Essential plants in the Mexican household: Limon, papaya and sabila

articles Living, Working, Retiring

Maria Elena

There are three plants that are an essential part of the Mexican household, limon [lime, not lemon], papaya, and the trusty sabila [aloe vera].

Every Mexican home that has some kind of a piece of garden has an arbol de limones in it, a lime tree, not a lemon tree. It is planted as a twig, nurtured lovingly, and if it has not produced limones in four years, bows of red yarn are tied on its branches, as encouragement. Believe me, it works.

Before I had Bertha to tell me these things, we had two lime trees that were over ten years old and had never sported even a flower bud. I couldn’t understand this. In Cuernavaca, my arboles de limon had blossomed on schedule and given me limones all year without any problems, and they were on a rooftop terrace, in pots. In Acapulco, plants seemed testier, stubborn , sensitive to the extreme heat and mugginess and salt air. Without offering anything to the household, the limones had managed sneakily to become part of the landscape, soon blending in nicely with the height-staggered oleanders, hibiscus and Cuña de Moises, a floral wall that effectively hid Lobo’s dogrun. In time we forgot that they were there at all, until Bertha came.

She spotted them immediately. As our cook, she was delighted that she could just clip limones from the backyard any time she needed them. It also encouraged her that these Gringos were sensible householders enough to have planted them at all. However, upon her nightly watering activities, she noticed that nothing was happening or had ever happened to these limones in their productive cycle… We told her the whole sad story, and she told us about the bows.

We smiled politely. She tied the bows on at once, using her daughter Martha’s hair ribbons until she got red yarn at Gigante later in the day. Red yarn was absolutamente necesario, y es mejor lana, que acrilico.

Bertha watered every evening, picking out garden detritus, patting and smoothing everything in its turn and giving the recalcitrant limones personal peptalks. Every day she bought our limones fresh from the little street mercado in Icacos.

There isn’t a Mexican dish that doesn’t have a schpritz of lemon in it, even chicken soup. Try it. Everything is garnished with sliced limon, even your morning fruit, limones that are sliced in a special way so that you won’t get it in the eye and start your day out wrong, the way they slice them in the cantinas. After all, ceviche is really only lime soup with a lot of stuff in it. Bertha’s fish fillets, sauteed in equal portions of lime juice and butter with salt and pepper, is not to be equaled.

Bertha was waiting for us one morning at the bottom of the stairs instead of in the kitchen. She led us first to the diningroom, where our waiting sliced papaya was overwhelmed with sliced limones. Around the pool the lime trees which were proudly fluttering not only with red bows, but white blossoms, looking very pretty. Lobo eyed us from behind the oleanders, his wagging tail gently wafting the scent of limon blossoms at us. Bertha smiled. “Limones pronto”, she said, in the pidgin Spanish she reserved only for the Señor. Ray loved Acapulco and had bought the house back in 1946 when the Costera didn’t even go out that far. He had never learned Spanish, probably because he only used the house a month every year, but Bertha thought that it was an unforgivable affront. However Ray could sing “Como Te Quiero De Veras” very romantically. I sometimes wondered who had taught him…..

Bertha and Ray had a permanent armed truce going. She considered that I had lived more happily and completely before I got married. After all, I had had her to take care of me. This was before she became a cocinera, and was still a recamarera, a level up from being a muchacha. I would have designated her as an ama de casa, since she took care of everything. She felt sorry for me because I had been a pintora famosa and was now just an appendage to a Señor. Bertha had had a tough time with Señores. She thought she had gone up in the world but I had gone down. She may have been right, but it didn’t bother me any.

Bertha had cured my conjunctivitis after the doctor couldn’t seem to get his act together, with a few days of squirting lime juice in my eyes in the morning. I’d had conjunctivitis for three months. Ray had a fit. Then Lobo had one of our seven pound toads spit in his face, getting their poison in his eyes [that’s what they aimed for, they knew it was blinding]. Only Bertha knew what was happening to Lobo, who was screaming like a human, tearing around the garden, banging into palm trees and finally landing in the pool. She tore out of the kitchen with a knife, grabbed a handful of limones and ran right into the pool after the poor dog, cutting up lemons on her way. She yelled at me to hold onto him so I jumped in too, Ray furious because we were in the pool with our dirty shoes. I grabbed Lobo by the ears and held on for dear life while she squeezed lime juice into his eyes, time after time.

Finally we all trooped dripping into the kitchen to wash the chlorine and acid from the pool out the poor dog’s eyes. He refused to be dried off and retired to his oleander grove to think. Lobo never sniffed at another toad. I was as amazed at this as was Ray since we never had such uncivilized things as grossly overweight poisonous toads in Cuernavaca. We were all greatly indebted to Bertha and her limones. Bertha also used limones as an antiseptic, as an astringent for acne and other problems, for brushing your teeth [rub your teeth and gums hard with sliced limes and rinse your mouth with lime water, an old naval solution for scurvy]. Rub lime slices over your mosquito and other bug bites. Wash your face with lime water, like the princesses of old. Even hives feel better in a cool bath of lime water. People swear that a cup of lime tea with honey every morning slims you down and keeps the weight off.

Shortly we had all the limones that anyone could possibly want, Bertha turned her attentions to the papaya trees, another essential to the Mexican household. We had a real problem there. We always hoarded the seeds from the best tasting breakfast papayas and planted them in coffee cans. The hardiest growths were taken out and planted against the east wall of the garden, the most sheltered spot, usually about four a year. After two years they were big enough to bear fruit, but they were unfortunately also big enough to attract the attention of the ocean winds. (Another thing I never had to worry about in Cuernavaca.) Papaya trees are tall and anorexical, with very short roots. You can lean on a papaya tree and cause it grave harm. They are greatly overloaded in life by a great mop of floppy leaves and papayas bigger and heavier than footballs. They do not bend with the wind like palm trees, they just lie down and die, usually in the pool. We have hurricanes almost every year in Acapulco and they are a great decimator of papaya trees, ours included. After chopping off the tops and the root base, the gardener would trudge up the ejido mountain to the left of Las Brisas with the trunk, taking it home. I don’t know what he did with them.

Earlier we had him cut down nine elderly palm trees that towered over the property, and I do know what he did with them. These palms rained down general destruction in the gardens with their deadly coconuts, exploding pots and squashing plants and causing nervous terror during parties. Over the years young men came to the door asking if we wanted the palm trees cleared, they would do it for the coconuts, but as time went on the young men found other more lucrative careers, and another art form declined.

The gardener and the three friends who had helped cut the trees down lugged eight of the trunks up the hill to Las Brisas, where they were sold as roof poles. A good ancient palm tree with no curve was treasured because it was hard and thin and immune to termites, the scourge of Acapulco. You could sit and watch your furniture disintegrate before you if it was made of anything but cedar. The ninth tree pole went up in our new palapa house by the pool. The little three-walled house/bar was a trade for the poles, and was constructed by the gardener and his Group of Three. A cambalache. They brought down thatch from their hills, also skinnier poles and binding materials. Not a nail in it.

We asked the Señor to batten down our threatened papaya trees with ropes and screws on the walls, since they were in a corner of the garden. He declined. So we planted banana trees around them, as ground support. That didn’t work either. Well, after three years of picking papaya trees and their accompanying mud and sludge out of the pool, we gave up. After all, the mercado of Icacos was just down the street and Bertha started buying them there. It was a lot less trouble.

The State of Guerrerro is the only place that has the red papaya which taste like a mixture of Junket, [ that certainly dates me] and perfume. They are greatly prized by Mexicans who take them home tied to tops of their cars along with coconuts when they are on their way home to Mexico DF. There are dozens of little shacks and tiendas lining the first ten miles on the highway out of Acapulco, selling both papaya and coconuts, coconut candy and such.

Try papaya with a little limon sprinkled over the slices in the morning. Nowadays chefs are concocting great salsas with finely chopped papaya as sort of an extender, giving it an interesting twang and, incidentally, calming down the picante content. Besides being full of digestive enzymes, they are a delight, a special taste. In most of Mexico you can find papaya ice cream, don’t miss it

Save the seeds, and plant them, if you live in a warm climate that doesn’t have a storm pattern. There is really nothing a papaya tree or its friends can do about ocean winds.

Our third plant necessary to the Mexican household is a sabila [Aloe Vera]. Every home, even apartment dwellers, has a sabila plant, usually years old, near the kitchen door. It usually has several descendants in pots here and there around the garden or courtyard, and in the houses of the descendants of its owner. One of these pots of sabila is always placed by the front door at Christmastime and festooned with – guess what? – little red bows of yarn, mejor lana que acrilico. I have a potted sabila sitting by my sliding patio door right now, resplendent in red bows with a few lightweight golden balls here and there. America del Norte is not kind to the noble sabila, it is too cold, too wet. “Like the Bougainvillea, it craves sunburn and thirst. Carefully brought into the house for the winter, away from the incompatibilities of the Willamette Valley, I never once thought of stashing it in the garage. It needs to be talked to.

These sabila plants are friends to all householders and Mexicans have known it since before Cuauhtemoc. They slice open the leaves and use them as poultices for infections, to soothe cuts and burns and grow new skin, for eczema, teenagers’ skin disasters, age wrinkles, sunburns, lesions, sunspots and skin tags, the list is endless. People take sabila internally now, in capsule form, and there are countless formulas for it in skin creams and cosmetics. Sabila somehow encourages cellular reconstruction.

I had two massive sabilas in my studio, or rather, outside it, beside my front door and my back door. They had snaked up and down the torturous mountain highway to Acapulco years ago, along with various other plants I couldn’t part with, a big truckful. They came from Cuernavaca, six thousand feet of Eternal Springtime up in the air, down to a muggy, mouldy tropical climate that wilted most plants and people, and they took it in their stride, all of them. They were all in big pots and were in their new cosmic space around the pool by the end of the day. Too bad I didn’t take the limon trees. Now, a few years later, they were trucked over to Ray’s house.

When they arrived, Ray asked what in the world I had brought “these” for. The two sabilas. He thought you made Tequila out of them. With a certain ceremony Bertha and I put one sabila by the front entrance and the other by the kitchen door, where they settled down comfortably. Then Bertha and I began extolling their virtues. So Ray took off a sock and showed us his famous sunburn. Months ago, during one of his beachwalks, he had somehow burned the arch of one foot and not the other, and it had never healed. He started wearing sox, partly to hide and keep clean the suppurating mess, and partly as a defense tactic for nosey me. “O.K.,Bertha, heal that”, he said. “Si, Señor”, she said, and four days later, it was growing new skin.

Years before, my son Federico, and I went to Relaciones Interiores in Mexico DF to get him a Mexican passport. [He already had an American one, having been registered for it on the day he was born.] We were on our way to a show in Costa Rica. After lunch, walking along dirty Calle Victoria, Federico, being twelve, dribbled his fingers along one of the rotten walls, encrusted with forty coats of paint and crud and caught himself a monster splinter. Four days later his finger had a monster infection, the day before we were going to leave by LACSA. We had to go, the paintings were already in San Jose, and there was no way I could leave him in Cuernavaca. The only thing I could think of was to lop off four sabila leaves, wrap them airtightly in silver foil, and take them with us, hoping Aduana would have no trouble with that. That night Federico went to bed with his finger and arm [up to that nasty little blue line] wrapped tightly around sliced sabila. He complained slightly about the strange smell but was too sick to take it to court. In the morning, fever and the blue line gone, I put a small poultice around his finger and off we went, sabilas packed.

In San Jose, I changed the poultice and put the rest of the sabila in the refrigerator, and, leaving Federico in the sack, went on to the Cultural Institute to see if my paintings were out of Aduana. We used a sabila a day, changing the dressing morning, noon and night, and when the last of the four was used up, his finger was fine. Federico and I were very impressed. So was the maid, who actually asked me, What was this porqueria that I was throwing out? Evidently they’re behind the times on sabilas in Costa Rica, or maybe the Aztecs never got that far.

Once the sabila is cut open and the air gets to it for a while, the flesh will turn red. Don’t be shocked, it’s still fine to use it. Also, it does have a strange odor, not bad, just unidentifiable. It goes away with a wash. I think you have less trouble with the sabila than any other plant in the world, and it certainly gives more back to man than any other plant in the world.

So these three plants are the dietary and first aid gifts of nature and should be growing happily in your garden or in a pot somewhere, at the ready. Use them in good health. I hope you have a terrace or a garden where you can fit them in. If not, plan your next move around them.

You’ll be glad you did.

Published or Updated on: May 1, 2000 by Maria Elena © 2000
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1 thought on “Essential plants in the Mexican household: Limon, papaya and sabila

  1. An interesting and humorous read! I already have a limon tree, and a few sabila scattered about, but I’ll have to see if I can grow a papaya here in Tucson. Thanks for sharing and enlivening your memories!

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