Brazil’s history and future are inextricably tied to its forests and nature. So close is this association that the country even gets its name from the brazilwood (pau brasil) tree, which the early Portuguese explorers cut and exported as fast as they could for a valuable red dye found in its core.
The last ice age did not reach Brazil and the rain forests have never suffered long droughts, so the area has had an unusually long period of time to develop plant species that are found nowhere else in the world. Although some of these long-evolved species have been destroyed in the last 30 years through heavy deforestation, there remains an impressive range of flora in Brazil – from over 200 species of delicate orchids and the world’s largest variety of palms (390) to 90m-tall hardwood trees.
Though estimates run at around 45, 000, it would be impossible to determine an exact number of plant species in the Amazon, let alone in the whole of Brazil, as new plants are being discovered all the time and, unfortunately, others are disappearing with frightening frequency. The great majority of the plants in Brazil’s rain forests are trees – estimated at some 70% of the total vegetation. Many rain-forest trees look similar even though they are of different species, but a trained eye can distinguish more than 400 species of tree per hectare (10, 000 sq meters) in some areas.
One of the most economically important trees is the rubber tree, which grows in the wild or on sustainable plantations for the large-scale production of latex – yes, condoms too come from the Amazon. Another sustainable forest product is the nut from the Brazil nut tree, a good snack if you are able to get the shell off without having a nervous breakdown. Mahogany trees are the most prized of Brazilian hardwoods and, despite being protected, are still often felled and sold (usually within Brazil).
Many edible fruits also grow in the rain forest, so many in fact that a number of them only have names in Portuguese. Some of the more popular fruits, including açaí, acerola and cupuaçu, can be found at juice bars throughout the country. Guaraná berries, containing a stimulant similar to caffeine, are also making their way into energy drinks the world over.
Outside the rain forests the plant life is quite different. In some of the drier parts of the country it may seem that the only plants are palm trees, shrubs or thorny cacti. Let’s hope that the rain forests do not soon look the same.
Brazil has 382 threatened plant species, of which 46 are critically endangered.