Copaiba (Copaifera Officinalis)

(A larger monograph by Lloyd can be found at:

On the Spelling of the Name CopaiferaLangsdorffii

I can not refer to Desfontaines' original (Mem. Mus. Paris, VII. (1821), 377), but to judge from the Kew Index and some other authorities, Desfontaines spelled the species name Lansdorfii. And from Desfontaines the mistake passed into many succeeding books. Even Bentley and Trimen took up the mistake, particularly emphasizing that Langs-dorfii is wrong. The mistake was pointed out long ago in the Pharmaceutical Journal, IX (1879), 773, and also by Flueckiger in Pharmacographia (see ad ed., p. 228, footnote).
Some of the botanical authors who happened to know better corrected the mistake without making any remarks. Thus, for instance, Baillon has it right in all his works, for example, in Histoire des Plantes, II, 163; also, Rosenthal in his Synopsis FIantarum Diaphoricarum, p. 1046, etc. They write Langsdorffii (with g and two f's).
George Heinrich, Freiherr von Langsdorff, was born on April 18, 1773, at Woellstein in Rhenish Hesse, studied medicine in Goettingen, then went to Portugal, where he remained from 1797 to 1803. He then participated in Krusenstern's Russian exploring expedition, after which he became Russian charge d'affaires in Brazil. In 1831 he returned to Germany and died at Freiburg in the Breisgau on June 29, 1852. He wrote an account of Krusenstern's expedition, under the title, "Bemerkungen auf einer Reise um die Welt," 2 vols. Frankfurt o. M., 1812.

Copaiba (popularly known as balsam of copaiba) is obtained from South America, principally from Brazil and Venezuela, being produced by numerous species of the genus copaifera. This genus belongs to the suborder of caesalpinieae, of the vast order of leguminosae, and differs from the ordinary type of the order, as we usually know it, in having more regular flowers (papilionaceous), resembling in this respect our honey-locust (gleditschia triacanthos) and coffee-nut (gymnocladus) tree.

The various species of copaifera which grow in tropical America are usually small trees (sometimes shrubs).

Flueckiger traced the record of what is probably the first printed statement regarding a resiniferous tree other than the pine, dating back to the last decade of the fifteenth century. He quotes from Michael Herr, "Die Neue Welt der Landschaften und Insulen," Strassburg, 1534, which contains a report made by Petrus Martyr of Anghiera to Pope Leo X, wherein this tree is mentioned under the name copei.

The next available record dates from a publication of the year 1625, wherein a Portuguese monk, probably Manoel Tristaon (651a), of the convent of Bahia contributes an extensive chapter on Brazil and its products. On page 1308, immediately following the description of Cabueriba (or Peru balsam tree) he says: "Cupayba. For wounds. Cuypaba is a fig tree, commonly very high, straite and big; it hath much oile, within; for to get it they cut the tree in the middest, where it hath the vent, and there it hath this oil in so great abundance that some of them doe yield a quarterne of oile and more; it is very clear of the color of oile; it is much set by for wounds, and taketh away all the skarre. It serveth also for lights and burne well; the beasts knowing the vertue thereof doe come and rubbe themselves thereat. There are great store, the wood is good for nothing."

The first explicit description and illustration of one of the trees yielding copaiba is to be found in the joint work of Piso and Marcgrav (511) (1648), whose statements form the basis of the subsequent literature on the subject. In this connection it appears rather remarkable that the Pharmacopoeia Amstelodamensis, sixth edition, which antedates this publication, being of the year 1630, distinctly mentions Balsam copae yvae. Some of the statements of Piso and Marcgrav have given rise to discussion; the fact that Piso figured and described the flowers with five sepals, whereas they are now known to bear only four, being one of the points. The pod, however, is figured and described correctly, and the statement is made that it contains an edible nut; which the monkeys of the forest are very fond of eating. As regards the mode of collecting the balsam, Piso relates that an incision is made through the bark deep into the pith, at the season of the full moon, which causes such an abundant flow of fatty and oily liquid that twelve pounds may exude in three hours. In case no oil should appear, the opening is at once closed with wax or clay, and after two weeks the yield is sufficient to make up for the delay. The fact that the resiniferous ducts in these trees often attain a diameter of one inch, as has been observed more recently by Karsten, seems to be quite in harmony with the statement regarding the abundant yield. It is also related that frequently the balsam accumulates in these ducts and exerts pressure enough upon the enclosing wall to burst the tree with a loud report. According to Piso, the copaiba tree is not very frequent in the Province of Pernambuco, but thrives luxuriantly in the Island of Maranhao, which, he says, furnishes the balsam of commerce in great quantity. He also enumerates the many medicinal virtues of the balsam, making the curious statement that its healing virtues are also experienced as an efficient means to check the flow of blood in the Jewish practice of circumcision.

Labat (365) reports that in 1696 he had an opportunity to observe for the first time the tree yielding copaiba in the Island of Guadeloupe. He relates in detail the manner of collecting the balsam, which he calls huile de copau. The vessels in which the balsam is collected are made of the fruit of the calabash, a kind of gourd. The collection, he states, takes place about three months after the rainy season; that is, in March for the countries north of the equator, and in September for the countries south of this line. The balsam, he states, closes all kinds of wounds except those inflicted by gunshot. He declares it to be a powerful febrifuge, having been used with almost marvelous effect in the fever epidemics at Rennes and Nantes in 1719.

Nic. Jos. Jacquin (338a), a noted Viennese botanist who traveled in the West Indies in Linnaeus's time, first observed the tree yielding copaiba in cultivation in the village of Le Carbet at Martinique, and subsequently (1760 and 1765) described it under the name of copaiva officinalis. He states that this tree was indigenous to the continent, where it grows frequently around the town of Tolu near Carthagena promiscuously among trees yielding balsams of Tolu and Peru. Jacquin described the flowers of this tree as having four petals, and the calyx as being nonexistent; yet he considers it identical with that of Piso and Marcgrav, which is, however, emphatically denied by De Tussac (656a) in Dictionnaire des Sciences Naturelles.

Linnaeus (385), in 1762, gave Jacquin's plant the name Copaifera officinalis.

Until 1821 it was generally believed that copaifera officinalis was the only tree yielding copaiba; in this year, however, Desfontaines (189a) added two new species, C. guianensis and C. Langsdorffii. At the same time Desfontaines changed the name of C. officinalis to C. Jacquini, in honor of its discoverer. The fact that Jacquin's plant was foreign to Brazil and yielded a balsam of inferior quality would indicate that it could not well have been the official balsam tree, while by reason of the publication of Piso's account Brazil had been generally considered the geographical source of the official balsam. However, the name C. officinalis, Linn., has subsequently been upheld, although the official copaiba balsam is now considered as being mainly derived from C. Langsdorffii, the species named by Desfontaines in 1821 in honor of Mr. Langsdorff, the Russian consul general at Rio Janeiro, from whom the specimens were obtained. This name was erroneously spelled "Lansdorffii" by Bentley and Trimen (57), who thus perpetuated what was undoubtedly an error of print in Desfontaines' original memoir. Soon thereafter the recorded species of copaiba increased rapidly. In 1826 Hayne (305a) (Arzney-Gewaechse) published and described sixteen different species, which, however, all bear resemblances, their distinctive features residing mainly in the form and the arrangement of the leaves. Hayne especially endeavors to place the species made known by Piso, the difficulty being that this ancient work stated that the wood is colored as if with minium. The only species that, in the opinion of Hayne, would answer that description is C. bijuga, the wood of the branches of which is pale-red, which color may appear as red in the trunk of the tree. Hayne also states that copaiva is gathered from all species known to the natives, and concludes that most of the balsam is yielded by C. multijuga in the province of Para, a species, however, which is now questioned.

According to Flueckiger (239, 240), the following species are the principal sources of the copaiba of commerce:

  1. Copaifera officinalis, L. (Guiana, Venezuela, Colombia, Trinidad).
  2. Copaifera guianensis, Desf. (Lower Amazon, lower Rio Negro, Cayenne, Surinam).
  3. C. coriacea, Martius (Bahia and Piauhy).
  4. C. Langsdorffii, Desf. (Continental provinces of Brazil). The number of known species has steadily increased until now the Index Kewensis recognizes twenty-three American and five African species.

The copaiba obtained from the vast territory of the Brazilian continent, along the Amazon and its tributaries, is collected in the shipping port of Para. Maranhao Island is also a place of export. Other shipping ports are Maracaibo and Angustura in Venezuela, Trinidad, Demerara (British Guiana), Cartagena (Colombia), and Rio de Janeiro.

The History of the Vegetable Drugs of the U.S.P., 1911, was written by John Uri Lloyd.