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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

A purple clam pearl discovered by a Virginia woman in her bucket of clam shack clams

A purple clam pearl discovered by a Virginia woman in her bucket of clam shack clams

Ferrebeekeeper has rhapsodized about Atlantic clams (which grow to fabulous old age) and we have written about pearls—the nacreous sort which come from oysters and the big orange ones from Melo gastropods.  However did you know that ordinary clams can also produce pearls?

A collection of quahog (clam) pearls in front of a polished quahog shell

A collection of quahog (clam) pearls in front of a polished quahog shell

This fact has been much in the news this week because a Virginia Beach woman bought a sack of clams from Great Machipongo Clam Shack in Nassawadox and discovered an extra consonant—er, I mean a rare clam pearl.  The clams were farm-raised littleneck clams which were about two years old (before they were harvested and cooked, I mean).  When the unsuspecting woman bit into one, she found a 4.5 carat lavender pearl.  The gem is slightly acorn-shaped and lustrous with alternating horizontal bands of lighter and darker purple.

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National media outlets (which are having a slow week, I guess) are playing up the clam pearl’s value, which could range as high as three thousand American dollars.  The estimation may not be incorrect.  The classic compendium of pearl information The Book of the Pearl: The History, Art, Science, and Industry of the Queen of Gems (Kuntz, 1908) informs us that:

Pearls also occur in the quahog, or hard clam (Venus mercenaria), of the Atlantic coast of the United States. Although these are rare, they are generally of good form, and some weigh upward of eighty grains each. They are commonly of dark color, purplish, ordinarily, but they may be white, pale lilac, brown, and even purplish black or black. Fine dark ones have a high retail value. They are often referred to as “clam pearls.

I kinda like the quahog pearl—like precious Melo pearls, it reminds me of an alien planet or an exquisite elfen turnip. However if they cost $ 3K apiece you all probably should not expect to get any in your stockings from me.

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Melo Pearl

Melo Pearl

The world’s rarest and most precious pearls do not come from oysters, but instead from very large sea snails of the species Melo melo.  Melo melo snails lives in the tropical waters of southeast Asia and range from Burma down around Malysia and up into the Philippines.  The snails are huge marine gastropods which live by hunting other smaller snails along the shallow underwater coasts of the warm Southeast Asia seas.

Melo melo snail (Melo melo)

Melo melo snail (Melo melo)

Melo melo is a very lovely snail with a smooth oval shell of orange and cream and with zebra stripes on its soft body.  The shell lacks an operculum (the little lid which some snails use to shut their shells) and has a round apex as opposed to the more normal spiral spike. This gives the Melo melo snail’s shell a very aerodynamic lozenge-like appearance (although living specimens look more like alien battlecraft thanks to the large striped feet and funnels).  The animals grow to be from 15 to 35 centimeters in length (6 inches to a foot) although larger specimens have been reported.  The shell is known locally as the bailer shell because fishermen use the shells to bail out their canoes and small boats.

Melo melo at Birmingham's National Sea Life Centre (with keeper)

Melo melo at Birmingham’s National Sea Life Centre (with keeper)

Melo pearls form only rarely on the snails and are due to irritating circumstances unknown to science.  No cultivation mechanism exists (which explains the astronomically high prices).  A single large melo pearl can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars or more in Asia.  The pearls are usually egg-shaped or oval (although perfectly round specimens are known) and they can measure up to 20-30mm in diameter.  Not nacreous (like pearls from oysters & abalones), these valuable objects have a porcelain-like transparent shine.  Melo pearls are brown, cream, flesh, and orange (with the brighter orange colors being most valuable).

Melo pearls with Melo melo shell

Melo pearls with Melo melo shell

Apart from the fact that they come from a large orange predatory sea snail, what I like most about melo pearls is the extent to which they evoke the celestial.  It is hard not to look at the shining ovals and orbs without thinking of the sun, Mars, Makemake, and Haumea.  Rich jewelry aficionados of East Asia, India, and the Gulf states must agree with me.  It is difficult to conceive of paying the price of a nice house for a calcium carbon sphere from an irritated/diseased snail, unless such pearl spoke of unearthly beauty and transcendent longing.

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When I was a boy I was wandering around in my grandfather’s storage shed when I found a ragged hand woven sack filled with mystery blobs.  These powdery golden-orange nuggets were hard (albeit slightly gummy) and they had a translucent glow.  When I inquired about the alien substance, my grandfather pulled a glowing ember from the fire and set one of the weird nuggets on top of the hot coal.  Immediately an aromatic cloud of smoke welled up from the lump and filled the room.  The glorious smell was simultaneously like lemon and pine but with deep strange medicinal undertones of cedar and some unidentifiable otherworldly spiciness.  It was transfixing. The blobs were frankincense, obtained in Somalia during the fifties (my grandparents and mother and uncle were living there on diplomatic/government business).  The unprepossessing amber lumps turned out to be the incense of kings and gods.

Frankincense

Frankincense has been harvested from the arid deserts of Southern Arabia and Northeast Africa since prehistoric times.  The hardened resin which is also known as olibanum is the product of tiny scrub trees from the family Boswellia.  The sacred frankincense tree Boswellia sacra, produces an especially fine grade (although the same tree can produce different grades of frankincense depending on the time of year).

A Boswellia Tree (Frankincense Tree)

Frankincense trees are tough trees capable of surviving on misty breezes from the ocean, rocky limestone soil, and little else.  Certain species of Boswellia trees are able to produce a disk-like bulb which adheres to sheer rock.  The trees can thereby cling to boulders and cliffs in severe windstorms.  The incense is harvested by carefully scraping a wound in the tree’s bark and then returning later to harvest the hardened resin (although such mistreatment is said to gradually diminish the trees).

For countless centuries, bags of frankincense and other aromatic resins were the chief trade products of regions of the southern Arabian Peninsula (in what are today Yemen and Oman).  These compounds were of tremendous importance to the ancient Egyptians for both cosmetic and funerary purposes.  In Biblical times, incense was traded throughout the Middle East and in the classical Greco-Roman world.  The fragrant resins even were exported to ancient India and dynastic China where they became part of traditional medicine and ritual.

An earthenware censer with lead glaze from the Eastern Han dynasty, 25-220 AD

This incense trade was allegedly centered in the quasi-mythical lost city Iram of the Pillars.  In this oasis at the edge of the Rub’ al Khali dunes, the Ubar people dwelled in a beautiful columned city. According to the Quran, the city of Iram met an apocalyptic doom when its ruler, King Shaddad defied the warnings of the prophet Hud .  Shaddad’s impiety caused Allah to smite the entire region into the sands.  All of this was regarded as mythology until space-based imaging systems (including LandSat, SPOT, and shuttle data) revealed that ancient caravan trails did indeed center on a collapsed oasis.  It is speculated that over millennia, the inhabitants had drained the ancient subterranean aquifer, which ultimately caused the ground to collapse—a salutary lesson for the aquifer based cities of Western America! Whatever the cause, the frankincense industry contracted greatly around 300 AD, although plenty of resin still went to medicinal and liturgical buyers.

Frankincense is purported to have many pharmacological uses, particularly as an anti-inflammatory agent, an anti-depressant, and an anti-cancer treatment. Although initial clinical studies of these claims seem encouraging, the safety and efficacy of frankincense is still being tested and reviewed.  Sources on the web suggested that a recent study by Johns Hopkins biologists and doctors from Hebrew University in Jerusalem found that inhaling frankincense incense could alleviate anxiety and depression (but again my sources are unclear so don’t run out and start eating frankincense if you are suffering from holiday blues).  Even if frankincense does not provide us with a new class of wonder drugs, it remains useful for deterring insects, including the deadly malarial mosquitoes.  Additionally, as noted above,  frankincese smells wonderful.  Maybe you should run to your local caravan and pick some up.

Or wherever you go for incense these days...

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