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.
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.