Ayahuasca and Baru

Hey everyone! We all know the baru tree is a very old species. But did you know shamanic ayahuasca ceremonies have been using the tree for thousands of years?

That’s right. Many indigenous groups in Bolivia consider the baru tree a “teacher” or “master” plant . They use its many parts as medicine, and add the baru bark in their brewing of ayahuasca for guidance. Baru thus plays an important role in their shamanic mythology.

Ayahuasca-ceremonies-Bolivia

An Ese’Ejja shaman and his daughter.

Even though baru is a savanna tree, it exists in Cerrado patches bordering the Amazon rainforest. This means the tree can be found in many places within walking distance to its Amazonian Dipteryx relatives, which are also considered “teacher” plants.

There the baru tree is known by names such as almendrillo, and as shihuahuaco and mawi by the Ese’Ejja people, for example. The Ese’Ejja are one of the tribes that take ayahuasca whenever an important decision has to be made by the group, and even the children drink it.

For those unfamiliar with it, ayahuasca or yagé is a brew made with a combination of a specific Amazonian vine and a leafy plant called chacruna. Shamanic ceremonies use the brew as a gateway to the spiritual world, and can have other plants added to the mix depending on the required guidance.

Ayahuasca has recently surfaced in the Western world as a potential treatment for chemical addiction and PTSD. Currently, several academic institutions research its therapeutic uses around the world.

Resources

Traditional knowledge hiding in plain sight – twenty-first century ethnobotany of the Chácobo in Beni, Bolivia

Cultura (cosmovision) y salud entre los Ese’Ejja

Ethnobotany of the Ese Eja: Plants, Change and Health in an Amazonian Society

Etnobotánica Cuantitativa de la Comunidad Nativa Infierno, Madre de Dios – Perú

Inventario de Recursos Curativos en Centros de Expendio Formales e Informales: Puerto Maldonado

The Origin of Baru’s Scientific Name

Hi everyone! Today we’re going to talk about the full scientific name of the baru tree: Dipteryx alata Vogel.

Scientific names tell a lot about the context of any given species’ discovery. They may look boring, but more often than not hide a lot of interesting facts about a species.

Dipterxy: this means “two wings” in latin (dis+pteryx) and it refers to the two upper lobes of the calyx of the flower, which look like two wings! It is expected in botanic taxonomy for the name to start with the genus the species belongs to. Dipteryx is a particularly small and primitive genus of Legume trees, with the most well-known species being Dipteryx odorata, also known as Tonka beans. All the flowers in this genus have particularly large “wings”!

Baru flower. Can you see the wings?

Alata: it means “winged”. It sounds redundant, but now it refers to its leaf structure. Ironically, baru was first observed as an “airborne” species, in the sense that larger bats and birds carry the fruits around to eat them. This is a neat evolutionary trick to spread the seeds that many plants pull off. They evolved in synergy with certain flying animals, and bear attractive fruits to them, being dispersed over large areas. Other trees with this strategy are the almendro tree (another close relative of baru) and all sorts of berries.

Fruits can also be carried away exclusively by land animals, sometimes with the seeds activated and dispersed through ingestion. Other plants evolved aerodynamic pods or seeds that can be carried away by any strong wind.

Most often than not, trees evolve with multiple ways of spreading their seeds as far as possible. For example, flying animals carry baru fruits away. Then, rodents further disperse the dropped, partially eaten fruits.

Vogel: this is the original botanical discoverer, Julius Rudolph Theodor Vogel, a German botanist from Berlin. Vogel studied and described in depth a number of species brought from Brazil during the early 19th century, mainly Legumes. Curiously, around the same time, another German scientist named Vogel, from Munich and called August, discovered coumarin from the tonka bean.

So there you have it: the flower with wings, with winged leaves, described by a guy named Vogel.

PS: Furthermore, a reader pointed out that Vogel means “bird” in German. Wings everywhere!

RESOURCES

A New Universal Etymological and Pronouncing Dictionary of the English Language: Embracing All the Terms Used in Art, Science and Literature, Volume 1
By John Craig (F.G.S. of Glasgow.)

Linnaea : Ein Journal für die Botanik in ihrem ganzen Umfange. XI, 383.

Morcegos passam a noite plantando no Cerrado. March 13, 2017.

Niger Flora; Or, An Enumeration of the Plants of Western Tropical Africa, Collected by the Late Dr. Theodore Vogel, Botanist to the Voyage of the Expedition Sent by Her Britannic Majesty to the River Niger in 1841, Under the Command of Capt. H. D. Trotter, R.N., &c: Including Spicilegia Gorgonea, by P. B. Webb, Esq., and Flora Nigritiana by Dr. J. D. Hooker … and George Bentham, Esq. with a Sketch of the Life of Dr. Vogel
edited by Sir William Jackson Hooker

Does baru grow in the Amazon rainforest?

There is some speculation from some of our clients over baru coming from the Amazon rainforest or even the Amazon savanna. Does it come from the Amazon at all?

Not quite. Baru trees only grow in the South American Cerrado savanna. It lies between the Amazon rainforest and the Atlantic forest (seen below), going all the way down to Paraguay and Bolivia. Being such a massive biome, the Cerrado is part of a huge water cycle crucial to the Amazon. There, deep-rooted trees such as baru play a vital role in storing water underground.

However, baru trees need specific conditions only found in the Cerrado to grow and bear fruit, such as moisture levels, deep water tables, drained soil and pollinators. In this, the Cerrado and the Amazon are very different and unique biomes. But their vegetation overlaps on their borders, and you can have patches of rainforest and savanna very close to one another in those areas.

The northern Amazon rainforest has patches of savanna on the border of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana, but all are very difficult to access.

otherbiomes

All baru seeds available commercially anywhere in the world (not only from Baru Baron) are currently sourced from the Cerrado drylands below the rainforest. Their proximity to large urban areas makes it easier to transport and process baru fruits.

For more information on the Amazon-Cerrado water cycle, check this out!