Brazilwood Tree (Caesalpinia echinata)
When Portuguese explorers reached the coast of Brazil in 1500, they found a vast forest filled with strangely familiar trees. The new world trees were very like the Sappanwood trees which the Portuguese merchants and traders knew from Asia. Sappanwood is a sort of pulse tree (a legume/bean of the family Fabaceae) which produces lustrous red-orange sapwood. Not only is this shiny wood particularly fine for bows and musical instruments, it can also be made into a red dye of tremendous value in that long-ago age before widespread synthetic chemistry.
The dye of the sappanwood trees of Asia was known as “brazilin” and the Portuguese called the land they grabbed “Terra do Brasil” i.e. land of the brazilwood. The newly discovered trees (Caesalpinia echinata) were indeed close relatives of the hard-to-get Asian Brazilin trees, and soon a thriving industry grew up, exploiting the forests of the huge new colony for dye and fine timber.
Alas, the unfettered harvesting of the beautiful trees, lead to a collapse. By the 18th century, the trees were nearly extinct in their original range. Generally, these trees thrive only in a mature tropical rain forest. The network of plants, fungi, insects, and microbes in a climax community ecosystem seem to be necessary for the saplings to grow well.
Today brazilwood is still valuable for specialty niche woodcraft, but the proliferation of synthetic dyes has largely halted the trade in the trees (which can reach 15 meters (50 feet) in height). However, it is hardly news that other threats–climate change, logging, and agriculture are putting the future of the Amazon’s rainforests at risk. Brazil is named after trees. We need to all work to make sure the world’s greatest forests survive this era of rapid change.