Okay well firstly let us not beat around the bush here and i’ll no longer introduce this as plant of the week, but plant of a week and it’s this week’s lucky week……HOORA…gooooooo WEEK! This one is going to give us a cheeky peek into the history of illegal plant collection (known as stealing in some circles) exportation, medical research and let’s face it an awful lot of shameful exploitation, but hey we wouldn’t have all our mocha choca loca latte frappechinos or rubber tyres (not quite sure how to jazz those up, apologies) without a bit of shameful exploitation here and there, now would we? This is going to be a bit of a history lesson so I apologise in advance to all those ‘here and nowers’ who only look forward, onward and upward and all that, but me I prefer to wallow in the past, so here goes…..another large amount of time passing…another plant to tingle your mind buds (sorry for the slightly disturbing mental image and length of my ramblings).
The plant in question here which MAY be totally completely awesome as f@ck if you are suffering from convulsions, profuse sweating, diarrhea, vomiting, high fever and the good old faithful….bloody stools, you may also be dying, just sayin……
May I introduce you to Cinchona? No, I do not mean the 4th countess of Cinchona who was married to the viceroy of Peru in the 1600’s, however this was how this plant got their name. Cinchona is a genus of 23 species, four of which are expected to be of medicinal value C. offianalis, C. ledgeriana C. succirubra and C. calisaya. However due to the readiness of hybridisation in upland areas of these plants, the exportation and medicinal uses of certain species is pretty damn difficult to track, leading to a much convoluted and interesting history. Belonging to the Rubiaceae family, yes for all you die hard caffeine addicts that is also the warm and welcoming but slightly dysfunctional family of Coffea arabica (coffee, dumbass.) Such trees are native to the Eastern slopes of the Andes, mainly Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru and were found in abundance historically in these areas, that is however until the great species that is man came and messed it all up like only we know how. They are also now widely cultivated in many tropical countries for their commercial value, however not indigenous to these areas. Linnaeus (who by the way is a pretty big deal in the world of Botany and kind of came up with the framework for classifying and naming plants, pretty cool guy if you’re curious and like order) decided to name this genus after the Countess of Cinchona, who was apparently cured of a fever after bathing in a pond beneath these trees, full to the brim of the broken down plant material, an alkaloid soup of *drum roll puleez* QUININE, leading to the tree also being known as the fever tree (more than likely the origins of the brand fever tree tonic…now there’s a story to tell at the bar). However, like many other things in history this event was disproved eventually because people like telling tales and proving others wrong, it’s in our nature. So, BYE countess…see you NEVER you big Pinocchio you!
This however does not disprove the fact that during the 1600s and more than likely for many many years previous the Quechua peoples of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador were cultivating this tree to use the bark medicinally as a muscle relaxant to abate the shivering from temperature changes experienced in the grips of a Malaria fever. Which, when western culture caught whiff of this, the plant was then targeted as a cure for Malaria…and so it goes. The exploitation and exportation begins, leaving many dead in its wake, like so many similar discoveries of this kind. However it could be argued that the lives saved in proportion is much greater…always a silver lining eh?
The bark was very valuable to Europeans in expanding their access to and exploitation of resources in distant colonies, such as India for the exploitation of tea, where they were at increasing risk of malaria. So begins the raping of economically poor and biodiverse rich areas through the medium of plant collecting and exportation.
By the 1650s shipments of Cinchona bark were regularly reaching Spain and by the 1670s was a well established remedy in Britain and surround, being used by big celebrities such as King Charles II and King of France Louis XVI, which encouraged an even greater demand for this natural commodity to soar, kind of like coconut oil or ummm…the selfie stick, they grow on trees right? Unfortunately as we know, with such increasing demand comes corruption. Bark gathering was often destructive destroying huge expanses for their bark, soil degradation and loss of biodiversity due to monoculture cultivation. There was also contention over the bark received at ports over its quality and effectiveness, due to only several species being high in active compounds. Not to mention low wages and poor conditions for workers involved in the cultivation who would only see a miniscule fraction of the profit compared with the large sums European traders would see.
Somewhere around the 1820s the first quinine alkaloids were extracted and described by Pierre Pelletier and Joseph Caventou. Within five years, the extracted alkaloids had become standard treatment for malaria. Quinine is now widely used medicinally and also contributes to that bitter taste attributed to the much known and loved Tonic water…I wouldn’t mind dying of malaria, but come on gin WTHOUT tonic water, that is a life I would not want to live.
The South American rainforests initially benefited from the income generated by harvesting cinchona bark for the extraction of this alkaloid from the bark for the manufacture of quinine drugs. Until those naughty botanists smuggled some seeds in 1865, notably that of the C. ledgeriana species which was known to be exceptionally rich in Quinine. After not much interest in Britain the seeds were then sold to the Dutch who successfully cultivated this species in Java. Extensive plantations established of quinine rich Chinchona trees, thus quickly dominating the worlds market of quinine by 1918. Huge profits were reaped by the dutch at this time – Bolivia and Peru seeing none of it. Shameful – eh?
This whole contentious historical debacle that formed one of the largest plant exchange and flow of germplasm at the time for profit in and out of the Americas, raised the alarm for equal benefit sharing from profitable plant material from parent countries, which has in effect led to the development of mutual benefit sharing agreements between countries and a crackdown on illegal plant trade. It’s just a shame such things have to happen before people begin to catch on….pillagers at heart ❤
So next summer we can all sing along….
‘Well I know what i’ll be doing when i’m Laid back with my mind on my money and my money on my mind. I’ll be Rollin down the street, smokin indo, sippin on gin and QUININE….’
SORRY but it had to be done….