Tonka bean (botanical name Dipteryx odorata) is a large tree that is indigenous to tropical America. In fact, this rainforest tree is very common in Brazil, especially in the states of Pará and Amazonas. These trees are large with a canopy and usually grow up to a height of 30 meters in the Amazon region. This tree is found growing in the tropical rainforests of Venezuela, Brazil, Columbia, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru and Suriname. These trees produce a bean or seed whose color varies from gray to black and grows up to a length of about 2 cm to 5 cm, while they are roughly 1 cm wide. Commonly, these seeds/ beans are known as Tonka beans. The cumaru trees are also felled for their timber, which is highly durable and fit for use as construction materials.
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The Tonka bean tree is actually a legume belonging to the pea family, called Fabaceae. Even the purple or pink hued flowers of this tree have resemblance to a pea and characteristically they blossom during the period between the late spring and the end of summer. The Tonka bean flowers appear on the branch ends or their sides. These trees usually grow very slowly and have a smooth bark that is reddish-brown. The roots of the tree are basal. The fruits of the dipteryx are brown hued and enclose a sugary pulp, which is used to make jams and liquors. The beans are shaped like almonds and their color varies from gray to black. The aroma of the beans is similar to that of vanilla and they are usually roasted and then pounded for preparing a coarse meal. The extracts obtained from the Tonka beans are used therapeutically as well as for flavouring other foods.
While the bark of the cumaru tree is smooth and has a gray color, the timber is reddish. The leaves of Tonka beans are alternate as well as pinnate having three to six leaflets arranged on either sides of a common axis. The leaves are leather-like (rubbery), shiny and have a deep green color, while the flowers are rose hued. The fruits of Dipteryx odorata contain a single seed and the flowers are pollinated by insects.
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The seeds of this plant are black colored and wrinkled, while their interior is smooth and brown hued. The aroma of the seeds reminds one of various substances, including cinnamon, almonds, vanilla and cloves.
The term 'tonka' has been derived from Galibi (also called Carib), the language of the native inhabitants of French Guiana. In addition, the word is found in another language from the same area and called Tupi. Tonka is used to refer to the cumaru (Dipteryx odorata) tree.
The pagan as well as the occult communities believes that the Tonka bean possesses magical attributes and uses. A number of people practicing magical arts are of the view that crushed Tonka beans infused in a tea or any herbal brew can aid in curing a number of health problems, including disorientation, depression, suicidal behaviour and confusion. They believe that it may also be used to perk up the immune system.
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A section of people who practice various occult traditions also consider that Tonka beans possess the aptitude to help to fulfill or grant one's desires as well as wishes when they are used in various methods. One of these means involve holding the Tonka bean in the person's hand and whispering his/ her desire or wish and subsequently carrying the beans with them till the person's desires are accomplished. When the person gets the desired results, he/ she should bury the Tonka bean in the ground. One more method that is commonly used to fulfill one's desires is to hold the bean in the person's hand and tread heavily on it later. There are several other methods by which one may use the Tonka bean to accomplish their desires. One method involves a person hold the Tonka bean in his/ her hand and makes a wish. Subsequently, the person plants the Tonka bean in a fertile soil with the hope that his/ her wish will come true while the plant grows.
The fruit of the cumaru tree (Dipteryx odorata) encloses several compounds in the sweet flavoured pulp as well as in the bean. Some of these plant chemicals include coumarin, fatty acid esters, lupeol derivatives and isoflavones. Among these, therapeutically, coumarin is the most important plant chemical. It is a very familiar phytochemical that is used to produce specific anti-coagulant prescription medications (blood thinning drugs). It is important to note that coumarin becomes a toxic substance when it is taken internally in elevated dosages.
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For several years, tribes living inside the tropical rainforests in South America have been using the cumaru tree for therapeutic purposes. A decoction prepared from the cumaru tree bark is used for treating fevers, while the seeds of this tree are occasionally distilled in rum and used topically for treating cuts, contusions, rheumatism and snake bites. It is also used internally for treating coughs. In addition, the fermented seeds are sometimes used in the form of a shampoo and also dropped inside the ears to cure earaches as well as infections. Herbalists consider dipteryx to possess anti-asthmatic, anti-spasmodic, emmenagogue (a medicine that stimulates menstrual discharge) as well as cardio-tonic properties.
The Indian tribes in the tropical rainforests of the Amazon have also used the bark as well as the seed of Dipteryx odorata (Tonka bean or cumaru tree) since long. The bark of this tree is used to make a decoction and bathe people suffering from fever. It is said to be effective in bringing down the body temperature. In current times, herbal medicine of Brazil considers cumaru to have anti-asthmatic, anti-spasmodic, cardio-tonic and emmenagogue effects.
The odor of Tonka beans is very pleasing something similar to vanilla and is often used by the perfume industry. In addition, they are also used to make soaps and used to add essence to foods as well as tobacco. Usually, the beans are distilled or fermented in locally-brewed rum and subsequently dried in the air. This leads to the development of coumarin crystal covering the exterior of the seeds to make them look as if they are frosted.
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Tonka beans have multiple uses, including as a substitute for vanilla, in the form of perfumes as well as in tobacco, prior to the practice was banned in a number of countries. In addition, the French use the beans in some of their cuisines, especially stews and desserts, and also in perfumes.
Currently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned the use of Tonka beans in alls foods in the United States. In fact, several prescription drugs used as blood thinners, for instance Warfarin, are 4-hydroxycoumarin based. This chemical has been derived from coumarin, which was originally isolated from Tonka beans. However, coumarin by itself does not possess anti-coagulant attributes.
In the United States, timber of Tonka bean tree is gaining in popularity for its effective use as flooring material.
Currently, Nigeria and Venezuela are the largest Tonka bean producers in the world. Tonka beans trees are emergent plants that grow even on poor soils having proper drainage system. This tree grows well in completely sunny positions. However, the cumaru trees grow best when they are cultivated in soils containing high amounts of humus. The average annual temperature in the region which is native to the cumaru trees is about 25°C and those areas receive about 2000 mm rainfall every year. The period between June and November is dry season in these areas. Generally, the region has a very poor density of plant growth.
The age as well as the density of the cumaru trees vary conditional on the agricultural use of the land. The trees in the timber production system and seed production system also differ. Compared to the trees in the timber production system, those cultivated for their seeds have an elevated density and are even older. While the trees produce flowers during the period between March and May, its fruits mature sometime between June and July. Hence, they are collected during this period, while the pods that drop to the ground from the tree on their own are collected between January and March or even earlier. After removing the hard outer shells, the Tonka beans are dried by spreading them for about two to three days prior to selling them.
Venezuela and Nigeria are the largest producers of Tonka beans in the world now, while Brazil and Columbia come close to it. On the other hand, the United States imports the major part of the world's Tonka bean production. The tobacco industry in the United States is the prime user of Tonka beans.
Laboratory studies undertaken on animals in Brazil using the extracts of Tonka bean seeds have reportedly proved that they have antispasmodic, anti-spermatogenic, anti-diuretic, anti-inflammatory, choleretic and chologogue effects. During these animal studies it was observed that the use of the crude seed extracts in elevated doses of 350 mg/ kg of the animals' body weight caused toxicity and extensive live damage in rats. Studies undertaken by scientists in 2003 in the United States gave evidence of an in vitro (in an artificial environment and not inside the animal) anti-tumour action when the Tonka bean seed extracts were used in a rodent mammary cancer model.
Chemical analysis of Tonka beans has revealed that on average, they may enclose anything between 1 per cent to 3 per cent coumarin. However, it has also been found that the coumarin content in a number strains that have been examined may be very high, almost 10 per cent. Coumarin is a very familiar phytochemical that possesses anti-coagulant or blood thinning properties and is used to produce a prescription drug called Warfarin or coumadin. When used internally in elevated doses, coumarin is toxic. Studies conducted on animals have shown that feeding dogs and rats with dietary coumarin retarded their growth, caused widespread damage to their liver, and has been responsible for cardiac paralysis as well as testicular atrophy.
Besides coumarin, the other compounds contained by Tonka beans include isoflavones, fatty acid esters and lupeol derivatives.
As mentioned earlier, the seeds of Tonka bean enclose coumarin, a chemical isolated from this rainforest tree. Normally, the seeds of this plant enclose about 1 per cent to 3 per cent coumarin, and seldom it is found that the coumarin content of the seeds is as elevated as 10 per cent. The pleasing smell of the Tonka bean seeds is attributable to coumarin, which has some utility in the perfume industry. In fact, the flavour of coumarin is bitter and when taken in large doses in the form of an infusion, it may result in liver damage as well as hemorrhage. In addition, excessive dosage of Tonka bean seed infusion may also cause cardiac paralysis. Hence, many governments have restricted the use of coumarin or Tonka seed extracts in the form of a food additive. Similar to many other plants, even the Tonka bean tree possibly makes coumarin to protect itself.