Chechen, Chaca and a Mayan Legend
By Jeff Toorish, SOLO Instructor
The Chechen tree is native to various jungle areas of Mexico with a prized wood that has been compared to teak. It can also be found in other parts of Central America, the Caribbean and the West Indies. The wood itself has a range of colors with contrasting streaks and presents with a slightly oily sheen. It takes a bit of work to refine it but it is highly rot resistant and extremely durable. It is also called Black Poison Wood, among other things, and that is the problem.
As its nickname suggests, Chechen (Metopium Brownie or Metopium Toxiferum of the family Anacardiaceae) can cause skin irritation and even the potential for an anaphylactic reaction in some people. Chechen is so toxic that its dark, runny sap can actually cause second degree burns and painful blisters lasting for weeks or longer.
Often the rash from Chechen doesn’t manifest for days or even weeks later. For tourists this presents a real difficulty because the treatment for Chechen poisoning is the Chaca (Gumbo Limba) Tree, which is only found near the Chechen tree.
The Legend of Two Brothers
And that brings us to the Mayan legend of two brothers who were both great warriors but very different in other ways. Kinich, the younger brother was much loved for his kindness and mercy. In contrast, the older brother, Tizic, had a heart full of hate. Then they met a beautiful Mayan princess named Nicte-Ha. She was so kind she melted Tizic’s heart, making him see the goodness in the world.
The brothers both wanted to wed Nicte-ha so they agreed to fight an epic battle for her love; a battle the likes of which had never before been seen in heaven or earth. The gods were not pleased about all this and colored the sky with dark clouds. The moon hid for many nights and the earth itself turned away.
In the end, the brothers both died in the arms of each other and were transported to the underworld where they realized the humiliating folly of their actions. They begged the gods to let them return to earth to once again see their beloved Nicte-Ha.
The gods agreed, returning the brothers to the world of the living. Tizic, because of this nature became Chechen, the Black Poison Wood Tree with the dark sap that burns and hurts. Kinich became the Chaca Tree with the white sap that heals the pain. That is why both trees are always found near each other.
Many people who come into contact with Chechen report a recurring rash weeks, months or even years later. The rash is also easily spread by touching an infected area and then touching somewhere unaffected. If you come into contact with the Chechen tree, and especially if you come into contact with black spots that form from the tree’s sap on the outside of the Chechen tree, look for a Chaca tree nearby. The Chaca tree has a flaky red bark that is quite distinctive. Slice a strip of the Chaca tree and wipe in on any skin that has come into contact with Chechen.
Other potential treatments include any oil dissolving solvents; anti-itch cream; aloe vera; and steroid creams. Some patients report temporary relief from symptoms by soaking the rash in extremely hot water but it is the sap of the Chaca Tree that really does the trick.
The Rest Of The Legend
Unfortunately things did not work out very well for the Mayan Princess Nicte-Ha. After the two brothers died in battle, she succumbed to a broken heard and perished as well. The gods, in their wisdom, turned her into a beautiful white flower that populates areas near the water.
As with any trip or expedition to exotic locations, learn about potentially dangerous plants and animals before you leave and try to stay away from them. Especially in tropical locations many species are more dangerous than they appear. A benign looking tree can cause months or even years of painful outbreaks. If that happens when you get home there won’t be an antidote tree anywhere in sight.