The tree that changed the world map

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By Vittoria Traverso
28 May 2020

Unfurling in a carpet of green where the Andes and Amazon basin meet in south-western Peru, Manú National Park is one of the most biodiverse corners of the planet: a lush, 1.5-million hectare Unesco-inscribed nature reserve wrapped in mist, covered in a chaos of vines and largely untouched by humans.

Where to see the rare cinchona tree

Peru’s lush Manú National Park is one of the last places on Earth where you can see the endangered cinchona tree (Credit: RPBMedia/Getty Images)

Manú National Park, Peru: A haven of biodiversity, the Unesco nature preserve is home to an estimated 5,000 plant species.
Podocarpus National Park, Ecuador: One of the last places to spot Ecuador’s national tree. Hiking through its misty trails, you may also encounter the spectacled bear, one of the Andes’ most emblematic animals.

Cutervo National Park, Peru: Peru’s oldest protected area is famous for its pre-Columbian archaeological remains, 88 species of orchids and for being the last remaining cloud forest in the Peruvian highlands.

Semilla Bendita Botanical Garden, Peru: This botanical garden operated by local environmentalists is home to more than 1,300 native species – including orchids and cinchonas.

But if you hack your way through the rainforest’s dense jungle, cross its rushing rivers and avoid the jaguars and pumas, you may see one of the few remaining specimens of the endangered cinchona officinalis tree. To the untrained eye, the thin, 15m-tall tree may blend into the thicketed maze. But the flowering plant, which is native to the Andean foothills, has inspired many myths and shaped human history for centuries.

“This may not be a well-known tree,” said Nataly Canales, who grew up in the Peruvian Amazonian region of Madre de Dios. “Yet, a compound extracted from this plant has saved millions of lives in human history.”

Today, Canales is a biologist at the National Museum of Denmark who is tracing the genetic history of cinchona. As she explained, it was the bark of this rare tree that gave the world quinine, the world’s first anti-malarial drug. And while the discovery of quinine was welcomed by the world with both excitement and suspicion hundreds of years ago, in recent weeks, this tree’s medical derivatives have been at the centre of another heated global debate. Synthetic versions of quinine – such as chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine – have been touted and largely disputed as possible treatments for the novel coronavirus.

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Peru’s lush Manú National Park is one of the last places on Earth where you can see the endangered cinchona tree (Credit: RPBMedia/Getty Images)

For centuries, malaria, a disease caused by a mosquito-borne parasite, has plagued people across the world. It ravaged the Roman Empire; it killed between 150 to 300 million people in the 20th Century; and, according to the World Health Organization, nearly half of the world’s population still lives in areas where the disease is transmitted.

Medieval remedies to cure “mal aria” (“bad air” in Italian) reflected the erroneous belief that it was an airborne disease and ranged from bloodletting to limb amputations to cutting a hole in the skull. But in the 17th Century, the first known cure for it was allegedly found here, deep in the Andes.

The world’s first anti-malarial drug was extracted from the bark of this tree – a discovery that has changed the world map (Credit: Celso Roldan/Getty Images)

 

According to legend, quinine was discovered as a malaria cure in 1631 when the Countess of Cinchona, a Spanish noblewoman married to the viceroy of Peru, fell ill with a high fever and severe chills – the classic symptoms of malaria. Desperate to heal her, the viceroy gave his wife a concoction prepared by Jesuit priests made with the bark of an Andean tree and mixed with clove and rose-leaf syrups and other dried plants. The countess soon recovered and the miraculous plant that cured her was named “cinchona” in her honour. Today, it’s the national tree of Peru and Ecuador.

People across Europe began writing about a ‘miraculous’ malaria remedy discovered in the jungles of the New World
Most historians now dispute this tale, but as with many legends, parts of it are true. Quinine, an alkaloid compound found in cinchona’s bark, can indeed kill the parasite that causes malaria. But it wasn’t discovered by Spanish Jesuits.

“Quinine was already known to the Quechua, the Cañari and the Chimú indigenous peoples that inhabited modern-day Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador before the arrival of the Spanish,” said Canales. “They were the ones that introduced the bark to Spanish Jesuits.” The Jesuits crushed the cinnamon-coloured bark into a thick, bitter powder that could be easily digested. The concoction came to be known as “Jesuits Powder”, and soon, people across Europe began writing about a “miraculous” malaria remedy discovered in the jungles of the New World. By the 1640s, Jesuits had established trade routes to transport cinchona bark throughout Europe.

Though Spanish Jesuits are often credited with discovering quinine, indigenous communities knew of it long before Europeans arrived (Credit: ajiravan/Getty Images)

In France, quinine was used to cure intermittent fevers of France’s King Louis XIV at the court of Versailles. In Rome, the powder was tested by the Pope’s private physician and distributed for free by the Jesuit priests to the public. But in Protestant England, the drug was met with some scepticism, as some doctors labelled the Catholic-promoted concoction a “papal poison”. Oliver Cromwell allegedly died of malarial complications after refusing “Jesuit Powder”. Nevertheless, by 1677, cinchona bark was first listed by the Royal College of Physicians in its London Pharmacopoeia as an official medicine used by English physicians to treat patients.

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