The Amazon is home to a wide array of plants that can make our lives easier and healthier, even if we do not necessarily know it. Over thousands of years, the indigenous people of the Amazon, who grew familiar with these plants, applied their properties to food, medicine and more. Subsequently, selected parts of some of these plants have supplemented a variety of industries all over the world.
Para Rubber Tree
The Para rubber tree (Hevea brasiliensis) is among the most famous native plants of the Amazon. It is a member of the Euphorbiaceae family. It is a deciduous tree that can grow up to 100 feet high, with leathery leaves and fragrant yellowish-white flowers.
The para rubber tree is the primary source of latex, which is the main ingredient in rubber. The latex or tree sap can be tapped when the tree grows to be five or six years old. Rubber tapping can continue for about 25 years for the average tree.
Latex collected from para trees in the Amazon played a major role in advancing the world’s automobile industries. It was key to the successful functioning of the first gasoline internal combustion engines built by Wilhelm Maybach, Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz in Germany in 1889, and by Henry Ford in the United States in 1896.
The cacao or cocoa tree (Theobrama cacao) is a very rich resource for both food and medicine. It is a member of the Sterculiaceae family. This small evergreen is native to the Amazon and Orinoco river basins. The Incas discovered its numerous benefits and they used its seeds as currency.
The tree’s pods each yield between 20 and 40 seeds. Fermented seeds turn brown and produce the flavoring of chocolate. The polyphenols in chocolate work to curb heart disease.
The seeds, leaves, fruit and bark of the cacao tree hold over 150 beneficial chemicals that are antidotes to nervous conditions, fatigue and coughs.
The kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) can be called the giant of the Amazon. It can grow to heights of around 230 feet, towering above the rainforest canopy, with trunks reaching about 10 feet in diameter.
With such an imposing appearance, it is little wonder the Mayans considered the kapok tree as sacred. They believed that its branches ascended to heaven, and that its roots descended to the underworld. They called it the “tree of life.”
This tree is also impressive as a source of food and shelter for a wide range of rainforest insects, birds, monkeys and plants. Medicinally, its components are used to treat fevers, asthma, dysentery and kidney disease.
Industrially, its fiber provides thermal insulation. It is used as filling for pillows, mattresses and life jackets.