Plant 322

Paubrasilia echinata (Lam.) Gagnon & H.C.Lima & G.P.Lewis (Fabaceae)


The first map of Brazil showed native Amerindians harvesting and collecting brazilwood. It was published fewer than two decades after Portuguese sailors were the first Europeans to see the country. Portugal-bound ships laden with this wood, which remained one of Brazil's most valuable exports until the mid-seventeenth century, were a target for pirates, and a source of envy for other European empires. Brazilwood gave its name to the country. The generic name is based on the Brazilian common name for the tree, pau-brasil.

Brazilwood is a legume that occurs naturally only in the threatened coastal forests of eastern Brazil. The bark of brazilwood trees, which can reach 15 metres in height, flakes off the trunk in plates revealing the red tissues beneath; damaged trunks bleed red sap. The scented, insect-pollinated flowers have yellow petals with a blood-red spot at their base. As the woody, prickle-covered, few-seeded fruits mature, they twist and break, releasing the seeds.

The timber's value lay in the high-quality dye (brazilin) extracted from the heartwood. Portuguese traders recognised that neotropical brazilwood contained the same dye as another tree legume, sappanwood (Caesalpinia sappan) from Asia, which had coloured European textiles red for hundreds of years. Brazilin, or Natural Red 24, is extracted by treating brazilwood sawdust with alkali. It is a lake pigment, where a mordant is needed to precipitate the dye when colouring textiles; the mordant and its chemistry has dramatic effects on pigment colour. Brazilin is very similar to haematoxylin, a dye extracted from the wood of the yet another legume, the Central American logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum); this dye is used to make inks and histological stains.

Once widespread, brazilwood is now rare in the wild through overharvesting, although it is widely planted as an ornamental. Overexploitation of brazilwood appears to have been partially responsible for collapse of its trade in the eighteenth century.

Today, one of the main uses of brazilwood is for making high-quality bows for stringed instruments. The anatomy of the wood means that it combines the essential qualities of resonance, density, durability and beauty. Subtle variations in cell size and arrangement make the selection of pieces of wood, suitable for the manufacture of the highest quality bows, an art. Regulation of the brazilwood trade by international agreements, such as CITES, has created a driver to search for alternative materials for bow making, e.g., other dense tropical timbers, carbon fibre and composite materials.

Further reading

Alves ES et al. 2008. Pernambuco wood (Caesalpinia echinata) used in the manufacture of bows for string instruments. IAWA Journal 29: 323-335.

Dapson RW and Bain CL 2015. Brazilwood, sappanwood, brazilin and the red dye brazilein: from textile dyeing and folk medicine to biological staining and musical instruments. Biotechnic & Histochemistry 90: 401-423.

Dodge CJG 2018. A forgotten century of brazilwood: the brazilwood trade from the mid-sixteenth to mid-seventeenth century. E-journal of Portuguese History 16: 1-27.

Stephen Harris