Bark as a raw material
Most cultures have long understood that plant chemicals have medicinal properties. Bark has been used as medicine in China for the treatment of arthritis.
A hundred million people each year are infected by malaria. The alkaloid quinine is extracted from the root and trunk bark of Cinchona, a genus of trees of the madder family, native to the South American Andes. It is still the most effective remedy against the disease.
The plant was named after the Countess of Chinchon, wife of the Viceroy of Peru, who was cured of malaria by Jesuit priests using its bark in 1638. They had been introduced to it by South American First Nation peoples in 1633. The active ingredient was later called ‘quinine’ after the Amerindian word quinaquina meaning “bark of barks”.
Cancer drugs are extracted from barks. The South African cape bush willow supplies treatments for colon, ovarian and lung cancers. Taxanes first extracted from the Pacific yew, are used for the treatment of ovarian and breast cancer.
The world’s favourite pain-killer is salicylic acid. Better known as aspirin, it can be obtained from poplar and willow bark.
Cinnamon is the inner bark from trees of the Laurel family, particularly Cinnamomum zeylanicum, native to southern India and Sri Lanka. Traditionally it is used as a medicine, an astringent, an antiseptic and for the relief of flatulence. It has been linked to the relief of diabetes.
Curare is a common name given to a range of poisons based on different plants. The most well-known use is as an arrow and spear poison, especially in south America, Africa and southeast Asia. It is a mixture of bark extracts from a number of plants.
Curare was unknown in the West until the 16th century, when Spanish conquistadors were in contact with native Amazonians. The active principle tubocurarine was not isolated until 1939. It was introduced into western medicine as an anaesthetic in 1943.
An arrow poison used by Yanomami (of northern Brazil and southern Venezuela), Paumari (Upper Purus river, Brazil) and other tribes comes from the bark of the Ucuuba tree (Virola theiodora) a member of the nutmeg family.