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powerful plantsjourney into amazonia

Green Treasure - The Useful Plants of the Amazon Valley
by Michael J. Balick, Ph.D.

Since the earliest adventurers explored the Amazon Valley, their quest has been for its treasures -- minerals, oil, animal skins, precious stones and metals, to name a few. At times, they have succeeded -- gold, emeralds, petroleum, and other raw materials so important to Western civilization have been exported from this vast region. However, by "taming" the forest and extracting its wealth, biological diversity has become the victim. Gold miners have polluted the Amazon and its tributaries with their mercury and other chemicals; the search for iron and aluminum has destroyed huge areas of wilderness, converting verdant habitats to wasteland; and industrial ventures have turned millions of acres of pristine rain forest to desert-like habitat - all in the name of prosperity and economic return.

However, the richest treasure of the Amazon's biological diversity has been ignored. Millions of species of insects, animals, plants, and other organisms that inhabit this tropical wilderness are of extraordinary value to the indigenous communities and colonists that inhabit the region. From the botanist's perspective, these lands are among the richest and most diverse forests on the planet. Botanist Alwyn Gentry found nearly 300 different species of trees growing on one-hectare plots he studied in the Peruvian Amazon. These plants were trees with a trunk diameter greater than 10 centimeters, and did not include the smaller, understory plants, vines, epiphyte, etc., nor the vast numbers of fungi, insects, animals and other organisms in this biodiverse rich region. Botanists Alexander A. De Oliveira and Scott Mori reported even greater numbers of different species in the Central Amazon Valley of Brazil - more than 500 species of trees on an individual hectare, again with a trunk diameter greater than 10 centimeters.

Among these "green treasures" are a wealth of plants that hold great promise for wider utilization. Indigenous and other local people presently utilize many of these species, and some have been introduced to agriculture elsewhere in the tropics. Some species possess specific advantages for cultivation, for example, the ability to grow under harsh conditions, with minimal care, or have superior content or quality of oils, proteins, drugs, insecticides, waxes, or other products of importance. Without such a verdant and diverse flora, the ability of humans to survive, and, indeed, flourish in the Amazon Valley would have been impossible. In this brief introduction to the useful plants of the Amazon Valley, we present a small selection of Amazonian species, which were important in the past, are currently in use, or have potential for future benefit. There are thousands of economically important plant species in the Amazon. The following books are recommended as a background to plant utilization:

  1. Amazonian Ethnobotanical Dictionary, by James A. Duke and Rodolfo Vasquez, CRC Press, Florida. 1994.
  2. The Healing Forest, Medicinal and Toxic Plants of the Northwest Amazonia, by Richard Evans Schultes and Robert F. Raffauf, Dioscorides Press, Oregon. 1990.
  3. Plants, People, and Culture: The Science of Ethnobotany, by Michael J. Balick and Paul Alan Cox, W.H. Freeman, New York. 1996.
  4. Field Guide to Medicinal and Useful Plants of the Upper Amazon, by James L. Castner, Stephen L. Timme, and James A. Duke, Feline Press, Florida. 1988.

Selected Useful Plants of The Amazon Valley

Astrocaryum aculeatum Meyer; A. murumuru Mart.; A. vulgare Mart.
Regional names: 'Murumuru,' 'Tucumã,' 'Tucum' (Brazil)

Peeling the leaves of Astrocaryum to produce fiber

Astrocaryum fiber
Astrocaryum fiber, freshly extracted from the leaf

This group of palms, with characteristic heavily spined trunks, grow to 20 m tall and are found commonly in many areas of the lowland Amazon. They grow in both moist and dry habitats, e.g., in areas that remain uninundated during the rainy season, as well as along rivers. The fruits of these palms provide edible oil, and palm hearts can be obtained from the meristem (growing point). One study of Astrocaryum vulgare reported that the fruit contained 3.5% protein, 19.1% carbohydrate and 16.6% fat. In addition, the Vitamin A content was found to be a remarkable 50,000 i.u. per 100 grams of pulp, three times higher than that of the carrot. The oil derived from this plant is chemically similar to coconut oil. Local people steam the fruits and eat them, or crack open the young fruits to drink the clear, sweet liquid inside. Fiber is also extracted from the leaves of Astrocaryum, and used to make hammocks, baskets, hats, and other necessities of Amazonian life. In the days of wind powered ocean going ships, voyages were made possible by the sails and masts lashed together with rope woven from Astrocaryum fiber, resistant to the rot and damage caused by long months at sea.

Bactris gasipaes H.B.& K.
Regional names: 'Cachipay' (Colombia); 'Pifuayo' (Peru); 'Pupunha' (Brazil): 'Tembé' (Bolivia)

the peach palm
Bactris gasipaes, the peach palm, in plantation in Costa Rica

Bunches of peach palm fruits
Bunches of peach palm fruits, showing the different farms

Extracting the palm heart from Bactris gasipaes in Costa Rica

In English, this species is known as the "peach palm," and grows in clusters of several trunks, each reaching to 20 m tall. The leaves, to 2 m long, are variably spined with ferocious 10 cm long needles. Each palm can yield up to a dozen fruit bunches annually. The fruits are orange to red on the exterior, and inside contain a yellowish, mealy flesh surrounding a hard seed. The flesh, upon boiling for an hour or more in salty water, has been described as similar between a chestnut and potato in flavor but more palatable than either one. This palm is an extremely valuable plant, providing food to indigenous peoples who plant it wherever they live. Indeed, when a group of these palms is found in the forest, it is a clear indication that a house once occupied the site. Many different forms of peach palm have been selected and domesticated by indigenous people, resulting in a broad range of colors, oil content, taste, fruit size, and shape. In recent times, the plant has been domesticated for the production of palm hearts in plantations in Costa Rica and Brazil, where it is now an agricultural crop. The "heart" (apical meristem) is canned in a preservative for local consumption and export.

Hevea brasiliensis (Willd. Ex Adr. De Juss.) Muell. Arg.
Local names: 'Caucho' (Colombia); 'Seringueira' (Brazil)

Bolivian rubber gatherer
Bolivian rubber gatherer tapping Hevea brasiliensis for its white latex

Seringueira is one of the most important plants of the Amazon Valley and is known to the rest of the world as rubber. About 99% of the world's natural rubber is produced from a fast-growing tree native to the lowland forests of the Amazon Basin. The trees can grow up to 40 m in height, in the wild, but when introduced into plantations the trees cease growth at 25 m. The most important product of this plant is latex, obtained from the conduction cells and tapped by cutting into the trunk. A knife with a V-shaped edge is used to cut channels into the tree at angles of 25 - 30º, beginning from the top left and extending to the bottom right. Botanists currently recognize nine species of Hevea. Hevea brasiliensis is the most important, but others have resistance to diseases such as the South American Leaf Blight. This plague has resulted in major devastation to rubber trees planted in the Amazon region. Thus, by growing different species, disease problems could be overcome. The industry based on harvest of wild trees collapsed with the introduction of cultivated rubber to the Old World tropics in the early 1900s, and today there is limited production of wild rubber in the Amazon. Local harvest cannot compete with the mechanized, modern plantations established in countries such as Malaysia, and, for the moment, the production of rubber in the Amazon Valley is of minor importance.

Oenocarpus bataua (Mart.) Burret
Local names: 'Majo' (Bolivia), 'Milpesos', 'Patauá (Brazil), 'Seje (Colombia and Venezuela), 'Unghuaray' (Peru)

Patauá palm fruit
Bunches of the Patauá palm fruit in the forest

Patauá palm oil
Patauá palm oil, similar in chemical composition and taste to olive oil

This is a beautiful palm with feathery leaves up to 8 m long. In the wild the palm grows up to 25 m in height. It is social in habit, and in certain ecological zones such as swamps, may occur in pure stands of tens of thousands of individuals. Patauá is a common species throughout the Amazon Valley and highly regarded by local inhabitants. The tree produces large clusters of dark purple, olive-sized fruits with a nutritious pulp and high quality oil. The oil, light green or yellow in color, is almost identical to olive oil in its physical and chemical properties. In addition, the protein found in this fruit is comparable to that of good animal protein, and much better than most grain and legume sources of protein. For example, in comparison with the biological value of soybean and animal protein, patauá scored approximately 40% higher. Although the palms in this group are slow growing, they provide a wealth of products to the local and indigenous communities, including thatch for roofing, fiber for arrow heads and blow gun darts, medicine from the roots and young seedlings, palm hearts, edible oil, protein rich-meal, animal feed, fiber for backpacks and weaving as well as other products.

Orbignya phalerata Martius
Local names: 'Babassu' (Brazil); 'Cusi' (Bolivia)

The Babassu palm
The Babassu palm, showing the massive clusters of oil-rich fruits

Babassu palm
Babassu palm in its native habitat

fruits of Babassu
Cracking open the fruits of Babassu to harvest the oil-rich kernels

The babassu palm is another plant native to the Amazon Valley, with a widespread concentration in areas peripheral to this region, especially northeastern Brasil. Throughout its distribution it forms the dominant vegetal cover over millions of hectares of forest. The babassu palm is valued by indigenous people for all of its parts, which provide important uses. In fact, the babassu palm is known as the "tree of life," as it is so important to the existence of people wherever it is found. For example, the leaves provide thatch and can be woven into mats for constructing house walls, the stems are used for timbers and, most importantly, the fruits yield a variety of products. Some of the products of the fruit, including fertilizer, alcohol tar and acetic acid, can only be derived through industrial processing, while others, such as edible oil, charcoal, and flour have been traditionally used by indigenous peoples throughout the region. The fruits of babassu look like small coconuts, born in clusters of a few dozen to several hundred. Some trees can yield up to one-half ton of fruits per year, and these are gathered and cracked by hand on an upturned ax head to separate the oil-rich kernel from the flour and shell which is later converted to charcoal. The babassu palm has great potential for reforestation of degraded tropical ecosystems. Although it is somewhat slow going, taking 15 to 20 years to mature, once established in an area it is an extremely aggressive component of the ecosystem. As such, it could be introduced into many degraded sites, providing support for the soil, food and shade to the local animal population, and products to the humans that inhabit the region.

Paullinia cupana H.B.&K. and P. cupana var. sorbilis (Mart.) Ducke
Local names: 'Cupana' (Venezuela and Colombia); 'Guaraná' (Brazil)

The Guaraná vine
The Guaraná vine in cultivation in Brazil

Guaraná powder
Guaraná powder sold in Brazil

Guaraná, as it is known in the Brazilian Amazon, is a vining shrub growing to approximately 10 m in height. The glossy green leaves bear large clusters of orange-red fruiting capsules at their ends and each capsule contains a chocolate-brown seed. It is the seed of this plant that has been highly valued by traditional peoples, due to its high caffeine content, which is approximately 4 to 5 times as much caffeine as coffee. People harvest the seeds, macerate them, and roll them into thick sticks of dry, hardened paste which can then be stored or exported from the region. In previous times, when long trips were to be made, a stick of guaraná was always carried. It could then be rasped against a rough object, traditionally the dried tongue of a fish, and crumble into powder that could be mixed with water and consumed either hot or cold. Due to the high caffeine content, the guaraná beverage would provide energy and help to reduce hunger during the trip. Commercially bottled by large manufacturers such as Coca-Cola, guaraná is a tremendously popular beverage in Brazil and in other parts of South America. The carbonated beverage is sold under a variety of names, and is consumed at the rate of tens of millions of bottles per day. Guaraná soda can also be found in specialty stores in the United States, such as ethnic groceries and health food stores. The traditional uses of guaraná in the Amazon include as a powerful tonic for general well-being, an analgesic for pain, an aphrodisiac, a heart tonic, and to treat diarrhea. Life in the Amazon Valley often begins with a hot cup of guaraná in the morning.

In conclusion, the plants of the Amazon have always provided its inhabitants with products important to their subsistence and economic livelihood. These include rubber, gums, waxes, fibers, oils, and foods. The study of the relationship between plants and people is known as ethnobotany, and certainly the Amazon Valley is an extraordinary place for the study of this science. Tragically, deforestation is reducing the genetic diversity of the tropical regions around the world, and as forests are destroyed, valuable plant and animal species are driven to extinction.

Amazonian forests
As Amazonian forests burn, irreplaceable biological treasures are lost

Conservation must involve not only preservation of valuable species in botanical gardens, seed banks, and other such collections, as well as preservation of wilderness regions of such great value to civilization.

Michael J. Balick, Ph.D.
Philecology Curator and Director
Institute of Economic Botany
The New York Botanical Garden
Bronx, New York 10458-5126 02/04/00

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