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The sustainability of pau d’arco

  • Ann Armbrecht
    Ann Armbrecht

    I am a writer and anthropologist (PhD, Harvard 1995) whose work explores the relationships between humans and the earth, most recently through my work with plants, herbal medicine, and the botanical industry.

    I am the director of the Sustainable Herbs Program, a program of the American Botanical Council, which I began in 2016 to help bridge the gaps between the values of herbal medicine and the reality of sourcing and producing herbs on a global scale.

    I am the co-producer of the documentary Numen: the Nature of Plants, and the author of the award winning ethnographic memoir, Thin Places: A Pilgrimage Home, based on my research in Nepal. I am a student of herbal medicine and was a 2017 Fulbright-Nehru Scholar documenting the supply chain of medicinal plants in India. My book, The Business of Botanicals: Exploring the Healing Promise of Plant Medicines in a Global Industry, will be published by Chelsea Green Publishing in February 2021.

    Listen to Ann Armbrecht’s Herbcast episode “Where do all the herbs come from“.

  • 16:15 reading time (ish)
  • Sustainability & Social Welfare
The sustainability of pau d’arco

The inner bark of species traded under the Portuguese name ‘pau d’arco’ are now placed in the genus Handroanthus, with their formerly widely used Latin names in the Tabebuia genus now considered synonyms. These towering deciduous trees with beautiful flowers, purple, yellow, and pink, depending on the species, are native to tropical regions of the Americas. The Handroanthus genus has about 353 species. They are slow-growing trees and are considered some of the most vulnerable species to logging in Amazonian forests because of their low density and slow growth rates.

The inner bark of two species primarily traded for use in herbal medicinal products, are Handroanthus impetiginosus (syn. Tabebuia impetiginosa), which is the pau d’arco of Brazil, and Handroanthus serratifolius (syn. Tabebuia serratifolia), which is the tahuari of Peru. Popular common names for the species include pau d’arco, taheebo, lapacho, tahuarí, tajibo and ipé. The Portuguese name ipê seems to be most popular when the species is used as a source of timber and ornamentals. Pau d’arco is most commonly used when the medicinal uses are being considered (1).

Medicinal use of pau d’arco

Japanese Pau d'arco (Handroanthus impetiginosus)
Japanese Pau d’arco (Handroanthus impetiginosus)

The pink or purple flowered pau d’arco (H. impetiginosus) is typically used in the European and US herbal products markets. Though the most common species in trade, different Handroanthus species are found in ethnomedicine, like the yellow flowered pau d’arco (H. serratifolius) native to South and Central America, are considered to be similar biochemically, each producing lapachol, and are likely to be similarly efficacious (2).

The inner bark of pau d’arco is the part used as medicine and is believed to be antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-tumoral. Pau d’arco has been used by several groups of indigenous peoples in South America for a variety of conditions including stomach aches, fevers, colds and flu (the leaves), leishmaniasis, dysentery, and (with other species) diabetes. Others report use for “various maladies, especially cancer,” as an astringent, and for liver cirrhosis (3).

The inner bark of yellow pau d’arco, much like other species of the Handroanthus genus, is a natural source for lapachol, a compound that has been studied for anti-inflammatory, anticancer,antiparasitic and immune-modulating activities (4).

Ann Armbrecht

I am a writer and anthropologist (PhD, Harvard 1995) whose work explores the relationships between humans and the earth, most recently through my work with plants, herbal medicine, and the botanical... Read more

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