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Caesalpinia echinata is a species of Brazilian timber tree in the pea family, Fabaceae. Common names include Brazilwood, Pau-Brasil, Pau de Pernambuco, Pernambuco tree, Nicaragua wood and Ibirapitanga (Tupi). This plant has a dense, orange-red heartwood that takes a high shine, and it is the premier wood used for making bows for stringed instruments. The wood also yields a red dye called brazilin, which oxidizes to brazilein. The plant is known for having Brazil named after its Portuguese name.
When Portuguese explorers found these trees on the coast of South America, they used the name pau-brasil to describe them. Pau is Portuguese for "stick" (or, by metonymy, "wood" in general), and brasil is said to have come from brasa, Portuguese for "ember", meaning "emberlike". The wood of this tree has a deep red hue, which may be why it received this name. Pau-brasil had been earlier used to describe a different species of tree found in Asia and other places, called Sappanwood which also produced red dye; but the South American trees soon became the better source of red dye. Brazilwood trees were such a large part of the exports and economy of the land that the country which sprang up in that part of the world took its name from them and is now called Brazil.
Botanically, several tree species are involved, all in the family Fabaceae (the pulse family). The term "brazilwood" is most often used to refer to the species Caesalpinia echinata, but it is also applied to other species, such as Caesalpinia sappan. The tree is also known by other names, as ibirapitanga, Tupi for "red wood"; or pau de pernambuco, named after the Brazilian state of Pernambuco.
In the bow-making business it is usual to refer to some species other than Caesalpinia echinata as "Brazilwood"; examples include Pink Ipê (Handroanthus impetiginosus), Massaranduba (Manilkara bidentata) and Palo Brasil (Haematoxylum brasiletto). The highly prized Caesalpinia echinata is usually called "Pernambuco wood" in this particular context.
The brazilwood tree may reach up to 15 metres in height, and the dark brown bark flakes in large patches, revealing the lustrous blood-red heartwood underneath. The leaves are pinnate and each consists of between 9 and 19 small, leathery leaflets, which are broadly oblong in shape. The flower stalk, or inflorescence, is also branched and contains between 15 and 40 yellow, strongly perfumed flowers, which may be pollinated by bees. The petals are usually yellow with a blood-red blotch. The fruits are oval-shaped woody seedpods, measuring up to 7.3 cm long and 2.6 cm across; they hang off the branches and after the seeds are expelled, the pods become twisted in shape. The branches, leaves and fruit are covered with small thorns.
There are some important differences between geographically distinct populations and it is thought that separate subspecies of the pau brasil may exist. This tree may have some medicinal properties and has been used as an astringent and antidiuretic by local people; extracts have been tested as possible cancer treatments.
Starting in the 16th centuries, brazilwood became highly valued in Europe and quite difficult to get. A related wood Sappanwood coming from Asia was traded in powder form and used as a red dye in the manufacture of luxury textiles, such as velvet, in high demand during the Renaissance. When Portuguese navigators discovered present-day Brazil, on April 22, 1500, they immediately saw that brazilwood was extremely abundant along the coast and in its hinterland, along the rivers. In a few years, a hectic and very profitable operation for felling and shipping all the brazilwood logs they could get was established, as a crown-granted Portuguese monopoly. The rich commerce which soon followed stimulated other nations to try to harvest and smuggle brazilwood contraband out of Brazil, and corsairs to attack loaded Portuguese ships in order to steal their cargo. For example, the unsuccessful attempt in 1555 of a French expedition led by Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon, vice-admiral of Brittany and corsair under the King, to establish a colony in present-day Rio de Janeiro (France Antarctique) was motivated in part by the bounty generated by economic exploitation of brazilwood. In addition, this plant is also cited in Flora Brasiliensis by Carl Friedrich Philipp von Martius.
Restoration of the species in the wild is hampered by the fact that it is a climax community species, which will only develop well when planted amongst secondary forest vegetation. Although many saplings have been distributed or sold during recent decades, that has led to the tree being planted in places outside its natural range, with somewhat poor results, such as happens with brazilwood trees used for urban landscaping in the city of São Paulo, whose development and flowering is usually hampered by the colder environment.
Excessive exploitation led to a steep decrease in the number of brazilwood trees in the 18th century, causing the collapse of this economic activity. Presently, the species is nearly extirpated in most of its original range. Brazilwood is listed as an endangered species by the IUCN, and it is cited in the official list of endangered flora of Brazil.
The trade of brazilwood is likely to be banned in the immediate future, creating a major problem in the bow-making industry which highly values this wood. The International Pernambuco Conservation Initiative (IPCI), whose members are the bowmakers who rely on pernambuco for their livelihoods, is working to replant the trees. IPCI advocates the use of other woods for violin bows to raise money to plant pernambuco seedlings. The shortage of pernambuco has also helped the carbon fiber and composite bow industry to thrive.
This article incorporates text from the ARKive fact-file "Caesalpinia echinata" under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License and the GFDL.
- Varty, N. (1998). "Caesalpinia echinata". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.3. International Union for Conservation of Nature. Retrieved 2010-10-06.
- Lewis, G.P. (1998). Caesalpinia: a revision of the Poincianella-Erythrostemon Group. Kew: Royal Botanic Gardens.
- Cf. Backes, P. & Irgang, B., Mata Atlântica: as árvores e a paisagem (Atlantic Reinforest: its trees and landscape), Porto Alegre, Paisagem do Sul, 2004, page 228
- Cf. Árvores de São Paulo — O pau-brasil está frutificando na cidade, Ricardo Cardim 15 December 2009 blog entry; "Coisa rara no clima paulistano, as inúmeras árvores de pau-brasil (Caesalipinia echinata) plantadas pela cidade estão frutificando abundantemente." (in exceptional circumstances, however, brazilwood may flower in São Paulo) (Portuguese)
- Smithsonian, April 2004, cover story