be careful not to touch the tree. Cases have been described of people who, without coming into contact with the plant, have suffered its effects due to the airborne effect. Mayan legend attributes these effects to the shade of the tree; in fact, the most realistic explanation is that the urshiol bathes the leaves and bark of the chechen, and small droplets are carried by the wind .

The treatment for cases of dermatitis caused by Chechen is Alibour’s water or Burrow’s solution. However, tradition points to a possible remedy hidden in the chaká .



According to Mayan tradition, crushing chaká leaves and applying them to the affected area relieves dermatitis caused by chechen. This is presented as an easy task , since the trees grow close to each other. However, experience and, above all, scientific knowledge, tells us that traditional remedies are not always as effective as believed .

In the first place, it must be taken into account, when these types of remedies are carried out, that regardless of the effectiveness of the product, there are factors that can work against the patient. On the one hand, the materials used must be adequately disinfected , including the leaves of the tree in question. Applying any plaster to damaged skin can lead to a serious infection. On the other hand, you have to be very sure that the plant you are using is the right one, and not another, at the risk of suffering an even more serious intoxication due to confusion.

Taking all this into account, and analyzing the tradition itself, the truth is that among the constituents of the resin of the chaká there are several active ingredients that together have an anti-inflammatory effect, which can act favorably in the treatment of symptoms. of dermatitis caused by Chechen.

Although, indeed, this ’emergency’ remedy can be prepared by crushing the leaves with clean water and applying them as a poultice —with proper hygienic conditions—, this type of preparation is not the best. To achieve the greatest effectiveness, it is necessary to make an extract of the leaves in ethanol or hexane, and to elaborate a pharmacological formulation with it . A product perhaps difficult to obtain for the most isolated rural Mayan populations, and for visitors.


Hernandez Dominguez, DL 2022. Preparation of herbal remedies based on Bursera Simaruba . [University of Quintana Roo].

Kew Garden. sf Plants of the World Online. Plants of the World Online.

Noguera, B. et al. 2004. Anti-inflammatory activity of leaf extract and fractions of Bursera simaruba (L.) Sarg (Burseraceae). Journal of ethnopharmacology , 92, 129-133. DOI: 10.1016/j.jep.2004.02.009

Quintanilla, MR et al. 2009. Contact dermatitis to Metopium brownei (Chechem). Clinical observations of 20 cases in Quintana Roo, Mexico . 8.

Rivero-Cruz, JF et al. 1997. Separation and characterization of Metopium brownei urushiol components. Phytochemistry , 45(5), 1003-1008. DOI: 10.1016/S0031-9422(97)00032-0

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