Teosinte in Oaxaca, Mexico

Teosinte has been relocated in Oaxaca, Mexico after a lapse of 140 years. The Danish botanist Fredrick Liebmann collected 10,000 plants from 1840-43 while living in Pochutla in coastal Oaxaca. This town also happened to speak an archaic form of Danish because its founders two centuries before had been Danish sailors from an English privateer.

In his diary for October 1842, Liebmann writes of "over-looking the Pacific", and the locality of San Augustin on the herbarium label narrowed the search to the region of Coatlan or Loxicha in the Sierra of Miahuatlan. After more than 10 years of personal searching, teosinte has been recollected in two localities in Oaxaca.

The reason for the interest in relocating teosinte is that at Mitla, in the Oaxaca Valley, cave sites (2000 B.P.) have yielded beautifully preserved specimens of teosinte and maize x teosinte hybrids. This teosinte introgression profile is only 150 km away from the site of recovery of the prehistoric wild maize (7000 B.P.) at Tehuacan. Teosinte is not known from the Tehuacan remains nor is it found in that region. Therefore Oaxaca is the closest source for teosinte introgression observed in the Tehuacan specimens (3500-2300 B.P.).

Professors E. Hernandez-X. and T.A. Kato-Y. of the National School of Agriculture, Chapingo, Mexico have this last year discovered teosinte in San Francisco Honduras, 1150 m, on a recently opened logging road. This village is 5 km from San Pedro Juchatengo and the teosinte population covers approximately 15 sq km. Reportedly there are other populations up the Rio Miahuatlan, at least this is what the local inhabitants told me. The San Francisco Honduras population flowers in September and mature seed was ready in November. At San Francisco Honduras (settled by people from Honduras in the early part of the century) the slope is to the interior of Oaxaca. The vegetation was pine forest, now opened to seasonally dry cultivated hillsides with scattered pines/oaks.

The population at Loxicha, which used to be called San Augustin Loxicha, is a very small population of less than 2 sq kin at an elevation of 1200 m and indeed overlooking, from SW facing slopes, the blue Pacific Ocean 60 km away. This population differs seasonally from San Francisco Honduras and flowers two weeks later, in late September. Both habitats relate to those of the teosinte race Balsas in the neighboring State of Guerrero. Further study will be necessary to characterize the collection, but it is definitely not a Guatemalan type of teosinte, which had been previously thought based on the single Liebmann herbarium specimen. Professor T. Kato is currently studying the chromosome knob positions, which are a diagnostic feature separating the two types of teosinte.

Teosinte is known locally as cocxle, which is interesting because of its similarity to the Nahuatl name for teosinte, cocopi. Cocxle is the Zapotec word for the road runner, a local bird. In the mountains of the Rio Balsas in Guerrero, teosinte is called huiscatote. Huiscatote is the local name for the same bird, the road runner. In other areas of Mexico teosinte is called maiz de pajaro, the generic "bird corn".

Because of the small size of these populations CIMMYT will grow out a large regeneration under cultivation to obtain seed for distribution, therefore seed will not be available until November 1986. The bulk of the wild collected seed is being set aside for future evolutionary studies in long term cold storage where it ought to remain viable for 40 to 60 years. Both wild populations are of limited distribution and are currently subject to grazing and habitat destruction by more intensive land use.

Garrison Wilkes*

*sabbatical 1985/86. Maize Seed Bank, CIMMYT A.P 6-641, 06600 Mexico P.F. MEXICO.

Please Note: Notes submitted to the Maize Genetics Cooperation Newsletter may be cited only with consent of the authors.

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