The tree known as andiroba, which can grow up to 40 meters high (131 feet), has its name derived from the Nheengatu, an Indian language from Brazil’s Tupi-Guarani family. “Nhandi” means oil and “rob” bitter. A quite appropriate same since the oil, which can be applied on the skin but also ingested. has an acrid taste.
Common throughout the Amazon, the andiroba tree, from the same family as the mahogany, is found in the wild associated with other well known plants like rubber tree, ucuúba, and pracaxi. It belongs to the meliaceae family and is known scientifically as Carapa guianensis Aubl. It grows mainly on rich soils and swamps.
Andiroba, which is called crabwood in Guyana is also known by other names like andiroba-saruba, bastard mahogany, Brazilian mahogany, caoba bastarda, caoba del Brasil, caobilla, iandirova, carapa, cedro, cedro macho, figueroa, iandirova, krapa, mahogany, nandiroba, requia, tangare, y-andiroba.
Resembling a chestut the andiroba nut contains several kernels or seeds that yield about 63% of a pale-yellow oil. When the andiroba fruit is ripe it open letting the seed to drop to the ground. Each fruit contains from 7 to 9 seeds. The ripe seeds fall to the ground from January to June. Another less abundant fruiting period occurs in October.
A single tree bears annually, on average, 200 kg (441 lbs) of nuts. You’ll need about 6 kg (13 lbs) of nuts to produce 1 kg (2.2 lbs, about a liter) of andiroba oil using the traditional and primitive extraction method.
Some have confused andiroba with West Africa’s touloucouna. While the seeds’ shape on both are very similar, the chemical composition of the oils they produce are quite different. The Touloucouna oil is always solid while the andiroba oil becomes liquid at room temperature.
The kernels gathered by the Amazon caboclo from the rivers or jungle floor are boiled in water and then left to rotten for a couple of weeks. After that they are pressed in the tipiti, an elastic plaited cylinder made of palm. This crude process allows only about half of the oil to be extracted
Bark, leaf, fruit and seed of andiroba are all used to make medicine. Oil can be extracted from the fruit and the seed and is taken for coughs. A tea made from the plant’s bark or leaf is ingested in the Amazon as a tonic and muscle relaxer as well as to fight fever, worm infections, parasites and herpes.
Applied directly to the skin the plant’s bark and leaf are known as effective treatment of sores, ulcers and all kinds of skin problems as well as removing ticks and skin parasites. It’s also effective to fight arthritis, swelling and inflammation, rashes, joint and muscle aches. It’s equally very useful for killing bacteria and treating wounds, boils, and ulcers.
Andiroba is also used as lamp oil, soap and as an insect repellent. At the beginning of the 19th century, Belém, an Amazon city in northern Brazil, capital of the state of Pará, used to light its streets with andiroba oil. The fuel had several advantages: besides being grown locally the andiroba allowed for a cleaner burn, with little smoke and the extra advantage of keeping mosquitoes and other pesky insects at a distance.
The US furniture industry has been a great fan and a big importer of the Brazilian mahogany, another name given to the andiroba tree, which is soft yet durable with the additional benefit of repelling insects. This interest has contributed to the fact that the species has virtually disappeared in areas close to major towns in the Amazon.
As for the Brazilian Indians they’ve known and used andiroba for centuries. The Munduruku Indians, for example, who live in the states of Pará, Amazonas and Mato Grosso and are also known as Black-Faces used to mummify the heads of their enemies killed in war using andiroba oil.
Other tribes like the Creole, the Wayãpi, the Palikur, who live in the French Guiana, use the oil for treating skin problems and to deal with parasites and ticks. There also those who wear a mix of andiroba oil and annatto to spread it all over the body. The concoction serves both to prevent insect bites and protect them against the frequent rain in the rainy season.
Following on the steps of jungle dwellers known as caboclos, city residents in Brazil have learned to benefit from andiroba. Among the products they have available is a soap they use for skin disease, which is a mix of andiroba oil, cocoa skin and ash.
Andiroba oil is also rubbed on the joints to relieve arthritis pain. Mixed with water and human milk the oil is used to fight ear infection. And a tea made of the andiroba tree’s bark is known to help with digestion problems.
Other uses include the treatment of wounds, bruises and skin diseases as psoriasis. Add to this moisturizer and massage oil.
Studies in Brazil have shown that andiroba candles burning for 48 hours in a closed space were able to protect 100% against bites from the Aedes aegypti, the mosquito that transmits dengue. More studies, however, are needed to verify the efficacy of the product when applied direct on the skin.
Lab tests of crude andiroba oil made in Brazil have proved the product’s anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving properties. At least three andiroba chemicals have shown to have antiparasitic and/or insecticidal actions. In 1999, a patent was filed in the US to use andiroba oil to prevent the formation of cellulite.
More recently there have been studies on andiroba’s anticancerous properties. In 2002, for example, researchers reported that the seed oil could prevent and even reverse a precancerous condition known as cervical dysplasia.
There also evidence that the andiroba’s leaf, bark, seeds, and flowers help to fight in-vitro sarcoma cancer cells.