Logwood and Brazilwood
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Economic Plant Photographs #4

Logwood and Brazilwood:
Trees That Spawned 2 Nations

Modified From: Pacific Horticulture 53: 38-43
by Wayne P. Armstrong (Spring 1992)

If you lived in England during the late 15th century, your wardrobe was probably drab by today's standards. Your choice of colors was generally limited to blacks, yellow-browns and grays. Reds and purples did exist, but the supply of fast dyes in these colors was very limited, and most of it was used for royalty and ecclesiastical garments. Then, shortly after the famous voyages of Columbus, the Portuguese and British discovered New World sources of brilliant red dyes from two Central and South American trees. These remarkable botanical discoveries forever changed the wardrobes of Europe and led to the birth of two nations.

Brazilwood (Caesalpinia echinata)

There are European records of true red dyes during the Middle Ages, primarily from the heartwood of an Asian tree called sappanwood (Caesalpinia sappan). Sappanwood is native to India, Malaya and Sri Lanka, and is cultivated throughout the Asian tropics. The wood was imported into Europe since medieval times, but only in limited quantities. The dye was a beautiful red, the color of burning coals (in Old French and English "braise") and was called bresil or brasil by the early Portuguese traders. In 1500, Portuguese ships discovered and claimed the Atlantic side of South America that straddled the equator and the tropic of Capricorn. This massive land was called "Terra de Brasil" and later Brazil, because of the dyewood trees (Caesalpinia echinata) that grew there in abundance. Like the closely related sappanwood, the valuable dye from brazilwood (called brazilin) became a popular coloring agent for cotton, woolen cloth and red ink. As with precious cargoes of gold and jewels, Portuguese ships loaded with brazilwood were favorite targets of marauding buccaneers on the high seas.

Note: The following images of leaves, flowers and seed pods were originally identified as Caesalpinia echinata. They were taken from a small tree near the Chemistry Building on the campus of Palomar College. At the time of this writing (November 2006), I have learned that the South American C. spinosa was planted in the nearby Palomar College Arboretum and has reproduced from seeds in a few places on campus. The smooth legume pods are quite different from the spiny, few-seeded pods of true brazilwood. The flowers and foliage are similar to brazilwood; however, its shrubby growth form with multiple trunks without dark heartwood suggests that it is C. spinosa. In addition, its naturalized growth in the arid hillsides above the Palomar College Arboretum is indicative of C. spinosa rather than C. echinata. The ground pods of tara (Caesalpinia spinosa) are a source of tannins, and it is cultivated in Peru and northern Africa. The tannins are used for tanning high grade leather, and for making a black dye used in inks. Tara gum comes from the endosperm of ground seeds. Like guar gum and locust bean gum, it is used as a thickening agent and emulsifier for many food products.

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Compound leaf and seed pods of a small South American species of Caesalpinia on the Palomar College campus. Originally misidentified as brazilwood (C. echinata), this is actually tara (C. spinosa). It doesn't produce the red dye in its heartwood. The dark red solution was made from the dye brazilin dissolved in water. Brazilin is obtained from the heartwood of brazilwood (C. echinata). The yellow flowers have five spreading petals (typical of the subfamily Caesalpinioideae), unlike the pealike blossoms of most other legumes in the large subfamily Papilionoideae.

One of the most distinctive traits that separate brazilwood from tara is the seed pod. The flattened pods of brazilwood are oval (oblique) and spiny. They are dehiscent and contain only 2 or 3 seeds. The reddish-tinged, indehiscent pods of tara are smooth and elongate with more than 3 seeds. Compare the pod of brazilwood (left) with pods of tara in the above image.
The heartwood of brazilwood (pau-brazil) has been used in the making of violin bows for more than two centuries and is known to bowmakers and musicians as pernambuco wood. See: Rymer, R. 2004. "Saving the Music Tree." Smithsonian 35 (1): 52-63.

Logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum)

Meanwhile, the Spanish had discovered another leguminous tree in Yucatan with a deep red heartwood very similar to brazilwood. The tree became known as logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum), and by the late 1500s Spanish ships were exporting large cargoes of the valuable heartwood from the Yucatan coast. At this time it was common practice for British privateers to attack and destroy the Spanish vessels. In his book British Honduras (1883), A. R. Gibbs describes one such privateer, a Captain James, who discovered that the debarked heartwood sold in England for the enormous price of one hundred pounds sterling per ton. English political economist Sir William Petty estimated that the average value of merchandise a ship of the 1600s could carry in a year was 1000 to 1500 pounds sterling. A single load of 50 tons of logwood was worth more than an entire year's cargo of other merchandise!

The scenic New River of northern Belize, where logwood was discovered by the British in the early 1600s. The large trees in distance are logwoods(Haematoxylum campechianum). The dense jungle vegetation along the river contains several palms, including the palmetto Paurotis wrightii and bay-leaf palm (Sabal morrisiana).

See Bay-leaf Palm Along The New River
See Bay-Leaf Palm Used For Thatched Roofs

There were other natural red and purple dyes used in medieval Europe, including madder, indigo, carmine, Tyrian purple, and the lichen dyes orchil and cudbear. Like sappanwood, they were all imported from faraway lands and were very expensive. Since these animal and vegetable extracts were considered to be superior permanent dyes, many English dyers vigorously opposed the cheaper, imported heartwood dyes from Mexico and Central America. Between 1581 and 1662 an Act of Parliament strictly forbade the use of logwood for dyeing. Although anyone violating this law was subject to imprisonment or the pillory, some dyers apparently discovered the colorfast attributes of logwood and used it under other names.

Two popular animal dyes of this period are especially interesting. Tyrian purple or royal purple was obtained from Mediterranean snails of the genus Murex. It was the principle dye of seafaring Phoenicians, and it was used to dye the robes of ancient Greek and Roman aristocrats. Carmine red was obtained from the crushed bodies of cochineal scale, small insects resembling mealybugs that live on prickly-pear cacti of Mexico and the southwestern United States. By tedious hand labor, large numbers of the minute insects were brushed off the prickly cactus pads and exported to England. Some authors have stated incorrectly that cochineal insects were used to dye the red coats of uniforms worn by British soldiers during the Revolutionary War; however, the crimson dye used for the red coats came from the roots of the Eurasian madder plant (Rubia tinctorium).

The fame of logwood spread and soon other privateers began capturing logwood-laden vessels on their voyages back to Spain. When the Spanish Navy sent expeditions to protect the logwood ships, crews of the privateers found it more profitable to search for logwood on shore. By this time, the British had discovered large stands of logwood on the Caribbean shores of Central America. Between 1640 and 1660 logging camps were established in mosquito-infested swamplands which became known as British Honduras, and later as Belize. The early wood-cutters, called Baymen, exported thousands of tons of logwood back to England during the 1700s and 1800s, up to 13,000 tons in a single year.

The scenic New River of northern Belize, where Baymen (logwood cutters) once harvested logwood. Logwood trees (Haematoxylum campechianum) still grow in the dense tropical forest and jungle along the river.

The generic name Haematoxylum (often spelled Haematoxylon) means bloodwood, referring to the dark red heartwood. The specific epithet campechianum refers to the coastal city of Campeche on the Yucatan Peninsula, the type locality and another important source of the valuable heartwood. Early in the eighteenth century logwood was introduced into the West Indies and other Caribbean islands where it became naturalized. On some islands such as Haiti and Jamaica, large areas of tropical vegetation have been denuded due to logwood cutting on plantations.

Logwood tree (Haematoxylum campechianum) growing along the New River of northern Belize.

Logwood is a small, spiny tree with a peculiar deeply-fluted or corrugated trunk that appears like a cluster of stems fused together. The pinnate leaves consist of several pairs of reverse heart-shaped (obcordate) leaflets. Showy yellow blossoms appear throughout the year and are typical of the subfamily Caesalpinioideae, with five spreading petals. The papery seed pods are unusual among legumes because they split down the middle instead of along the edges. The wood is very hard and dense, freshly cut stems readily sink in water. The dark heartwood is the source of the brilliant red dye hematoxylin.

The deeply fluted, corrugated trunk of logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum) is unmistakable in the dense jungle of northern Belize. The large black mass on upper trunk (left photo) is a termite nest. My excellent guide on the New River (Lewis Godoy) is also shown in the picture.

Although logwood is distributed from southeastern Mexico to Honduras, much of Belize's original old-growth stands along the Rio Hondo, New River and Belize River drainage systems were cut down by the Baymen. Today scattered logwood trees still occur along these scenic rivers, mixed with large bullet trees (Bucida buceras), palmettos and bayleaf palms (Paurotis wrightii and Sabal morrisiana), and dense jungle vegetation. In 1800, the logwood market was glutted and the price for heartwood dropped significantly. By the mid 1800s, the discovery of cheaper, aniline dyes from coal tar decreased the need for logwood even more. Eventually, Belize's principal export shifted to the rich, untapped forests of Honduran mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla).

A freshly-cut piece of heartwood from a logwood tree along the New River turns the water in this container a blood red. The hematoxylin dye dissolves readily in fresh water.

According to Alan K. Craig (Caribbean Studies Vol. 9: 53-62, 1969), swampy conditions in the early logwood camps were unbearable. Crude living quarters were constructed on raised platforms amidst clouds of mosquitoes. During the rainy season, a logwood cutter stepped out in the morning into two or more feet of crocodile infested water and remained there all day. The Baymen were able to move large numbers of felled trees by rafting them down the rivers. Floating cradles made from buoyant trunks of palms and other trees were used to float the heavy logwood to shipping areas. All the bark and sapwood was removed before the logwood could be shipped. It required a prodigious amount of hard, monotonous physical labor to produce one ton of heartwood blocks and billets from the felled trees. Large mounds of logwood chips became the highest elevations to be found in the area, and were considered choice locations for house construction. Meanwhile, slaves were brought in from Africa and the West Indies to help cut logwood. Many died from disease, malnutrition and inhumane atrocities at the hands of their owners. Lack of food was a constant problem and the Baymen often turned to fishing or killed manatees, endangered mammals that were once abundant around the river deltas. To this day, a black and a white logwood cutter are depicted in the national emblem of Belize, which appears on currency and the Belize flag.

A black and a white logwood cutter are depicted in the national emblem of Belize, which appears on the Belize flag and on Belize currency.

Disclaimer: I originally thought the wood cutters on Belize flag were logwood cutters; however, some Belize historians say the coat of arms depicts mahogany cutters from forests of Honduran mahogany trees (Swietenia macrophylla) that later became a major industry in Belize.

Like the Portuguese sailors a century before, the British logwood ships were a constant target for pirates. There were also frequent conflicts with the Spanish over the right of the British to settle in Belize and cut logwood. During the eighteenth century Spanish troops attacked the logwood camps many times. Eventually in 1763, the Treaty of Paris gave the British rights to cut and export logwood, but Spain still claimed sovereignty over the land. Another agreement in 1783 called the Treaty of Versailles limited the area accessible to logwood cutters. Again in 1798 another war erupted between Spanish soldiers and British settlers. Although the Spanish forces were stronger, the Baymen knew the coastal waters better and the Spanish were defeated.

Early British loggers apparently did not encounter the Maya until they moved deeper into the interior in search of mahogany. The Maya strongly resisted British attempts to take over their territory, and several bloody battles occurred in the early nineteenth century. Like the origin of other New World countries, Belize's struggle for existence was tarnished by slavery and the slaughter of native Indians. In 1981 Belize became an independent nation, although its precarious borders with Guatemala and Honduras are still protected by a formidable British military presence.

The actual dye from logwood is hematoxylin, a complex phenolic compound similar to the flavonoid pigments of flowers. The chemical structure of hematoxylin is practically identical with the dye brazilin from brazilwood, except that hematoxylin has one additional atom of oxygen. Hematoxylin is extracted by boiling chips or raspings of logwood in water. By exposure to the air the orange-red crystals of hematoxylin are gradually oxidized to metallic green crystals of another popular dye called hematein. The presence of a considerable amount of tannin in the purplish-red dye bath allows the logwood extract to react with iron salts to give a permanent black color. Logwood dyes have been used extensively for cotton and woolen goods, leather, furs, silk and inks.

The complex phenolic structure of the dyes hematoxylin and brazilin are similar to bioflavonoids, such as the pigments of flowers. They are classified as phenolic compounds because of the hydroxyl (OH) groups attached to the benzene rings. Hematoxylin is practically identical with brazilin, except that hematoxylin has one additional atom of oxygen.

In order to make the dyes colorfast they must be used with various mordants, such as alum, acetic acid (vinegar) and cream of tartar. The action of mordants is very complex, but essentially they serve to chemically bind the dye molecules with the fabric polymer. Different colors are produced depending on the type of mordant and duration of the dye bath, including bright reds and beautiful shades of blue, from light lavender to a deep blue-black. Although the demand for logwood dyes fell off with the development of synthetic substitutes, during World War I when German aniline exports were cut off, logwood again appeared in American ports. Both hematoxylin and hematein are still commonly used for bacteriological and histological stains. Logwood and brazilwood dyes are also popular stains for fine wood finishing.

The reddish brown heartwood of logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum) produces a dark red solution in water and is the source of the two biological stains hematoxylin and hematein.

This tissue from the author's left ala was stained with hematoxylin, a phenolic dye derived from the heartwood of logwood (Hematoxylum campechianum). The image shows a hair follicle (middle right) and several sebaceous glands. Also called oil glands, the sebaceous glands secrete sebum, an oily substance that lubricates the hair and skin. If sebaceous glands fail to discharge, the secretions collect and form "whiteheads" or "blackheads." The darker color of blackheads is due to oxidized sebum. Magnification 300 x.

Mexican Logwood (Haematoxylum brasiletto)

Another lesser-known Mexican species of logwood is called palo de brasil or palo de tinto (Haematoxylum brasiletto). It has a remarkable distribution from desert hillsides and arroyos of Sonora and Chihuahua, extending south through tropical dry forests of Oaxaca, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Colombia. In the Cape region of Baja California it forms an interesting association of desert scrub, mixed with elephant trees (Bursera microphylla) and giant cardon cactus (Pachycereus pringlei). In late spring some of the trees are decorated with yellow, funnel-shaped blossoms of Merremia aurea, a beautiful endemic vine closely related to the Hawaiian wood rose. Like logwood, the main trunk and limbs of palo de brasil are deeply fluted with dark red heartwood. Palo de brasil is an attractive small tree or shrub with delicate heart-shaped leaflets and showy yellow blossoms. It might be a promising horticultural plant for frost-free gardens of the Pacific coast.

The deeply fluted, corrugated trunk of Mexican logwood or palo de brasil (Haematoxylum brasiletto) is similar to Belize logwood. This species has a remarkable distribution from desert hillsides and arroyos of Baja California and Sonora, Mexico, extending south through tropical dry forests of Oaxaca, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Colombia. The flowers are typical of the pea subfamily Caesalpinioideae with five spreading petals, unlike the typical pea blossoms of subfamily Papilionoideae. The heartwood dye is used for cottons and wool, and as a pink coloring for toothpaste and mouthwash.

See Yellow-Flowered Morning Glory Of Baja California

The heartwood of palo de brasil is equally as valuable as logwood, and has been exported in large quantities from the west coast of Mexico. It has also been used locally as a dye for cottons and wool, and as a pink coloring for various pharmaceuticals including toothpastes and mouthwashes. According to Lillian Diven, writing in Saguaroland Bulletin (1977), palo de brasil was well known to the Aztecs and was also a prominent dye in Maya weaving. The Tarahumara Indians of northwest Mexico have never stopped using palo de brasil. The baton of their leader, the gobernador, is made of the wood and the extract is used to dye woolen threads for the sashes worn by every Tarahumara man.

Like the logwood of Belize, the compound leaf of palo de brasil (Haematoxylum brasiletto) is composed of several pairs of heart-shaped leaflets. Unlike most legumes, the seed pods split down the middle instead of along the edges.

Although concentrated dosages of hematoxylin and hematein are toxic, there are many references citing naturapathic remedies from extracts of palo de brasil and logwood. Purplish-red solutions of boiled heartwood chips reportedly have antibiotic properties, reducing fever and strengthening the body. Tarahumara Indians still apply a decoction of palo de brasil to the skin of persons suffering from jaundice and bacterial infections. According to Potter's New Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs (1956 and 1985), heartwood extracts are a mild but effective astringent and may be taken internally for diarrhea, dysentery, infections of mucous membranes and hemorrhages from the lungs, uterus and bowls. For medical purposes, unfermented, reddish chips are preferable to oxidized chips coated with greenish hematein. In the London Pharmacopoeia of 1740 logwood tea was prescribed for tuberculosis and dysentery. Today in Mexico, small bags containing heartwood chips of palo de brasil are commonly sold in "tiendas de plantas medicinales" (medicinal plant stores).

Heartwood chips of palo de brasil (Haematoxylum brasiletto) are commonly sold in tiendas de plantas medicinales (medicinal plant stores) in Mexico. A purplish-red solution of the boiled chips reportedly has many naturopathic properties, including an effective antibiotic for infections. According to Potter's New Cyclopaedia of Botanical Drugs (1956 and 1985), heartwood extracts are a mild but effective astringent and may be taken internally for diarrhea, dysentery, infections of mucous membranes, and hemorrhages from the lungs, uterus and bowels.

In May 2016 I soaked my old heartwood chips of Mexican logwood in water overnight and they still yield a bright red dye.

Although it is still commonly used by native people of Mexico and Central America, it is doubtful that logwood will ever achieve the world importance that it held during the past two centuries. Kings and clergymen no longer wear robes dyed with logwood, however, bottles of logwood dyes will probably always be around on the shelves of microbiology laboratories and on workbenches of fine woodcrafters. The days of rugged buccaneers and Baymen have long since passed; their marvelous masted ships no longer ride the ocean currents and trade winds back to England. But the memories of those fabulous times are forever commemorated in the flag of a young nation that owes its birth to a tree.

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