Chautl. A porophyllum?

I have previously investigated the identity of this particular quelite in an earlier Post : Tepepapaloquilitl.

In the mountains outside Toluca there is a root called “chautl” which comes from a plant identified by locals as papalo. This may be the same plant as tepepapaloquilitl (1). The Aztecs used the root of tepepapaloquilitl as a vegetable. The root of the chautl (2) is also used as a vegetable and is a “bit like a potato” (Carmichael & Sayer 1995). Carmichael then goes on to say “Chautl is used to prepare alfeñiques (3) for Dia de los muertos. The root is harvested, cleaned, dried, powdered and added to icing sugar and egg whites. This sugar paste is then used to sculpt figures for the Day of the Dead. The sugar figures are completely edible and can be kept for years if stored properly “.

  1. Robert Bye identifies tepepapaloquilitl as Porophyllum punctatum. Tagetes lucida (pericon/yauhtli) has been identified as tepepapaloquilitl in some sources (although I myself think this to be an erroneous identification). In the Badianus Codex, yauhtli is used with tepepapaloquilitl to help cross a river or water (De la Cruz, 1991), as if to protect from cold moisture. “Whoever wants to safely cross a river, or water, must moisten his chest with a liquid of the yauhtli and tepepapaloquilitl plants ground in water”. This alone demonstrates that the two are different plants
  2. although not specifically noted in her book, when Carmichael compares the plants in this manner it says to me that these are two different plants.
  3. The alfeñique is another example of Moorish influence in Mexico. It was a typical sweet of Islamic Spain, known as “Al-Fanid” (which was used to treat coughs). In the Kingdom of Granada, it was made of sugar, water, honey and almond oil, stretched to create a viscous paste. This paste is used to form hundreds of types of alfeñique figures which include rabbits, lions, ducks, doves, cows, bulls, donkeys, pigs, frogs, horses, deer, angels, skulls and coffins. The most common variety (known outside of Mexico) are the calaveras (which are more commonly known as Sugar Skulls) and are produced in Mexico for the Day of the Dead celebrations in November.
Mexican sugar skull (made with the same paste as alfeñiques)

I recently stumbled across an old text from 1823 (1) which has cleared the water a little and tends to lead me away from chautl being a Porophyllum. This recipe is for pastillas (2) which reflects the original Moorish alfeñique.

  1. Libro de cocina Maria de la Lus Tissier
  2. pastillas = pastilles = pills. Small, scented sweets or candies, also known as “mouth drops” or sweet pills.

The recipe (en español) goes like this……..

Para 6 livras (1) de asucar tamisada se echan dos o tres claras de huebo y una poquita de agua, en esta se ba echando medio real de chiatle (sic), una lo está batiendo en un traste (2) de talabera (3) y otra ba echando el chiautle (4) despolboreado, y batiendo sin que se agan grumos asi que está como espuma blanco se rebuelbe la asucar, si le falta umedad para juntarse se rosia con tantita agua se hace un baston y se tapa con una servilleta humeda para que no crie costra y se ba trabajando si son de color se tiñe la masa con carmin desecho con limon si de canela esta se muele y sierne con la asucar, el chiautle lo benden en Santa Clara de Puebla (4).

  1. Livras (libra) = 460.1g : Although another definition says….“The libra (Latin for “scales / balance”) is an ancient Roman unit of mass that was equivalent to approximately 328.9 grams. It was divided into 12 unciae (singular: uncia), or ounces. The libra is the origin of the abbreviation for pound, “lb”.
  2. Traste : Cualquier recipiente en el que se guisa, se sirve y se come: “Se coloca el traste en baño María”, lavar los trastes, secar los trastes (Any container in which it is cooked, served and eaten: “The dish is placed in a bain – marie”, wash the dishes, dry the dishes)
  3. Talavera Pottery – colourful glazed and decorated earthenware of Spanish or Spanish colonial origin – Made in Puebla, Mexico. The name ‘Talavera’ is applied to a very special type of hand decorated high-fired ceramic product. Produced in Spain around the year 1500 in a town called Talavera de la Reyna and hence its name. The Mexican pottery is a type of majolica or tin-glazed earthenware, with a white base glaze typical of the type.
  4. The wording of this formula seems to have a Poblano origin and probably comes from the Convent from Santa Clara.

Using Google translate I came up with this translation……

For 6 pounds of sifted sugar, add two or three egg whites and a little water,in this one they are pouring half a real of chiatle (sic), one is beating it in a talabera fret and another is pouring the dusted chiautle, and beating without causing lumps so it is like white foam the sugar is stirred, if it lacks moisture to join it is sprinkled with little bit of water is made into a cane and covered with a damp napkin so that it does not create a crust and they are working if they are colored the dough is dyed with carmine, discarded with lemon if with cinnamon This is ground and sierned with sugar, the chiautle is blessed in Santa Clara de Puebla.

Somewhat nonsensical.

However, in this recipe the ingredient chiatle (sic) (1) is mentioned. In the text notes for the page chiatle is explained thusly….Chautle. Root of the papalochelite (Porophyllum ruderale or Bletia Campanulata)(1), which is used in the Valle de Toluca as a binding ingredient of the traditional alfeñique. The word also (2) refers, according to Luis Cabrera, to the chaucle (Nahuatl “tzautli”), which is a plant of the orchid family from which a paste or glue (is obtained) that is used to fix the colors in the jícaras. Cabrera, Louis. Dictionary of Aztecisms (Mexico, Colophon, 1992).

  1. I see this term in many books and……(if you didn’t already know)….Sic is Latin for So or Thus. It is used to denote that a grammatical error, mistake or specific formatting in a quoted section is in the original quote and the quoted section is AS IT APPEARS in the original document.
  2. the use of the word “also” (in addition; too) used here also indicates that two different plants being referred to by the same common name. The identification of plants by their common name can be problematic as one plant may have a dozen different common names or ten different plants might be known by the same common name in different places. This is why I endeavour to use the Latin binomial nomenclature of plants so as to avoid any confusion with identity. I have Posted before on this. See Post : A Note on Deer Weed : The Danger of Common Names. The Aztecs had a sophisticated (although somewhat long-winded) naming system for plants which I will delve into in a future Post.

Using Google translate often comes up with some unusual transliterations. My translation (such as it is and in BOLD) is as follows…..

Para 6 livras de [azucar tamisada] se echan [dos o tres claras de huevo] y una [poquita de agua],

For 6lb (pounds) (2720g) of sifted sugar (1) add two or three egg whites and a “little” water

[en esta se va] [echando medio real de chiatle} (sic), una lo está [batiendo] en un [traste de talavera]

[into this] [pour half a real (2) of chautl], one then needs to [beat/whisk/cream] (the mixture) in a talavera bowl (3)

Talavera pottery from Puebla

otra va [echando] el chiautle [espolvoreado] (4), y [batiendo] sin que se agan [grumos]

[throw/pour/sprinkle] in the [dusted/powdered] chautl and [beat/whisk/cream] until there are no [lumps] (until smooth and)

[asi que está como espuma blanco] se [revuelve la azucar],

[until it is white foam] (5) and the [sugar has been incorporated] (is dissolved)

Sugar and egg whites (claras de huevo) whipped to a stiff peak (see note 5 below)

[si le falta humedad para juntarse se rosia con tantita agua]

[if it lacks moisture to join, it is sprayed with a little water] (if the mixture is too dry and does not bind well spray it with a little water)(6)

se hace un [baston] y se tapa con una servilleta humeda para que no crie costra y

a [cane] (rod/baton/bar) is made and covered with a damp napkin so that it does not create a crust and

se va trabajando si son de color se tiñe la masa con carmin

this line is a little confusing, but I think it might go (if they are to be coloured/tinted then carmine (7) is worked into the mass) (8)

[desecho] [con limon] si de [canela esta se muele y cierne con la azucar],

[tossed] (9) [with lemon] (10) and ground cinnamon which has been sifted (we are avoiding lumps I guess) into sugar

el chiautle lo benden en Santa Clara de Puebla.

the chiautle is blessed in Santa Clara de Puebla (11).  

  1. icing sugar? Or are we just sifting to remove lumps and caster sugar is sufficient? This is also a huge amount of sugar. A meringue recipe, to which, (in its essence) this paste is quit similar, might call for 3 or 4 egg whites and would typically use only about 1 cup (approx. 220-250g) of sugar (this recipe calls for around 12 cups of sugar). Raw meringue paste is VERY wet though. When making alfeñiques you are looking for a drier and firmer playdoh like paste.
  2. Real = reale = A full weight two reales would be 6.77 grams and a one real should average 3.38 grams.
  3. This is Puebla after all
  4. Delia Herrera Osorio (an alfeñique who has been dedicated to this profession for 70 years)
  5. The equivalent of stiff peak (or at the very least soft peak)
  6. Care will need to be taken here as you want the mixture wet enough to bind together but not so wet that it will not hold its shape – we are after all discussing edible playdoh/modelling clay)
  7. An edible dye produced from the cochineal insect. See Post : Nocheztli : The Cochineal Beetle for further information on cochineal
  8. The word used is “masa”. Masa is the term usually applied to nixtamalized and ground maize which is used to make tortillas
  9. Desecho usually translates to waste/trash/debris and is related to desechar (cast off/cast away/dispose of/throw away/throw out (you get my drift) which is also related to echar of which (well one potential meaning anyway) means “to pour” (to cause to flow in a stream from a container) – it also has meanings of – to put in/add – which seems to me to be the most relevant definition
  10. Limon translates directly to lemon although in Mexico limon refers to the lime. In this case we are likely talking about an actual lemon as Consuela Garcia Urrutia (who I briefly mentioned at the start of the Post)(Carmichael & Sayer 1995) uses a few drops of lemon juice to “whiten the mixture”.
  11. Puebla is famous for its sweet confectionary which has been produced by nuns in convents such as the Nuestra Señora de Concepción since the mid 1500’s. Other convents include San Bernardo, San Lorenzo, Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, Santa Rosa (and many others)

In the page notes for this recipe chautle is given two identifications. Porophyllum ruderal and Bletia campanulata. These are two very different plants and I am as yet unable to see how they could be confused for one another. I will not spend much time on the pore leaf as I have Posted on this plant already (1) and have further (although briefly) looked at another possible pore leaf contender for chautl (2)

  1. See Post : Quillquina : Porophyllum ruderale
  2. See Post : Tepepapaloquilitl

Lets focus on the other possible ident for chautl.

Bletia campanulata.

Bletia is a genus of about 30 species of orchids (family Orchidaceae), almost all of which are terrestrial (1). It is named after Spanish botanist and pharmacist Don Luis Blet. The genus is widespread across Florida, Mexico, Central America, the West Indies, and South America as far south as Argentina.

  1. they grow directly in the ground (rather that in trees which are known as epiphytes – epiphyte, also called air plant, any plant that grows upon another plant or object merely for physical support. Epiphytes have no attachment to the ground or other obvious nutrient source and are not parasitic on the supporting plants.)

Bletia campanulata
Image by Bodofzt – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Tirado (1674) notes the common names of B.campanulata as

  • Flor de Muertos
  • Chautle
  • Huararichiri-tsitsiki (tarasco)
  • Sautle
  • Saucle
  • Tsacuitli
  • Tsacuxochitl
  • Tzautle
  • Tonalxochitl

The Aztecs used the word “tzauhtli” to name the glue extracted from Orchid bulbs, which was used as adhesive for feather mosaics. According to the 16th century chronicles tzauhtli could be obtained from different species of orchids. (Tirado 1674).

Just a note that the orchid depicted in this image is not the Bletia orchid.
It is a very nice orchid but, like flor de jamaica (Hibiscus sabadariffa), it is misidentified.
The image used for H.sabdariffa is usually H.rosa-sinensis.
This is done for purely cosmetic reasons (as the flower is “better looking”) but it only adds to the confusion regarding the actual identity of the plant.

Tirado also notes that “Tzauhtli was used as an adhesive for paper. It was also used as an ingredient of the corn paste used to model light weight sculptures (1). It is known that both Aztecs and Purepechas (2) used to manufacture sculptures using corn paste, and the technique was then used during Colonial times for Catholic representations.”

  1. this suggests that it was edible and the creation of these corn figures is very similar to that of tzoalli (See Post Tzoalli – The Amaranth Heresy) which were used in religious ceremonies and were often consumed as part of the ceremony (in a very similar manner to the eating of “the body of Christ” during Holy Communion in the Catholic church)
  2. The Purépecha or Tarascans (not a word they use to describe themselves) are a group of indigenous people centred in the north-western region of Michoacán, Mexico, mainly in the area of the cities of Cherán and Pátzcuaro.

Hágsater (et al., 2005) elaborates a little on tzauhtli…..During pre-Columbian Mexico, the most notable use of orchids was in the genera Laelia, Prosthechea and Bletia to obtain a “glue or paste”, known in Nahuatl as tzauhtli or tzacutli. This mucilage, extracted from the pseudobulbs, was used as glue in feather art. (Hágsater et al., 2005).

The tradition of making alfeñiques with tzauhtli is in danger of being lost.

Firstly this is attributed to the indigenous knowledge of the plant, its care, harvest and use. According to research carried out at the Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México (Contreras etal 2011) academics speak of the “important indigenous contribution” of tzauhtli/chautl to the production of alfeñiques. This indigenous knowledge however is being lost (1). Sonia Edith Mejía Castillo, a researcher at the Facultad de Turismo y Gastronomía de la UAEM, (Faculty of Tourism and Gastronomy of the UAEM ) elaborates on this by saying that in families where alfeñiques have been made for several generations that the newer generations are looking for substitutes for chautl as they suffer from a form of “plant blindness” and have lost the ability to identify the specific orchid needed. It is also no longer profitable to even use the plant as it in the wild it does not grow in large quantities and, much like goldenseal (2), there are no commercial growers of the plant as its propagation does not readily translate from the wild into the greenhouse. These days it is more common to see gelatin or glucose being used instead of powdered chautl.

  1. I have commented on the loss of indigenous knowledge in a previous Post Quelites : Quilitl. “There is concern that the Mexican youth is no longer familiar with the richness of indigenous food plants. In many cases, quelites carry the stigma of being an emergency food for the poor in precarious conditions; this contributes to the disparagement and belittling of these plants (Diaz-Jose 2019). Similar parallels can be drawn with the Aborigines of Australia whose knowledge of local wild plants, known as “bush tucker” is in danger of being lost largely through the indifference of the current generation. Although this too is now changing.
  2. Goldenseal (Hydrastis canadensis) is a valuable medicinal plant that, by and large, can only be collected by wildcrafting (although after decades of experimentation there is now promising progress being made toward the cultivation of this plant is purpose specific greenhouses). Goldenseal is an endangered plant.

Manuel Antonio Pérez Chávez , an academic at the  Centro Universitario UAEM Temascaltepec also speaks of the difficulty of obtaining the bletia orchid.

Its territory is limited. It grows primarily in the centre of the country, mainly in Puebla , Guerrero and the State of Mexico at a height above sea level between 2,000 and 2,500 meters. It prefers a temperate-warm or sub-humid climate and average temperatures between 18 and 25 degrees Celsius; and usually prefers large wooded regions. It can also be found in the southern regions in the municipalities of Ocuilan, Temascaltepec and Tenancingo. If you look carefully, it is a wild flower that even grows on the side of the road to Temascaltepec.

It can be difficult to identify for two reasons. The first is that you must catch it whilst it is flowering. Its flowering occurs between July and August and once the flower dies off it is just another random stem gently waving in the breeze. Once this stem disappears it is even more difficult to locate the underground tubers. Knowing where, when and how to harvest is very specific knowledge that disappears as the elders die and take what they know with them.

The ”how” is also very important. Delia Herrera Osorio has been making alfeniques for 70 years. She learned this skill from her parents who learned it from their parents. Delia too laments the losing of this knowledge and says that it has been more than a decade since she saw chautl in the market.

The process of making alfeñiques from start to finish can be laborious, it begins in March and takes approximately seven months to produce the candy prior to the Day of the Dead .

First the orchid is collected and the roots are cleaned, sliced and allowed to dry. Once dried they are ground to a fine powder on the metate which is then sifted and stored carefully. Consuela Garcia Urrutia (who was 78 years old in 1988) (Carmichael & Sayer 1995) elaborates on this a little. The cleaned, sliced chautl roots are dried in the hot sun. The root slices, she says, should be nicely dried and crisp like chicharron (1) If they are not dried in the sun the root can “spoil”, it can still be used but the alfeñiques will be mottled (2)

  1. crispy pork rinds
  2. marked with spots or smears of colour.

The dough is made, moulded, cut and left to dry. Once dried it is removed from the mould and details (ears, legs, horns etc) are “glued” on. This gluing (with chautl) involves a long drying process. These days you will find meringue powder being used as the binding agent instead of chautl. Meringue powder also reduces the drying time of the alfeñique (sugar skull)  to 8 – 12 hours (maybe a day, tops).

Nowhere in any of my searches have I found reference to the root of the Porophyllum species being used in the manner of the Bletia tubers. There are medicinal uses for the porophyllum roots (of some varieties anyway – not all) but, even generally speaking, these roots are not even classed as being edible.

Short answer (well really quite a longish one) I do not believe that the quelite in question (chautl) can be identified as a Porophyllum. I am as of yet unable to even determine why the Porophyllum has been put forward as a potential identity (it may have something to do with tepepapaloquilitl) but I will keep searching.


  • Bye, Robert & Linares, Edelmir (2013) “Códice De la Cruz-Badiano (Second part)”, Archaeology Mexicana , special edition no. 51, p. 58-59.
  • Cabrera, Luis. (1992) Diccionario de Aztequismos. México: Biblioteca del oficial mexicano Colofón Diccionarios : University of Texas : ISBN 9688670383
  • Carmichael, E & Sayer , C : The Skeleton at the Feast. “The Day of the Dead in Mexico” : 1995 : ISBN-10: 0292776586
  • Contreras, Alejandro & Viesca – González, Felipe & Hernández, Marivel. (2011). Formación del patrimonio gastronómico del Valle de Toluca, México. Ciencia Ergo Sum. 17.
  • De la Cruz, Martín (1991) Libellus de Medicinalibus Indorum Herbis. Manuscrito azteca de 1552, trad. Juan Badiano, versión española con estudios y comentarios de diversos autores, México, Fondo de Cultura Económica-Instituto Mexicano del Seguro Social.
  • Diaz-Toribio M.H. y E. M. Piedra-Malagón (eds.). 2022. Una perspectiva etnobiológica de la biodiversidad y conocimientos tradicionales del centro de Veracruz. Institu to de Ecología, A.C., Xalapa Veracruz, México
  • Estrada, J.A., 1996. Imágenes en caña de maíz. Universidad Autónoma de San Luis Potosí, México, pp. 11-28
  • Hágsater, E. M.A. Soto-Arenas, G. Salazar-Chávez, R. Jiménez-Machorro, M. A. López-Rosas, & R. L. Dressler. 2005. Las Orquídeas de México. Redacta, México, DF, 304 pp.
  • Hernández, F., 1959. Historia Natural de Nueva España. Tomo II y VII. UNAM, México
  • Rodríguez, D.E.V., 2009. Rescate Histórico del tradicional dulce de azúcar. Tesis de licenciatura. Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México. Tenancingo, Estado de México, pp. 41-45.
  • Tissier, Maria de la Lus (1823) Libro de cocina Maria de la Lus Tissier / Paleografía, introducción y notas, Alberto Peralta de Legarreta. – México : Universidad Anáhuac México, Facultad de Turismo, © 2022
  • Zupko, Ronald Edward (1977). British weights & measures: a history from antiquity to the seventeenth century. University of Wisconsin Press. p. 7. ISBN 9780299073404.


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