2011 International Year of Forests – Sick? Swallow a tree!

This post is also available in: Dutch.

Aphids in massive numbers feast on the delicious juices of the plant. Enemies are sometimes true pests.

The struggle to become a tree

Suppose you’re a tree. After having passed through the intestinal tract of some animal and then being deposited in the middle of nowhere, covered with a thick layer of dung, you gently extend your first fragile roots after a good rainshower. With great difficulty your roots penetrate the thin layer of humus to finally locate adequate soil in which they can anchor themselves firmly. In a desperate attempt to make your own food you produce a stalk with two leaves attached to it, and then you realize that if you really want to survive in the dense forest, you need to make that stalk much longer to get enough sunlight. After years of fierce battling with rival neighboring trees you’ve finally done it. Your foliage extends above all others and you can finally claim your spot as a great tree. And then suddenly a wicked-looking weevil appears out of nowhere and starts drilling a hole in your majestic trunk, which took so much effort to create, with its vicious snout. Something needs to be done!

Enemies

Such a situation as described above is easy to imagine if you look in detail at a tree. The life of trees is not easy, even without the influence of mankind. At any given moment in the life of a tree, there are enemies that threaten to tear its leaves off as food, or to use them for the cultivation of other organisms used as a food source. For example leaf ants that you might encounter marching along a long track while carefully carrying pieces of leafs towards their underground fungi farms. But the flowers, branches, trunks and roots are also not safe from voracious insects, mammals, birds and other organisms.

Warfare

As a countermeasure trees produce real unprecedented chemical warfare at micro level. With toxic substances, plants and trees repel the unwanted ‘body’ eaters. Besides toxic substances other tactics are also used. The leafs of some trees secrete a very sticky substance when an invader tries to eat them, causing the jaws of the eater to be glued shut. Other plants have thorns as a protective measure. In extreme cases the tree will strike a pact with a species such as ants. The ants get unlimited access to the sweet juices of the plant while in return all other insects that target these juices are brutally eliminated by the ants.

Leaves are favorite food of many insects such as ants, beetles, grasshoppers and caterpillars. The poisonous juices of the leaves are not always effective, proven by the fact that the caterpillars of the Monarch butterfly feast on the leaves of the Katuna di Seda. The milk in the leaves may cause irritation in humans and is toxic.

Healthy toxins

The production of chemical defenses in trees has been very successful in their fight against the ongoing insect damage. Humans discovered completely by chance that many of these substances were sometimes very useful for the survival of their own species. Humans also suffer from quite a variety of nasty ‘eaters’ such as parasites, bacteria and viruses. Communities that lived very close to nature, such as the South American Indians and tribes in Africa, learned by observation and trial and error which plants they could use against fever, abdominal pain, and lots of other nastiness. By gaining knowledge about these practices, the pharmaceutical industry discovered that many of the plants and trees used in the fight against diseases were potent because of the presence of a few specific substances in the sap, sometimes even only one. Often it was found that the active substance was the one that the plant uses against the outside threats. With this knowledge, and lots of lab work, the active substances were extracted from the leafs, trunks or roots of the trees of interest and isolated. In some cases, a synthetic form of the active substance could be created allowing easy and cheap mass production without the need to keep on cutting trees. These active substances became the basis for drugs that could be produced on a large scale and widely distributed around the world. A step that has had major consequences for the history of mankind.

A historical picture of the Cinchona.

Malaria

The fight against malaria can be mentioned as an example. The Cinchona-tree grows in South America, a tree whose bark contains the compound quinine. In Suriname, the tree is known from the so-called ‘bitter’. Out of the bark a bowl was made, into which rum or another liquor was poured. After an overnight soak the ‘bitter’ was consumed, filled with quinine, as prevention against malaria, a mosquito-borne parasitic disease. The quinine in the tree became so successful that the tree was widely distributed around the world in attempts to combat and halt the increasingly spreading disease of malaria. The Netherlands exported the tree to all its colonies, but the cultivation was especially successful in Java where a quinine factory was established. Already in 1820 the substance was successfully isolated and synthesized and it quickly became as a stand-alone chemical compound a medicine against malaria. The soda drink ‘Bitter Lemon’ contains quinine, it is what gives the drink its popular bitter taste. Through the use of quinine for malaria on a large scale, also as a preventive, you would think that malaria would have been effectively suppressed by now.

Resistance

However, nature had a surprise in store for mankind. The parasites that caused the disease and that initially were killed by the quinine, the substance designed by the tree to keep nasty pests away, changed and developed resistance to quinine. After some time they ceased to be sensitive to quinine making it almost worthless as a medicine and as a prevention. A major setback for humanity who abruptly had to look for another means to protect itself, and proof that no medicinal product will stay effective forever. Not for mankind, and not for the tree, because these things happen all the time in nature. The enemy is fought with adaptations of the tree on a physical and chemical level. The enemy then changes its tactics and looks for a new way to get to the food. And then the tree needs to develop alternative pesticides. These dynamic processes ensure that there is continuous change in nature. Nothing ever stays the same.

Nature as a medicine woman

Natural healing is still very popular, also on Curacao. Some people even have more confidence in natural remedies than drugs from the pharmacy. The most famous person on the island dealing with natural remedies, and who is keeping the cultural knowledge of herbs and plants alive is Dinah Veeris. In addition to maintaining her herb garden and publishing books on the subject, she has an informative website (www.dinahveeris.com), she runs her store and organizes personal consults. A look at the website provides a lot of information on the use of the common tree species on the island for medicinal purposes. The pods of the Indju are beneficial for the stomach. Boiled Dreifi di Laman is a remedy for skin rashes. So: sick? Swallow a tree!

About Michelle da Costa Gomez