20 October 2008

Ocote - What it is - What it does

The word “ocote” (oh-KOH-teh) comes from the Nahuatl word “ocotl”. This is the indigenous name for “pine tree” or “pine wood” as it is known to the native people of Mexico and Central America in the geographic range from Sinaloa, Mexico to central Nicaragua. There are several species of pine that are known collectively as “Ocote Pine”. They are Pinus Caribaea, Pinus Montezumae, Pinus Rudis and Pinus Oocarpa.The species that I will be talking about here is Pinus Oocarpa. From this species people collect and sell what we commonly just refer to as “ocote” which is a chip or stick of wood that is impregnated with resin. In the past these sticks of ocote had many uses but these days they are mostly used as a handy way to light charcoal fires.

The Pinus Oocarpa species of ocote pine is very resistant to fire. It's pine cones open at high temperatures to allow the liberation of large quantities of seeds. It is also resistant to insect damage because whenever the tree is damaged it exudes a resin in the damaged area to prevent insects from entering. When the trees blow down or are damaged by natural forest fires, the tree produces extra sap, saturating the damaged portion of the trunk with resin. The wood shards taken from this resinous section of the trunk are highly flammable. Under normal circumstances the tree is free from excessive resin and makes an excellent softwood lumber for furniture, fence posts, paper, and of course firewood. In the old days people used to light their streets with a handful of ocote resin impregnated sticks interspersed with dried ribs of the organ cactus and tied in a bundle. They would attach this to a post and it would burn for two or three hours with enough light for the people to see their way. They would also use a handful of burning ocote as an old time “flashlight” when walking down a dark path.

Ocote was also used by early miners to light the mines of Guanajuato. Every Mexican school child knows the story of the miner El Pipila (ehl PEE-pee-lah). During the first major battle for Mexican Independence he crawled up to the wooden doors of the Alhóndiga in Guanajuato with a big flat rock on his back to protect himself from the musket fire of the Spanish defenders and he set the wooden doors on fire with the help of some ocote. When the doors burned away the freedom fighters eventually gained entry and slaughtered all of the Spaniards within. El Pípila was the hero of the day and still retains a special place in the heart of every Mexican. He obtained the ocote from a shop just down the street from the Alhondiga. I wonder if the Spaniards ever considered that possibility. As he was defending his post to the bitter end the Spanish commander probably made a mental note to himself...“Don't ever again allow ocote to be sold withing a few yards of a fort with wooden doors” (Ooops! Too late on that one Carlos).

Even though the ocote pine is resistant to both fire and insects and grows in poor soil at high elevations without the need for a lot of rain, it has an Achilles heel called “el ocoteo”. In the old days people could collect enough ocote from trees damaged by wind and fire. When this source became insufficient they would scar one side of the base of a tree and harvest the ocote wood from time to time in thin layers as it became covered with resin. In this way, as one side of the tree became larger with growth, the other side of the tree became smaller from the ocote harvesting until the tree was so offset that it looked like it was standing on only one foot. If ocote harvesting is done slowly and carefully the tree can produce ocote shards for up to one hundred years as long as the rate of ocote harvesting does not overtake the rate of tree growth. Years ago people just took what they needed for domestic purposes. The desperate subsistence economy that we have today with a growing population and not enough jobs leads people to harvest ocote on a much bigger scale, often in a clandestine manner, and this practice has become known as “el ocoteo”. If you check on the Internet you will find vendors of ocote in the United States and Europe who market ocote at elevated prices as an exotic way to light their fireplaces on cold snowy romantic nights “just like the ancient Aztecs or Mayans”. This is all well and good but people should know where and how ocote is harvested and whether it is done legally or not. Ocote harvesting has not yet become a big problem but like anything else it has the potential to be headed that way without oversight. Fortunately there are plenty of ocote pines and ocote is a renewable resource. With proper management oversight and conservation it could be around for a long time to come.

I decided to write about ocote so that newcomers to Mexico will be familiar with it. Sometimes when you buy charcoal here there are a few pieces of ocote in the bag with the charcoal. It looks like a few dirty sticks of wood and some people may not know what it is for and think that it is just some junk wood. I noticed that more and more charcoal doesn't come with ocote anymore. I don't think that is because of scarcity either. I think it is because the charcoal companies found out they could get seven pesos for a little plastic bag containing eight little sticks of ocote. In the photos below I lit a charcoal fire in my grill with ocote. You really only need to use about three or four pieces but like any red blooded American male I used the whole bag because I was hungry and in a hurry. Hey! At least I am not as bad as my old Dad and his buddies who survived the Omaha Beach, Normandy Invasion of World War II. After four of five years in the army they were all in the bad habit of using gasoline to start a campfire. To their way of thinking, kindling was for sissies. I can still remember my Dad lighting our campfire on family camping trips with a cup of gasoline. He would toss a cup of gas on the wood and stand back a little bit and throw in a lit match and WHOOSH! We would all be blown backwards by the noise and the light and the heat that almost singed our eyebrows. Dad would always turn to us and say solemly, “Now don't you guys ever try that.” Don't you worry Dad. I won't. You cured me of that forever. (One more thing, Dad. May God bless you and may you rest in peace. I miss you.)

In the photos below I show a 38 peso bag of mesquite charcoal along with a little bag of supermarket ocote that was purchased for 6.9 pesos. Alongside there is a bundle of ocote that I purchased at a litttle country store for 10 pesos. If I use it wisely (ha, ha) the bundle should last me a year. Now you can see how there might be some nice profit in supermarket ocote. Most of the charcoal here is made from Encino Oak. Sometimes I think they put it in bags that say Mesquite for marketing purposes but I can't prove that. You must also be careful to make sure that the charcoal or “carbón” (cahr-BOHN) that you buy is “carbón duro” (cahr-BOHN DOO-roh) and not “carbón fofo” (cahr-BOHN FOH-foh). Carbón duro is charcoal from hardwood and carbón fofo is charcoal from softwood or in other words it is nearly useless. Sometimes ten to twenty pecent of your bagged charcoal will be carbón fofo. If you are ever in doubt you should go directly to a “carbonero” and buy your charcoal by the kilo. A word of caution is in order though...be prepared to get dirty.


1st Mate said...

So glad you told me what those bundles of sticks were, Bob. I figured they were for lighting fires, but didn't know they were so effective for the purpose. And so clean! If I ever get the Capt to barbecue, I'll be sure to get him some.

Frankly Ronda said...

We just figured out recently what the bundles were for!

Unknown said...


Olvidaste decir how nice it smells. In my town, for the festivities of february, we had what they call "las iluminaciones". People light up all colors of "faroles de papel" with a candle in them and "castillos". Although every night there is a castillo in the main plaza made out of fireworks, this castillos I am talking about are made with ocote. Little ones in front of your house. You will (hope you understand my explanation) pile up in sections of two sticks, another two on top in the other direction and so forth until your castillo is about 20 cm. high. then you light it up and seat on it....lol, nope, you don't seat on it. Just enjoy the heat and illuminate the street. Very nice information. Also, in Salamanca at one of the markets, they sell small crosses made out of ocote. I don't think is to burn them but to place in your home behind the front door to protect you from thieves and all evil.

YayaOrchid said...

I had never heard of ocote. I'm glad you posted a picture. I'll be sure to ask for it next time I visit across the border. They may not have it there, though. YOu probably have to go deep into Mexico.

Great post, very educational. I'd never heard of Pipila either. :)

Anonymous said...

What a coincidence. One of my Yahoo groups on Puerto Vallarta was just chatting about bundles for fire and I found your blog with the first topic on ocote. Muchas gracias for the good info. I sent my members here.


Anonymous said...

Bob.. back in Georgia we'd call that "kindling".
enjoyed reading your blog...reading dialogues is how I learned Spanish...very interesting.
visit my blog sometimes.
There's a town nearby called Ocotlan..."where the Ocotes grow" actually a suburb of Tlaxcala.

Translating said...

Thank God I just came across this- I'm translating a text from a (nearly) 100 year old man and was completely stuck with his talk of "ocote"- you gave me all I need and more to make sense of his story! Thanks so much!

Bob Mrotek said...


De nada :)

Steve said...

I did not see this in your article, so I thought I'd share. My Grandma Helen would put three or four ocote sticks in a large bottle of rubbing alcohol and use it as a liniment for sore and tired muscles. It will be sticky when the alcohol evaporates, but it really does ease the pain!

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I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A. I have been living in Mexico since January 6th, 1999. I am continually studying to improve my knowledge of the Spanish language and Mexican history and culture. I am also a student of Mandarin Chinese.