Ahuehuete, the oldest tree in the world

Montezuma Cypress: Mexico national tree

Why is Montezuma bald cypress the national tree of Mexico?

This species became the national tree of Mexico in 1921 and holds that title to this day. The Montezuma bald cypress has been present in the mythology of indigenous groups due to its enormous size and numerous uses.

The tree is widely known in Mexico as Ahuehuete and Sabino.

Ahuehuete has more than 20 names. The tree is known as Taxodium mucronatum, Montezuma bald Cypress, sabino, and weeping willow. This species is native to the Southwestern United States, Mexico, and Guatemala.

The national tree of Mexico

The Ahuehuete became the national tree of Mexico in 1921.

The tree was considered sacred in the pre-Columbian Mexico. For the Aztecs, the combined connotation of the words “huehuetl” and “pochotl” (Ceiba pentandra) metaphorically represented the power of the ruler.

According to legend, Hernán Cortés wept at the Ahuehuete tree in Popotla (then a small village and today a neighborhood of Mexico City) after his defeat at the Battle of La Noche Trista (“The Sorrowful Night Battle”).

The use of Ahuehuete or Sabino trees

Ahuehuete trees have been used as ornamental trees since ancient times.

The Aztecs planted Ahuehuete trees along processional paths in the so-called chinampas (“floating gardens”) in the shallow lakes of the Valley of Mexico by adding soil to rectangular areas enclosed by trees.

They also lined the region’s canals prior to the Spanish conquest.

Ahuehuetes are frequently cultivated in Mexican parks and gardens. The wood is used to make house beams and furniture. The Aztecs used its resin to treat gout, ulcers, skin diseases, wounds, and toothaches.

A decoction made from the bark was used as a diuretic and an emmenagogue. Pitch derived from the wood was used as a cure for bronchitis The leaves acted as a relaxant and could help reduce itching.

The foliage is used to decorate church altars during religious ceremonies.

In Mexican alternative medicine, the bark of the Ahuehuete tree, its resin, and leaves are used to treat various diseases, mainly burned bark, as an astringent and healing agent, and even to heal burns and ulcers.

The Ahuehuete wood is soft and weak, so its use in construction is limited.

Ahuehete trees can live more than 3 thousand years.

The origin of the word Ahuehuete

Ahuehuete is derived from the Nahuatl “āhuēhuētl”, which means “old water tree” because it grows where there is a lot of water. However, in Nahuatl, tōllin (“tule”) rather means different aquatic herbaceous species.

In the Spanish language, this tree is erroneously used for Taxodium Huegelii par excellence of the famous Tule Tree. It is called the Tule Tree because it grows in the community of Santa María del Tule, in Oaxaca.

The Nahua name has served as the basis for some place names:

  • Ahuehuepan (“in the river of the Ahuehuetes”)
  • Ahuehuetla (“place of Ahuehuetes”)

The Tarascan name – “penhamu” – has also been reflected in the names:

  • Pénjamo (in Guanajuato State)
  • Penjamillo (in Michoacán State)

What makes the Montezuma Cypress tree so iconic?

Ahuehuete or Montezuma Cypress is a majestic conifer tree with massive trunks, spiral leaves, and weeping branches. These trees grow near water, provide habitat for wildlife, give shade, and improve water quality.

The Ahuehuete tree or Montezuma Cypress has ancient beginnings that predate its namesake “Montezuma” – the ruler of the Aztec Empire (1502–1520) who had the trees planted in abundance in today’s Mexico City.

There are famous Montezuma Cypress trees in Mexico. El Arbol del Noche Triste in Mexico City is known as the tree that Conquistador Hernán Cortés cried under after losing a battle against the Aztecs in 1520.

El Arbol del Tule in Oaxaca holds the record for the biggest diameter of 14 m and is believed to be between 1,000 and 3,000 years old. School classes visit the tree and form a line to wrap their arms around it.

The most famous Ahuehuete (Sabino) trees in Mexico

Many of these trees are protected as monuments:

  • The “Tule Tree” in Santa María de Tule, Oaxaca
  • The “Sad Night” tree on the Mexico-Tacuba Causeway, Popontla, Mexico City
  • The “Sacred Tree” in Ocuilán de Arteaga
  • The Sabido tree groves around Tetzcuco
  • “El Sabino de San Juan” in Xochimilco, Mexico City
  • The sacred Ahuehuetes of the Chapultepec forest, Mexico City
  • The son of the tree of the “Sad Night” in Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato
  • The Sabido trees in Coyoacán:
    – In Los Viveros park
    – In the Hidalgo Garden
    – In Frida Kahlo’s garden, near “La Conchita”
  • The so-called “El Pino” tree in Valle de Bravo
  • The Sabino of “Casa de Campo” in Xalapa, Veracruz
  • The Sabino tree located in Yaonáhuac, Puebla
  • The Sabino tree located in Teoloyucan
  • The Sabino located in the Concá Mission, in Querétaro.
  • “El Sabino Gordo” in the city of Múzquiz, Coahuila
  • “El Sabino Gordo” at the Espíritu Santo farm in Nuevo León State
  • The Sabino, located in the city of Zimapán, Hidalgo
  • The “El Sabino” located in Tepetitlán, State of Hidalgo
  • Sabino in the community of Ahuacatitlán, State of Mexico
  • “Sabino de los Peroles” in San Francisco, Rioverde, San Luis Potosi
  • “El Sabinal” in the community of Salto de Los Salado, Aguascalientes
  • The 12th generation of the “Sad Night” tree, in the Ecological Park in Tepic, Nayarit
  • Sabino “La Cañada” at the El Cedro hacienda in Ixtlahuacán de los Membrillos, Jalisco
  • Sabino trees near Alaquines in the State of San Luis Potosí

The Sad Night tree on the Mexico-Tacuba Causeway, Popontla, Mexico City

The Tree of the Sad Night, of which it is said that Cortés sought shelter under its branches and wept for the loss of nearly half of his army. This specimen can still be seen on the Calzada México-Tacuba, in Mexico City.

The son of the tree of the Sad Night in Dolores Hidalgo, Guanajuato

The son of the tree of the “Sad Night” is in front of the place where Miguel Hidalgo gave the cry for independence, in Dolores Hidalgo. It stands in the main garden, next to the monument to the Father of the Nation.

El Sabino Gordo at the Espíritu Santo farm in Nuevo León State

The “Sabino Gordo”, is another tree, that is located on the Espíritu Santo farm, in General Terán, Nuevo León. The tree has a diameter of 5.3 meters and a height of 18 meters. Its age is estimated at one thousand years.

Ahuehuetes del Río Blanco

Along the Blanco River in the Orizaba Valley, Veracruz, there are about 660 trees.

Since 2012, an Ahuehuete Festival has been held in Ciudad Mendoza, Veracruz.

Árbol del Tule, near Oaxaca City

Legend says this specimen was planted by a priest of the wind god, Ehécatl.

This is Mexico’s most famous tree, the ginormous Tule Tree, the so-called “Arbol del Tule”, grows near Oaxaca City. This famous “Tule Tree” holds the world record as the tree with the widest trunk diameter in the world.

According to data from the Secretariat of Urban Development and Ecology (SEDUE), the “Tule Tree” has a diameter of 14 meters, a height of 41.85 meters, and a weight of 636 tons. The tree’s perimeter reaches 46 m.

Residents celebrate the famous Tule Tree on the second Monday of October.

Ahuehuete El Sargento, Chapultepec

El Sargento is one of the most beloved trees in Mexico City.

This Ahuehuete tree died in 1969, but even in death it is often visited, and numerous tree trunks stand directly in front of a large monument dedicated to an Air Force squadron that saw action in World War II.

“El Sargento” was a giant ancient tree of Auehuete. It is said to have been planted by Nezahualcoyotl (1402–1472) in 1460. Nezahualcoyotl was the tlatoani (ruler) of the city-state of Texcoco east of modern Mexico City.

Many trees were planted in the area at the request of Moctezuma I. El Sargento is believed to have lived for about 509 years. It is often considered second in fame after the Tree of Victorious Night, also deceased.

Today, the remains of this famous Auehuete tree are just one of the sites along Calzada del Rey in Chapultepec Park, where visitors to the area are richly rewarded with the presence of many similar still-living trees.

La Noche Triste – The Sad Night battle legend

“La Noche Triste” is translated as “The Sorrowful Night” or “The Sad Night”. This term refers to a crucial event in the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire. This event occurred on the night of June 30 to July 1, 1520.

Hernán Cortés and Spanish forces were retreating from the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlán, after their defeat. The Aztecs had risen against the Spanish and their indigenous allies, leading to a devastating defeat for Cortés.

The Tree of the Sad Night on the Mexico-Tacuba road

Hernán Cortés at Ahuehuete in Popotla

According to legend, as Hernán Cortés and his troops retreated from Tenochtitlán on the night of their defeat, they reached the area of Popotla. There, under the shade of an Ahuehuete tree, Cortés wept and mourned.

Hernán Cortés mourned the loss of many of his soldiers and the setback in his conquest of the Aztec Empire. The defeat at the “Sad Night” battle was a significant and tragic moment in the Spanish conquest of Mexico.

The Ahuehuete at Popotla became a symbol of that night of sorrow and defeat.

This legend has become an important part of the historical and cultural narrative of the conquest of Mexico, highlighting the challenges and hardships faced by the Spanish conquistadors during their campaign.

It also reflects the significance of Ahuehuete trees in Mexican culture and history.

Glorieta del Ahuhuete, Paseo de la Reforma, CDMX

In 2022, when the famous palm was moved from the Palm Roundabout to Mexico City’s Paseo de la Reforma and public voting for a new tree began, Ahuehuete, Mexico’s national tree, was chosen by the most votes.

Since June 5, 2023, when the Ahuehuete tree was transported and planted in the middle of the former “Palm Roundabout”, the iconic place has been renamed Glorieta del Ahuehuete (“The Ahuhuete Roundabout”).

The last old-growth stand in the USA

During the turn of the century, Montezuma cypress trees lined the banks of the Rio Grande Valley; accounts from Spanish and Mexican colonists in the area called the stands of cypress “boundless.”

But that abundance began to diminish in 1846 with the start of the Mexican-American War. Historians approximate that 400 mature trees were clear-cut to build American General Zachary Taylor a temporary causeway.

Deforestation continued thereafter, escalating during the American Civil War in 1863 when the Montezuma cypress was used to build a port and fuel the boilers of steamboats. Not long after that, the trees were used to construct three railroads.

By 1919, where forests once thrived, only a few old-growth cypress trees remained at one site near the Mexico-U.S. border, on the Brownsville property of French immigrant Celestine Jagou, acquired in 1872.

The last old-growth stand

The stand of 69 trees in Brownsville, Texas, is the only significant natural stand of old-growth Montezuma Cypress in the USA. The Montezuma Cypress is closely related to the bald cypress of the southeastern USA.

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