Hevea brasiliensis and Castilla elastica

Lindsay Bourque, UBC BPotD work-study student, wrote today’s entry to kick off the “biodiversity and sports” series. The first image is from the Wikimedia Commons, seeds of Hevea brasiliensis by Luis Fernández García (Creative Commons license), while the second image is by Flickr user goosmurf (latex harvesting from Hevea brasiliensisl | CC license). The illustration of Castilla elastica is from the 1897 work Köhler’s Medizinal-Pflanzen (and in the public domain), while the fruit photograph of Castilla elastica var. costaricana is copyright of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and licensed for scientific use.

Lindsay writes:

A series on biodiversity and sports would not be complete without including rubber. Two important sources of rubber are Hevea brasiliensis, the Pará rubber tree, and Castilla elastica, the Panama rubber tree.

Hevea brasiliensis is a member of the spurge family, and the species has helped provide sports with hockey pucks, bicycle tires, table tennis paddles, tennis balls, and golf balls (Daniel adds: and keeping athletes healthy and safe). Originally found only in northern parts of South America, Hevea brasiliensis is now in cultivation throughout most of Asia where it is an important economic crop for commercial markets. In the wild, Hevea brasiliensis can reach a towering 45 metres, but in cultivation, plants are kept shorter to maximize latex production. The latex vessels, found outside the central vascular system, only extend through the first 24 metres of the trunk.

While the use of the latex was greatly diversified and expanded with the discovery of vulcanization (“cured rubber”), there is evidence that naturally-occurring rubber has been in use for over 3000 years. The ancient Olmec civilization of present-day Mexico’s tropical lowlands used the latex of a different species (Olmec translates as “rubber people” in Nahuatl, the language of the Aztec). Castilla elastica, a member of the mulberry family, mixed with the juice of Ipomoea alba, was used to create rubber as early as 1600 BCE. Using this process, the Olmec also quite possibly produced the first rubber balls and developed the earliest form of the Mesoamerican ballgame. Although the specific rules of this ancient sport remain obscure, based on archeological evidence it would have been similar to racquetball or volleyball, where the aim is to not let the ball hit the ground—players would strike the ball with their hips to keep it in play. Not an easy feat considering the balls weighed up to 4 kilograms! There is evidence that the game served an important ritual aspect for the Olmec; depictions of human sacrifice can be found carved into the ballcourt, marking major games. Balls have been found in El Manatí, an Olmec sacrificial bog. A variation of the game, called ulama, is still played today.

Hevea brasiliensis
Hevea brasiliensis
Castilla elastica
Castilla elastica var. costaricana

13 responses to “Hevea brasiliensis and Castilla elastica”

  1. Mary Ann, in Toronto

    Very nice series of images. The seeds and fruit, I find particularly lovely. I’d really like to feel the weight and texture of those seeds.
    It’s good to see rubber/latex starting off the sports series; that’s certainly the first thing that comes to my mind on this topic, and these are such interesting and widespread plant substances.
    I also got a chuckle out of the link labelled “keeping athletes healthy and safe” — a cute article, especially the comment therein, “people with poor impulse control don’t make it to the Olympic Village” ;o)
    I kinda figured as much. Then again, if they’ve stocked 100,000 . . .
    Better safe 🙂 than sorry, I guess.

  2. Andrew in NZ

    It’d never occured to me that Hevea was from Euphorbiaceae. It makes perfect sense, of course, but not something I’d thought about before. Thanks for that.

  3. Meg Bernstein

    Biohistory. Very fascinating.

  4. Connie

    I had been expecting sports as in abnormal variations. Silly me! This will be fun. Thanks for all the links, I learn so much from you guys!

  5. Julie

    A great collections of images! How nice it is to see seeds.

  6. Susanne

    question: the latex collection picture shows a large trunk, but the fruit picture shows a vining plant with tendrils holding on to a bamboo cane. Is that because of different species?

  7. elizabeth a airhart

    when the pictures started to unfold
    an old song came into my mind called high hopes
    just what makes that little old ant
    think he’ll move that rubber tree plant
    anyone knows an ant,can’t
    move a rubber tree plant
    but he’s got high hopes he’s got high hopes
    hes got high apple pie in the sky hopes
    links are fine the pictures are great bon bon

  8. Daniel Mosquin

    Suzanne, I think the latter photograph with the fruit of Castilla elastica is actually showing a branch laden with fruit (the vining plant with tendrils just happens to be in the photograph).
    Here’s a photo of the trunk of Castilla elastica.

  9. Rob Stuart

    I recently read an interesting book “The Thief at the End of the World: Rubber, Power, and the Seeds of Empire”, Jackson, Joe (Book – 2008). It’s all about the rise of rubber and the efforts on behalf of Britain to end Brasil’s domination of the rubber market. It puts into perspective the position of rubber within our world. It’s worth reading.

  10. Jon

    An important plant to know. It’s currently one of the main reasons China’s natural forests are being destroyed.

  11. Cambree

    Interesting set of photos. Made me think of “rubber barons”…
    Rob, that book sounds like a good read. Will have to look it up. thanks.

  12. Janey Pugh

    What are the seed(?) objects in the first picture?

  13. Eleanor Ryan

    Reading recently about the Olmecs . The ball game was very a important ritual in central American, Ballcourts are found in all important ancient temple areas in the Yuacatan. Religion was central to their life.Hence, this magical substance was taken for ritual purposes. I wonder what other uses they had for rubber.?

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