Pau brasil (Caesalpinia echinata)

GenusCaesalpinia (1)
SizeHeight: 5 - 15 m (2)

Classified as Endangered (EN) on the IUCN Red List (1).

This rare tree is famous as the origin of the name of the country of Brazil. It may reach up to 15 metres in height, and the dark brown bark flakes in large patches, revealing the lustrous blood-red heartwood underneath (2). The leaves are branching and each stem contains between 9 and 19 small, leathery leaflets, which are broadly oblong in shape (2). The flower stalk, or inflorescence, is also branched and contains between 15 and 40 yellow, strongly perfumed flowers (2). The petals are usually yellow with a blood-red blotch (2). The fruits are oval-shaped woody seedpods, measuring up to 7.3 cm long and 2.6 cm across; they hang off the braches and after the seeds are expelled the pod twists in shape (2). The branches, leaves and fruit of the pau brasil are covered with small thorns (3).

Endemic to eastern Brazil, native stands are still found in the states of Pernambuco, Bahia, Espirito Santo and Rio de Janeiro (2); the pau brasil is also often cultivated as an ornamental or park tree (2).

The pau brasil is found in the threatened Atlantic Coastal Forest of Brazil (4) and in various habitats associated with this area, from dry coastal cactus scrub and rocky outcrops, to tropical deciduous forest and sandy restinga forest (2).

Flowering and fruiting occur from the end of August until March (2). The colourful and highly perfumed flowers suggest that the species may be pollinated by bees (2).

There are some important differences between geographically distinct populations and it is thought that investigation, currently in progress, may indicate that separate subspecies of the pau brasil exist (2). This tree may have some medicinal properties and has been used as an astringent and antidiuretic by local people; recently, extracts have been tested as possible cancer treatments (2).

In the past, the pau brasil was an extremely important source of red dye, a trade that began in the 1500s (1). The use of synthetic dyes only became widespread in the late 19th Century, by which time the natural stands of Brazil's national tree had been all but destroyed (1). The wood is a hard and durable timber, and has been in demand for construction over the centuries (3). Today, the main threat facing this species is its exportation for the manufacture of high-quality violin bows (2). This tree is the main source of professional bows worldwide, and it is estimated that a single violin bow, which may cost up to $ 5,000, requires 1 kg of wood (5). Brazil's Atlantic forest is an extremely threatened habitat, and has now been reduced to less than 5% of its original cover (4).

The country of Brazil was named after the 'brasileiros' who originally collected the dyewood of this tree, and the pau brasil has an important place in the history and culture of the country. This species is included in the official list of threatened Brazilian plants by the Brazilian Institute of Natural Resources (IBAMA) (1) (7), and there are various laws restricting the export and cutting of the pau brasil, although these are often poorly enforced (5). Two protected areas were set up in Bahia and Pernambuco in order to preserve populations of pau brasil in these regions (5). Fauna and Flora International (FFI) have launched a SoundWood programme as part of their Global Trees Campaign in order to raise awareness of the issues surrounding the demand for hardwoods for musical instruments (4). They are working closely with a local Brazilian NGO, known as Amainan Brasil (6), which is running environmental education programmes in schools in the Atlantic Forest region and is investigating the distribution of this tree in Rio State (4). Such a historic tree may act as an important 'flagship' species for the protection of Brazil's precious Atlantic Forest.

For more information on the Global Trees Campaign see:

Authenticated (31/3/03) by Fauna & Flora International's Global Trees Campaign.

  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2009)