Habitat and Ecology
Evolution and Systematics
The seeds of a Brazil nut tree can survive long falls without damage due to the reinforced triple layer pod encasing them.
"To coddle fragile items, we might consider the strategies of seed helmets--nuts. The Brazil nuts in your holiday bowl were once packed in a 3-layer, highly reinforced pod that survived an 80-meter fall from the canopy. On the ground, the pod defies opening from all but its ally, the agouti, a caching rodent with strong, angled teeth." (Biomimicry Guild unpublished report)
Learn more about this functional adaptation.
The Brazil nut tree relies on the orchid bee for pollination, which in turn relies on certain species of orchids for reproduction.
"Efforts intended to create habitats are often unsuccessful. When farmers tried to grow Brazil nuts commercially, they cut down tropical rainforest and planted Brazil nut trees in rows, plantation-style. But these trees depend on orchid bees for pollination, and without the natural orchids of the rainforest, there were not enough orchid bees in the plantations. Hence no nuts were produced." (Forsyth 1992:41)
Learn more about this functional adaptation.
- Forsyth, A. 1992. Exploring the World of Insects: The Equinox Guide to Insect Behaviour. Camden House.
Molecular Biology and Genetics
Barcode data: Bertholletia excelsa
Statistics of barcoding coverage: Bertholletia excelsa
Public Records: 1
Specimens with Barcodes: 8
Species With Barcodes: 1
IUCN Red List Assessment
Red List Category
Red List Criteria
- Needs updating
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
Seed: In French Guiana, the sweet oil expressed from the seed is applied to burns.
The Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa) is a South American tree in the family Lecythidaceae, and also the name of the tree's commercially harvested edible seed.
Brazil nut tree
The Brazil nut tree is the only species in the monotypic genus Bertholletia. It is native to the Guianas, Venezuela, Brazil, eastern Colombia, eastern Peru, and eastern Bolivia. It occurs as scattered trees in large forests on the banks of the Amazon River, Rio Negro, Tapajós, and the Orinoco. The genus is named after the French chemist Claude Louis Berthollet.
The Brazil nut is a large tree, reaching 50 m (160 ft) tall and with a trunk 1 to 2 m (3.3 to 6.6 ft) in diameter, making it among the largest of trees in the Amazon rainforests. It may live for 500 years or more, and according to some authorities often reaches an age of 1,000 years. The stem is straight and commonly without branches for well over half the tree's height, with a large emergent crown of long branches above the surrounding canopy of other trees.
The bark is grayish and smooth. The leaves are dry-season deciduous, alternate, simple, entire or crenate, oblong, 20–35 cm (7.9–13.8 in) long and 10–15 cm (3.9–5.9 in) broad. The flowers are small, greenish-white, in panicles 5–10 cm (2.0–3.9 in) long; each flower has a two-parted, deciduous calyx, six unequal cream-colored petals, and numerous stamens united into a broad, hood-shaped mass.
In Brazil, it is illegal to cut down a Brazil nut tree. As a result, they can be found outside production areas, in the backyards of homes and near roads and streets. The fruit containing nuts is very heavy and rigid, and it poses a serious threat to vehicles and persons passing under the tree. At least one person has died after being hit on the head by a falling fruit. As the Brazil nut is a botanical seed, and unlike botanical nuts, the density of the fruit makes them sink in fresh water, which can cause clogging of waterways in riparian areas.
Brazil nut trees produce fruit almost exclusively in pristine forests, as disturbed forests lack the large-bodied bees of the genera Bombus, Centris, Epicharis, Eulaema, and Xylocopa which are the only ones capable of pollinating the tree's flowers, with different bee genera being the primary pollinators in different areas, and different times of year. Brazil nuts have been harvested from plantations, but production is low and is currently not economically viable.
The fruit takes 14 months to mature after pollination of the flowers. The fruit itself is a large capsule 10–15 cm (3.9–5.9 in) in diameter, resembling a coconut endocarp in size and weighing up to 2 kg (4.4 lb). It has a hard, woody shell 8–12 mm (0.31–0.47 in) thick, which contains eight to 24 triangular seeds 4–5 cm (1.6–2.0 in) long (the "Brazil nuts") packed like the segments of an orange.
The capsule contains a small hole at one end, which enables large rodents like the agouti to gnaw it open. They then eat some of the seeds inside while burying others for later use; some of these are able to germinate into new Brazil nut trees. Most of the seeds are "planted" by the agoutis in shady places, and the young saplings may have to wait years, in a state of dormancy, for a tree to fall and sunlight to reach it, when it starts growing again. Capuchin monkeys have been reported to open Brazil nuts using a stone as an anvil.
Despite their name, the most significant exporter of Brazil nuts is not Brazil but Bolivia, where they are called nuez de Brasil. In Brazil, these nuts are called castanhas-do-pará (literally "chestnuts from Pará"), but Acreans call them castanhas-do-acre instead. Indigenous names include juvia in the Orinoco area.
Though it is commonly called the Brazil nut, in botanical terms it is the seed from the fruit of this tree. To a botanist, a nut is a hard-shelled indehiscent fruit. (An example of a botanical nut would be an acorn or a hazelnut.)
In the United States Brazil nuts were once known by the epithet "nigger toes," though the term fell out of favor as public use of the racial slur became increasingly unacceptable. They can be seen being sold in a market under this name in a scene from the 1922 Stan Laurel film The Pest.
Around 20,000 tons of Brazil nuts are harvested each year, of which Bolivia accounts for about 50%, Brazil 40%, and Peru 10% (2000 estimates). In 1980, annual production was around 40,000 tons per year from Brazil alone, and in 1970, Brazil harvested a reported 104,487 tons of nuts.
Effects of harvesting
Brazil nuts for international trade can come from wild collection rather than from plantations. This has been advanced as a model for generating income from a tropical forest without destroying it. The nuts are gathered by migrant workers known as castanheiros.
Analysis of tree ages in areas that are harvested show that moderate and intense gathering takes so many seeds, not enough are left to replace older trees as they die. Sites with light gathering activities had many young trees, while sites with intense gathering practices had hardly any young trees.
Statistical tests were done to determine what environmental factors could be contributing to the lack of younger trees. The most consistent effect was found to be the level of gathering activity at a particular site. A computer model predicting the size of trees where people picked all the nuts matched the tree size data gathered from physical sites that had heavy harvesting.
|Nutritional value per 100 g (3.5 oz)|
|Energy||2,743 kJ (656 kcal)|
|Dietary fiber||7.5 g|
|Aspartic acid||1.346 g|
|Glutamic acid||3.147 g|
|Percentages are roughly approximated using US recommendations for adults.|
Source: USDA Nutrient Database
Brazil nuts are 14% protein, 12% carbohydrates, and 66% fat by weight, and 85% of their calories come from fat; a 100 g serving provides 656 total calories. The fat components are 23% saturated, 38% monounsaturated, and 32% polyunsaturated. Due to their high polyunsaturated fat content, primarily omega-6 fatty acids, shelled Brazil nuts may quickly become rancid.
Nutritionally, Brazil nuts are an excellent source (> 19% of the Daily Value, DV) of dietary fiber (30% DV) and various vitamins and dietary minerals. A 100 g serving (75% of one cup) of Brazil nuts contains rich content of thiamin (54% DV), vitamin E (38% DV), magnesium (106% DV), phosphorus (104% DV), manganese (58% DV) and zinc (43% DV) (right table). Brazil nuts are perhaps the richest dietary source of selenium, with a one-ounce (28 g) serving of 6 nuts supplying 774% DV. This is 10 times the adult U.S. Recommended Dietary Allowances, more even than the Tolerable Upper Intake Level, although the amount of selenium within batches of nuts varies greatly. Brazil nut oil is clear and light amber in color, with a pleasant, sweet smell and taste suitable for salad dressing.
The European Union has imposed strict regulations on the import from Brazil of Brazil nuts in their shells, as the shells have been found to contain high levels of aflatoxins, which can lead to liver cancer.
Brazil nuts contain small amounts of radium, a radioactive element, in about 1–7 nCi/g or 40–260 Bq/kg, about 1000 times higher than in several other common foods. According to Oak Ridge Associated Universities, this is not because of elevated levels of radium in the soil, but due to "the very extensive root system of the tree."
Brazil nuts are a common ingredient in mixed nuts where, because of their large size, they tend to rise to the top, an example of granular convection, which for this reason is often called the "Brazil nut effect".
Brazil nut oil
The following table presents the composition of fatty acids in Brazil nut oil.
As well as its food use, Brazil nut oil is also used as a lubricant in clocks, for making artists' paints, and in the cosmetics industry. Engravings in Brazil nut shells were supposedly used as decorative jewelry by the indigenous tribes in Bolivia, although no examples still exist. Because of its hardness, Brazil nut shell has often been pulverized and used as an abrasive to polish softer materials such as metals and even ceramics (in the same way as jeweler's rouge is used). A high luster could be acquired by a final application of carnauba wax, only produced in north-eastern Brazil.
The lumber from Brazil nut trees (not to be confused with Brazilwood) is of excellent quality, but logging the trees is prohibited by law in all three producing countries (Brazil, Bolivia and Peru). Illegal extraction of timber and land clearances present a continuing threat.
- Bruno Taitson (January 18, 2007). "Harvesting nuts, improving lives in Brazil". World Wildlife Fund. Archived from the original on May 23, 2008. Retrieved July 17, 2012.
- "Agricultor morre após ser atingido por ouriço de castanha, no Amazonas", Amazonas. (Portuguese)
- Nelson, B.W.; Absy, M.L.; Barbosa, E.M.; Prance, G.T. (1985). "Observations on flower visitors to Bertholletia excelsa H. B. K. and Couratari tenuicarpa A. C. Sm.(Lecythidaceae).". Acta Amazonica 15 (1): 225–234. Retrieved 2008-04-08.
- Moritz, A. (1984). "Estudos biológicos da floração e da frutificação da castanha-do-Brasil (Bertholletia excelsa HBK)" 29. Retrieved 2008-04-08.
- Scott A. Mori. "The Brazil Nut Industry --- Past, Present, and Future". The New York Botanical Garden. Retrieved July 17, 2012.
- Tim Hennessey (March 2, 2001). "The Brazil Nut (Bertholletia excelsa)". Archived from the original on January 11, 2009. Retrieved July 17, 2012.
- Enrique G. Ortiz. "The Brazil Nut Tree: More than just nuts". Archived from the original on July 6, 2007. Retrieved July 17, 2012.
- Brazil, Matt (July 14, 2000). "Actually, My Hair Isn't Red". The Wall Street Journal (Dow Jones & Company, Inc.). Retrieved 2009-07-06.
Hearing angmo so often took me back to my childhood, when my friends and I used the words Jew and Gyp (the latter short for Gypsy) as verbs, meaning to cheat. At that time, in the 1960s, other racial epithets, these based on physical appearance, were commonly heard: cracker, slant-eye, bongo lips, knit-head. To digress to the ludicrous, Brazil nuts were called "nigger toes."
- Chris Collinson; Duncan Burnett; Victor Agreda (Spring 2000). "Economic Viability of Brazil Nut Trading in Peru". Natural Resources Institute, University of Greenwich. Retrieved July 17, 2012.
- Silvertown, J. (2004). "Sustainability in a nutshell". Trends in Ecology & Evolution 19 (6): 276–201. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2004.03.022.
- "Nutrition facts for Brazil nuts, dried, unblanched, 100 g serving". nutritiondata.com. Conde Nast; US Department of Agriculture National Nutrient Database, version SR-21. 2014. Retrieved 30 December 2014.
- "Nuts, brazilnuts, dried, unblanched". United States Department of Agriculture. Retrieved July 17, 2012.
- Chang, Jacqueline C.; Walter H. Gutenmann, Charlotte M. Reid, Donald J. Lisk (1995). "Selenium content of Brazil nuts from two geographic locations in Brazil". Chemosphere 30 (4): 801–802. doi:10.1016/0045-6535(94)00409-N. PMID 7889353. 0045-6535.
- "Commission Decision of 4 July 2003 imposing special conditions on the import of Brazil nuts in shell originating in or consigned from Brazil". Official Journal of the European Union. July 5, 2012. Retrieved July 17, 2012.
- "Radioactivity in Nature". Idaho State University. Retrieved 30 December 2014.
- "Brazil Nuts". Oak Ridge Associated Universities. January 20, 2009. Retrieved July 17, 2012.
- Kornsteiner-Krenn M, Wagner KH, Elmadfa I (2013). "Phytosterol content and fatty acid pattern of ten different nut types". Int J Vitam Nutr Res 83 (5): 263–70. doi:10.1024/0300-9831/a000168. PMID 25305221.
- Ryan E, Galvin K, O'Connor TP, Maguire AR, O'Brien NM (2006). "Fatty acid profile, tocopherol, squalene and phytosterol content of brazil, pecan, pine, pistachio and cashew nuts". Int J Food Sci Nutr 57 (3-4): 219–28. PMID 17127473.
- "Greenpeace Activists Trapped by Loggers in Amazon". Greenpeace. October 18, 2007. Retrieved July 17, 2012.
French Guiana: touka. Guyana Akawaio: imbaima. Guyana Creole: Brazil nut. Surinam: Braziliaansche noot, Brazielnoot, ingie noto, kokeleko, Para noot. Surinam Arawak: tetoka, totoka. Surinam Tirio: toeka.
Names and Taxonomy
Bertholletia nobilis Miers