PLANTS + PEOPLE Lunchtime Talks: Exploring the versatile uses and ethnobotany of the calabash trees in Caribbean Islands

Lecture | September 10 | 12-1 p.m. |  UC Botanical Garden

 Botanical Garden

As a part of our "Year of Ethnobotany" celebrations, the Garden will be hosting monthly lunch time lectures featuring the research of UC Berkeley graduate students, post-doctoral scholars, and faculty.

The calabash tree (Crescentia cujete L.) is a species of flowering plant that belongs to the trumpet creeper (Bignoniaceae) botanical family. A native tree to the Tropical Americas, calabash trees has a wide distribution that extends from Mexico to the Brazilian Amazon to the Caribbean islands. More recently, they have made their way to Tropical Africa and Indonesia. These plants are moderate size trees that produce round fruits that vary in shape and size, with a thin hard shell and soft gelatinous white pulp. The fruit pulp has several medicinal purposes previously reported, while the fruit’s lignified outer shell is used in a variety of daily and material uses. Calabash trees have been of cultural importance for many human groups in the past - before Pre-Columbian times - and still in the present. In the Caribbean, rich histories, cultures, and traditions have preserved knowledge about uses of these plants. I will present preliminary results from my latest visit to several Caribbean islands in the Greater Antilles. With a particular focus on versatile ethnobotanical uses, I aimed to address the following questions: 1) How do people perceive, utilize, and select calabash trees in across Caribbean islands? 2) Who are the people that are currently in close interaction with these plants? 3) Do the employ any management/selective breeding practices? 4) Are people always in contact with C. cujete or in its absence do they utilize other closely related Crescentia species? If so, how are other Crescentias used and managed? 5) Is traditional knowledge of this plant the same or different across islands? And what explains these similarities or differences?

Betsabé Dianne Castro Escobar is a Puerto Rican, Latinx, Afro-Caribbean, first generation scientist, and a woman of color. She is currently a 5th year PhD candidate in the Integrative Biology program at the University of California, Berkeley. Her academic background includes training in both the natural and social sciences. Her primary interests lies in the study plant-human interactions of culturally significant plants in the Caribbean through the lens of the ethnobotany, ecology, and evolution. She is fascinated with how humans have stimulated evolutionary responses in plants, how have people used and continue to use these plants, where did they originate or came from, how/where/when where they domesticated, how have they moved across islands in the Caribbean, and how they have changed through time. She currently works with a group of plants called the calabash trees in the Tropical Americas, tracing responses of plant-human interactions, dispersal, evolution, ecology, domestication, and documenting the versatility of uses. She is an NSF Graduate Research Fellow and UC Berkeley Chancellor's Diversity Fellow. She has served in several leadership roles, her most recent as member of her department’ diversity committee, as founder of the graduate student group “Boricuas in Berkeley” and the new president of the Society of Economic Botany Caribbean chapter. She is passionate about plants, preserving traditional knowledge, science communication, diversity, access to public education, and social equity. When she is not in the field or the lab, she enjoys being outdoors, gardening, dancing, cooking, baking, hanging out with her puppy and planning her next adventures!

 Free with Garden Admission; Free for UC Berkeley Students, Staff and Faculty

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