Pau brasil, a tree endemic to eastern Brazil, has an important place in the country’s history and culture. When Portuguese settlers arrived in what is now Brazil, they recognised the trees as similar to those in Europe that produced a red dye, called pau brasil in Portuguese; the people who collected it were called brasileiros. Pau brasil was exported in such great numbers that the country was named after it.
Pau brasil can reach up to 15 metres high and is characterised by a flaked bark that reveals a blood-red wood underneath, fragrant yellow flowers and small, leathery leaves. It is believed that the tree’s bark may have medicinal properties and has even been tested as a possible treatment for cancer.
Exploitation of pau brasil began in 1501. The dye from the trees was regarded as far superior to the European version and its timber was almost indestructible. It was used in construction and to make bows for stringed instruments and hunting tools. By the time synthetic dyes became readily available in the late 19th century, the pau brasil population had suffered immensely and declines in its numbers continued up until the 1920s.
Today, pau brasil continues to be threatened as it is the main source of high-quality violin bows. Up to 1kg of wood is needed to manufacture one bow (which can cost up to $5000 USD) and in the process, 70-80 percent of that wood is wasted. Two protected areas have been designated in Brazil for the tree, yet as the bow industry is estimated to be worth millions of US dollars a year, illegal cutting and exportation continues.