Have you ever given a thought to the Brazil nuts in the container of trail mix you get from the grocery store or the Brazil nut tree that produced them? The tree is an interesting part of our ecological system and is worth learning about.
The Brazil nut tree is native to areas in South America in forests along the banks of the Amazon River, as well as the Rio Negro, Tapajos, and the Orinoco. You will find it in Venezuala, Guianas, parts of Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia, besides in Brazil.
The tree comes from the same family as blueberries, kiwi, cranberries, phlox, and persimmons. While many people consider the Brazil nut a nut, it is actually a seed.
The tree is only seen in preserved forests. It cannot grow in places that have been disturbed or on plantations. Some people have tried to grow it in a tame environment, but it doesnt produce enough to sustain the commercial needs.
The tree requires a specific type of bee to pollinate it to produce fruit. The yellow flowers on the tree need a strong insect to lift the hood. The bees also have a long tongue to reach the interior of the coiled flower that other bees cannot reach.
These bees in turn require a special type of orchid for the males to attract the females. The orchid has a special odor that brings the female orchid bees to mate with the males and pollinate the flowers of the tree and produce fruit.
It is due to the special pollination requirements that the tree can only grow in preserved forests. Once a timber company or farmer has moved into the area, the orchids are killed out, which means the bees leave and the tree cannot be pollinated. The Brazil nut tree is only found scattered in areas untouched by much of civilization.
The Brazil nut tree is a large tree that stands over 150 feet with a diameter of up to 6 feet. Some have even reached 200 feet. They live to be quite old at 500 years with some recorded at 1,000 years of age.
The lower part of the tree has no branches and stands straight and tall. The branches begin at least halfway up the tree and form a canopy over other trees. The bark is smooth with a gray color. The leaves are oblong and the flowers are small with a green-white color to them.
The nuts grow in a pod that has a thick wooden cover and can weigh over 5 pounds. These pods can hold up to 2 dozen of the nuts, which are unable to be opened by most forest animals.
It is the agouti that is credited with being able to open the pods to plant the seeds. The agouti is a small animal about the size of a guinea pig with extremely sharp teeth to chisel an opening in the pod. They eat some of the nuts and bury the rest for later.
Those Brazil nuts that do not get eaten will become trees in the future; however, this is also a long process while the seed waits for sunlight to reach it. Often, a surrounding tree has to fall to allow enough sunlight in to let the seed germinate.
One tree can produce 250 pounds of nuts in one year. Brazil is second in exporting the nut, behind Bolivia. The pods are gathered by migrant workers who open them and harvest the nuts inside.
The nut is a combination of protein, carbohydrates, and fat. It contains a high amount of selenium, along with some magnesium, manganese, calcium, and phosphorus. It also has vitamins E and thiamin.
Brazil nuts are used in many recipes because they add a unique flavor to almost any item. They are used in cookies, shortbreads, and other desserts. However, Brazil nut recipes are not limited to the one course, but are also popular in soups and as flavorings for meats and vegetables. They add a richness to any recipe and work well in place of other nuts.
Besides its use in food, Brazil nut oil is used in clocks as a lubricant. It is also an ingredient in cosmetics and paints for artists. The wood is strong, but it is against the law to harvest it in all three areas that are major exporters: Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru.
Since it requires specific conditions for the reproduction of the tree, humans are by far the biggest threat to the Brazil nut tree. Not only do they destroy the orchids needed for the bees to pollinate, but areas that have moderate or aggressive harvesting methods also prevent the re-growth of new saplings. Research has shown that the areas with the highest harvesting activity had the fewest new trees.
A natural enemy of the tree is the fig strangler tree. The seed of this plant is dropped onto a leaf of the tree by a bird or other animal where it sprouts a root. The root then grows along the tree where it steals water from the bark along with other nutrients. More roots begin growing and wrapping around the tree. Finally, the fig strangler steals all of the nutrition from the tree and it dies.
Because the tree cannot grow in manmade conditions, the destruction of the Amazon rain forest and other areas causes great concern for nut harvesters. The rain forest produces most of its own water supply to provide the delicate balance needed to sustain all of the flora and fauna needed by the forest.
Deforestation from timber companies and other businesses threaten the existence of the rain forest and many of the plants that depend upon it for survival.
The next time you eat a Brazil nut, think about the story behind it and the journey from the Brazil nut tree. It is just another intriguing aspect of the Brazilian culture and way of life.