What is Dipteryx?

Linda Harris

Dipteryx is the name of a group of flowering tropical trees and shrubs native to South American, Central America and the Caribbean. There are nine known species of dipteryx: odorata, lacunifera, punctata, alata, magnifica, micrantha, oleifera, polyphyla and rosea. Some species of dipteryx rain forest canopy trees can grow to a height of almost 200 feet (60 m), with a useful lifespan of 60 years. The fruit of the tree is a source of food for native small mammals and birds as well as humans. Its wood is considered one of the heaviest types of wood, and its density and strength make it useful in heavy construction projects such as bridge building.

Dipteryx odorata seeds.
Dipteryx odorata seeds.

Known by many common names including baru, tonka bean tree and cumaru, dipteryx is a legume in the pea family, Fabaceae. Its flowers are pea-shaped, usually purple or pink in color, and they typically bloom late spring through summer on the sides or ends of the branches. It is a slow-growing tree, with smooth gray reddish-brown bark and basal roots. The brown fruit of the dipteryx contains a sweet pulp used in jams and liquors. The almond-shaped gray or black colored beans have a vanilla-like scent and typically are roasted and ground into a coarse meal for food, and extracts from the beans are used for food flavoring or medicinal uses.

The fruit contains many chemical compounds both in its sweet pulp and its bean, including cumarin, isoflavones, lupeol derivatives and fatty acid esters. The most medicinally significant of these compounds is coumarin. Coumarin is a well-known plant chemical used in the manufacture of certain anticoagulant blood-thinning prescription drugs. Coumarin is toxic when ingested in high dosages.

Rain forest tribes have used the tree for medicinal purposes for many years. A decoction made from the bark of dipteryx is used to lower fever; the seeds sometimes are fermented in rum and used to treat cuts, coughs, snakebites, contusions and rheumatism; and it also is used as a shampoo. The seed oil is sometimes dropped into the ears for earaches and ear infections. In herbal medicine, dipteryx is considered to possess antispasmodic, cardiotonic, emmenagogue and antiasthmatic properties.

The wood was not widely harvested until after 1980 because its density and weight made sawing and working the wood very difficult. After 1980, with improved chain saw technology using higher carbon steel or diamond-tipped types of chain saws, harvesting of the wood of dipteryx increased. As its wood has become more and more popular for use as lumber and charcoal, dipteryx has become threatened by overharvesting and habitat loss.

Discussion Comments


Fascinating. I believe that this could be the tree bark spice that I was looking for information on. I managed to acquire a sauce that used a tree bark with some of the seasoning attributes described here however I was told that the bark was placed in a container with vanilla bean, then sold after a couple of weeks.

Aside from the claimed medical properties, use as a spice appears to be fairly common.

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