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This page will guide you through the research made by the Byologist Dr. Haroldo Cavalcante de Lima and the History Professor Marcio Werneck da Cunha.


  • Dr. Haroldo Cavalcante de Lima
  • Márcio Werneck da Cunha


The ceaseless exploitation of brazilwood (caesalpinia echinata Lam., known in the bow business as Pernambuco wood) on the coast of Brazil between 1501 and 1857 was responsible not only for the name given to the land and its people. But it also was determining factor in the foundation of many population centers in colonial times, and consequently, in the genocide of indigenous nations who previously inhabit this land. The extractive economic model, based initially on cheap native labor and then later utilizing African slaves until the middle of the imperial period, was responsible for the enrichment of many European countries and a decisive factor in the devastation of immense tracts of Atlantic forest.The scarcity of historical and botanical information about brazilwood (also known as Pernambuco wood) has created an air of mystery concerning the original geographic distribution of this important species. The pioneer role which Pernambuco wood played in the Portuguese colonization of the new world also added to the mainly of the 16th and 17th century, contains data that, even today are difficult to prove scientifically.

The predatory exploration that brought this species to the brink of extinction has, without a doubt, been the main obstacle in precisely evaluating available historical and botanical information. This is an opportune moment, therefore, to present more precise information, in order to emphasize the degree to which this rare example of the Brazilian flora is threatened and to promote the need for its preservation. Several protective measure have already been taken, although in most cases these effort lack sufficient criteria which would guarantee these species survival in the natural population and effective conservation of its gene bank. The scarcity of historical and botanical information about brazilwood (also known as Pernambuco wood) has created an air of mystery concerning the original geographic distribution of this important species. The pioneer role which Pernambuco wood played in the Portuguese colonization of the new world also added to the mainly of the 16th and 17th century, contains data that, even today are difficult to prove scientifically.

The data presented here came from various sources-historical and botanical literature, museum and herbarium collection, and personal observation of those familiar uses and/or cultivation of Pernambuco wood. The data were corroborated by fieldwork wherever possible through exploratory field trips to several locations along the Atlantic coast of Brazil. These results are preliminary, but they will hopefully provide the basic information need to consolidate conservation groups which have been striving for some time to save the last, fragile remnants of the forest where Pernambuco wood was found.


Erroneous identification of Pernambuco wood has been caused mainly by insufficient knowledge of its main identifying traits. This has lead to incorrect names or to the citation of localities where the species does not occur.

These errors are understandable because Pernambuco wood is a rare species, on which very few papers have been written. The publication of a particle guide for identifying true Pernambuco(C. echinata) is necessary to overcome this problem. Only then can this speciess be distinguished from others with which it is frequently confused for various reasons.

Other plants commonly known as Pernambuco wood are found in many regions of Brazil. The name Brazil wood or Pernambuco wood are used for these species mainly because of the red color of the wood. In the Amazon region, especially along the Upper Rio Negro, these names are used for the leguminous species, Eperua purpura Benth, which has red wood. In other regions of Brazil, Colubrina glandulosa Reiss and Rhamnidium glabrum Reiss, usually known as sobrasil, are occasionally called Brazil wood or Pernambuco wood. Species that are frequently and erroneously known by this name because of a slight resemblance include Caesalpinia peltophoroides Benth (sibipiruna or false Pernambuco wood), Caesalpinia spinosa (molina) Kuntze (tara), Caesalpinia ferrea Mart. (iron wood) and Adenanthera pavonina L. (tento carolina).

As was mention above, several other dyewood species are also known commercially as Brazil wood. Caesalpinia sappna L, or sappon wood, is native in Asia and deserves mentioned because it is the tree, which gave rise to common name Brasil wood (known in the bow and violin business as Pernambuco wood). Caesalpinia vesicaria L. (brasilete negro), Caesalpinia campechianum L, (pau campeche) are dyewoods native in Central America and the Caribbean. In northern South America, on the Atlantic coast of Colombia and Venezuela the native species known as Brazil wood or Pernambuco wood is Haematoxylon brasiletto Karsten.

To help in the identification of true Pernambuco wood from the Atlantic coast of Brazil, a useful comparison of leaf characteristics and presence/absence of prickles is given in the table below:

  Latin Name   Prickles   Leaves
Caesalpinia echinata + Compound, bipinnate, 3-7(10) pinnas, 8-21 leaflets
Caesalpinia sappan + Compound, bipinnate, 10-22 pinnas, 20-40 leaflets
Caesalpinia spinosa + Compound, bipinnate, 4-6 pinnas, 10-14 leaflets
Caesalpinia vesicaria + Compound, bipinnate, 4-6 pinnas, 2-6 leaflets
Caesalpinia violacea - Compound, bipinnate, 4-10 pinnas, 12-16 leaflets
Caesalpinia ferrea (ironwood) - Compound, bipinnate, 8-20 pinnas, 8-24 leaflets
Caesalpinia peltoporoides - Compound, bipinnate, 8-20 pinnas, 20-30 leaflets
Adenanthera pavonina - Compound, bipinnate, 4-10 pinnas, 12-20 leaflets
Haematoxylon brasiletto + Compound, bipinnate, 6-7 leaflets
Haematoxylon campechianum + Compound, bipinnate, 4-8 leaflets
Eperua purpurea - Compound, bipinnate, 4-6 leaflets
Colubrina glandulosa - Simple with glands
Rhamnidium glabrum - Simple without glands


Pernambuco wood was first mentioned in the botanical literature in 1623, by Caspar Bauhim, a Swiss botanist who published a long list of plants, which were known from Brazil in the early 17th century.

The French naturalist Lamarck, who became well known for his pioneer contribution to the theory of evolution, was the first to publish a botanically correct description of Pernambuco wood. In 1789, he named the species Caesalpinia echinata, which is still valid today. Although succinct, his description gives the main characteristics, which permit recognition of the species and scientific publication. The botanical specimen, which Lamark used to make his description, of unknown origin, is deposited in the Natural History Museum of Paris.

The pioneer work of Frei Velozo entitled “Flora Fluminensis”, which includes the plants found in Rio de Janeiro and vicinity, was written near the end of the 18th century but was only published (partially) in 1829. This classic work describes and illustrates Pernambuco wood under the binomial Caesalpinia vesicari. The use of this name is incorrect because it belongs to a plant Central America and the Caribbean, which was described by the Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus. In 1753, Frei Velozo examined a specimen from Itacurussa, on the south coast of Rio de Janeiro State, and description agrees in all respects with that presented by Lamarck for Caesalpinia Echinata.


Pernambuco wood (Caesalpinia echinata Lam.) belongs to the Leguminosae, subfamily Caesalpinioideae. Within this concept of the family, Caesalpinia is a pantropical genus of about 200 species, distributed throughout the Americas, Asia and Africa. Generic limits are still uncertain; further study is necessary to clarify the relationships between groups with morphological affinities. C. echinata has been frequently placed in the section Guilandina, which is distinguished by prickly fruits. However, this section is very artificial, and within the light of modern thought, this species does not show significant affinity to other members of the group. Leaf, flower and seed morphology of C. echinata, suggest a greater affinity to C. pyramidalis Tul. and related species. Therefore, it seems more appropriate to place this species in the section Caesalpinaria.

The overall peculiarities of pernambuco wood are easily recognized and with a little effort, the species can be identified in the wild (figures 6, 7, 8). It is usually a medium-sized tree, but may grow to 20 meters. Stem diameter frequently varies from 30 to 40 cm, but surpasses 70 cm in the larger trees. The irregular trunk tends to branch early on, and rarely surpasses 5 meters in height. Its irregular base has small incurvations and excurvations. The dark gray bark is rather thin, with irregular patches, which loosen and fall, exposing a reddish brown surface. In the young trees the bark has strong, rather indistinct prickles, which are slightly elongated and provided with a small, curved, pointed tip not over 1 cm long. The wood is very hard and compact. The heartwood varies in color from bright orange to reddish brown, turning darker when cut. The sapwood is sharply defined, consisting of a narrow, whitish or yellowish strip.

The tree crown is usually quite irregular, or sometimes becomes almost circular, with most branches reaching upward. These branches have light gray older sections and dark green tips. Prickles are usually present in the younger branches. The leaves are attached alternately along the branches; they are compound and bippinate, with 6 to 11 pinnas and 8 to 21 leaflets per pinna. The rachis is often aculeate and the leaflets oblong-trapezilform, dark green and shiny.

The pleasantly sweet-smelling flowers are clustered in small, terminal (rarely axillary) racemes or panicles. The calyx is yellowish-green and the corolla has yellow petals, the middle one with a dark red splotch in the center. The androecium has 10 distinct, unequal stamens; the yellowish white gynecium is rather hairy.

The fruits are elliptical, oblong-elliptical or sometimes slightly wider at the apex; they are 6 to 8 cm long and 2 to 3 cm wide. The valves are aculeate on the outside; after dehiscence they become curved or twisted. The chestnut-colored seeds, 1 to 1.5 cm in diameter, are flattened and irregularly spherical.

Although only one species of pernambuco wood is recognized today, leaflet shape and size vary considerably within the species. Several populations, which present marked differences in these characteristics, are under study, including wood anatomy wherever possible. This analysis will most likely show the need to separate subspecies or varieties within C. echinata.

Three morphological distinct groups have been detected up to now. The most common variant has been observed at several locations along the Brazilian coast. It has smaller leaflets (figure 7a) and the wood is often an orangy-chestnut color. The second variant differs slightly from the first in its larger leaflets and reddish-orange wood (figure 7b). Individuals with these characteristics were observed only in cultivation at the Sooretama Biological Reserve (Espirito Santo) and Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden. The third variant has large leaflets (figure 7c) up to 12 cm long and blackish-red wood. Several individuals with these marked differences were found in Bahia. Young specimens from this population are under cultivation at the Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden.


Data on the geographic distribution of pernambuco wood are rather scarce. This fact, plus the errors which are found in the literature, has increased the difficulty of defining the natural distribution of this species. Present knowledge gained from fieldwork in remnant areas of forest has also proven insufficient due to the rarity of the species in the wild. The comments presented here are therefore preliminary and depend on more detailed field work, specially in northeastern Brazil, for final confirmation.

Although these forests are presently reduced to a few small stretches of coastal environment, the presence of floristic elements related to the semiarid northeast of Brazil (caatinga) and to southern South America (chaco) leads to the conclusion that this vegetation occupied much more extensive areas in the past, probably during the well documented cold, dry climates of the Quaternary period. Ab’Sáber (1974) has postulated that in the last dry period of the Quaternary (18,000 – 12,000 years B.P.), the caatinga covered a much larger area than it does today. The southern arm of this vegetation must have stretched to São Paulo and south-central Minas Gerais. During the same period, the semiarid vegetation types from the dry regions of Argentina extended up the coast through Uruguay and Rio Grande do Sul to southern Bahia, along the then widened coastal region associated with lower sea levels (figure 9). The distribution of the genus Caesalpinia also seems to support this hypothesis for its approximately 150 species are mainly found in drier or semi-desertlike, tropical and sub-tropical regions. In South America, around 90% of the species of this genus demonstrate this preference.

During the dry periods of the Quaternary, the Atlantic coastal forests of eastern Brazil became restricted to several small refugia, the location of which is hotly debated. These refugia expanded once again when wetter condition returned. Several studies show that these changes in climate were cyclical and considerably influenced plant and animal distribution (Bigarella & Andrade-Lima, 1982). Therefore it seems safe to assume that the initial stock of pernambuco wood became established and spread out during these cold, dry periods. It was most likely distributed over a large part of the expanded coastal regions of those periods. However, with the return of the hot, humid climate which reigns today, the distribution of pernambuco wood became restricted to a few sites along the coast where condition similar to those of drier paleoclimatic periods have prevailed. Within these enclaves, relict populations of Caesalpinia echinata, resistent to changes in climate, have survived in isolation, separated by stretches of more humid forests. This has been observed in Rio de Janeiro, Bahia and other areas of northeastern Brazil.

Areas where remnant populations of this species have been found in the last 10 years are located in the following Brazilian states: Rio Grande do Norte, Paraiba, Pernambuco, Alagoas, Bahia, Espirito Santo, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.


Pernambuco wood is a typical example of how predatory exploitation can lead to the extinction of a species. During colonial times, rare voices were raised against its destruction. Many laws were conceived in an attempt to control logging and preserve some native sites.

The first regulatory measures were put forth in the “Pernambuco Wood Proclamation” signed by Phillip II in December 1605. This document was intended to protect the crown’s monopoly from losses caused by contraband. Realizing that its most valuable New World commodity was fast disappearing, the Portuguese monarchy passed laws aimed at frustrating chaotic exploitation. These measures prohibited the felling of young trees and instructed that adult trees be cut so as to resprout. A body of guards was also created to enforce these laws.

During the colonial period, several years before Brazilian independence, João Paulo de Araujo presented a series of measures in his “Memoria” which he believe would protect the precious dyewood. The most important of these, recommended planting Pernambuco wood in the cotton fields in alternate rows. It could be harvested from the third or fourth year on.

During the period of the Brazilian Empire, the same measures, which were presented in the Pernambuco wood Proclamation, were again recommended, and others were taken in an attempt to attenuate the rampant destruction taking place in some parts of Brazil. Reports from the Visconde de Abrantes in 1843, and Manuel Alves Branco in 1845, confirm that logging of Pernambuco wood was prohibited in the provinces of Rio Grande do Norte and in northern Bahia (Sousa, 1938).

These measures had very little real effect. Other palliative ones, such as the use of pernambuco in urban landscaping and planting in parks and gardens were also insufficient to impede the near extinction of this species in natural areas.

Today, some sites where pernambuco wood occurs naturally are legally protected. The Pau-Brasil Ecological Station in state of Bahia covers 1,145 hectares in the municipality of Porto Seguro. The main objectives of this conservation unit are species protection and research on the vegetation where this species is found. Although there are no natural populations in protected areas of the state of Pernambuco, the Tapacurá Ecological reserve contains a plantation of around 20,000 trees. The Camaratuba Ecological Station, in Paraiba, and the Morro Branco Reserve, in Rio Grande do Norte, have very small pernambuco wood populations. In the state of Rio de Janeiro, the protection of 38 hectares of Boca da Barra and the recently created Pau-Brasil Reserve in the municipality of Cabo Frio are the only legally protected areas. Protection is not guaranteed since man continues his activities in these areas. Therefore, new reserves must be created by the governments and surveys undertaken to locate remnant populations, which must be evaluated as to their genetic diversity and survival mechanisms.

Given the present state of knowledge about pernambuco wood, effective methods are urgently needed to develop short-term strategies for obtaining the necessary information to preserve this species. The following action plan is meant to help put this strategy into practice and direct efforts to where they are most needed. It is hoped that this plan will be useful to administrators and local community organizations by producing a solid foundation to unite these entities in the conservation of the remaining natural areas of pernambuco wood.

Data Survey:

  • Size and preservation status of the remaining natural areas.
  • Population inventories, population structure and distribution patterns in these areas.
  • Reproductive biology of the species.
  • Genetic diversity between and within populations.

Conservation Strategies:

  • Create conservation units in high priority areas to protect natural populations.
  • Develop management plans for these units.
  • Set up genetic reserves within these units.
  • Provide the reproduction and management of the species with germplasm banks.
  • Germination and production of seedlings in greenhouse.
  • Reintroduce the species in degraded areas or improve natural remnant forests.


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