- Chilean Acorn
Cryptocarya is the name of an entire genus of fruit trees, part of the Lauraceae family that also includes the laurel. There are over 350 different trees in this genus, which are found on all continents and ecological zones: Australasia, Neotropic, Afrotropic and Indomalaya.
Cryptocarya alba is one of these evergreen trees and has many uses. It is known for its spectacular red berries, produced from small yellow or green flowers. The leaves are oval or elliptic, with a distinctive aroma. The peumo plant is used by pharmaceutical companies due to its important medical properties.
Peumo is the usual name for the red fruits of Cryptocarya alba. This particular evergreen tree is mainly found in the lower part of South America, in Chile and Argentina. The seeds are important for the oil content that can be extracted.
Peumo is an evergreen tree that can reach a maximum height of about 20 meters. Leaves grow in opposite and alternate fashion and a have a length of 2.5 to 8.5 cm, with a width between 1 and 4 cm. They have an ovate shape, with a smooth and shiny surface. Stems are usually smooth, with a brown or grey color, but mature ones might be covered in scales. Flowers are grouped in small clusters, no more than 3 or 4 mm long. They consist of six petals covered with hair, which tend to have different sizes. It is quite an adaptable species that tolerates both dry and moist environments.
The peumo tree has a straight trunk that usually grows in a very regular fashion. Its cork cambium is normally smooth but it develops some fissures and scales after it ages. While the main branches are vigorous and upright, the terminal ones hang towards the ground. The perennial leaves have a pleasant smell.
Besides the aromatic leaves, the peumo tree is known for the edible red berries. Considering that it is a southern hemisphere species, the bloom happens between the months of November and January.
The peumo wood is valuable, being very strong and able to resist moisture. The bark can be used to produce an orange dye, also in the process of tanning leather. The tree is cultivated both for its ornamental value and the edible fruits.
In the sclerophyllous forests of Chile, Cryptocarya alba is one of the most common trees and is usually found alongside Lithraea caustica (Anacardiaceae), Quillaja saponaria (Quillajaceae) or Peumus boldu (Monimiaceae). Even if it is one of the most widespread native trees, it is now considered an endangered species in Central and Southern Chile. This is caused by the destruction of forest habitats and the commercial exploitation of the tree. The red or pink fruits, also known as peumos, are edible and have a fragrant aroma. The edible part is their thin pericarp, which was well known to natives long before the first colonists landed. Many animals, such as rodents, birds and even foxes, also consume the peumo fruits.
Fruits, bark, seeds.
The fruits of peumo tree have important health benefits and have been used for a long time in medicine. They provide a strong mix of vitamins and minerals that boosts immunity and the development of tissues. The peumo is particularly rich in antioxidants. Like many other fruits, it provides a significant dose of vitamin C, which improves immune response and protects against colds and other infections.
The peumo seeds are also important due to their oil content. They can be consumed raw but have also been cooked when no other food was available. The seeds can even be turned into an alcoholic drink. Traditional medicine mainly used the bark prepared as an infusion, as a counter for liver problems but also to speed up the healing of wounds and treat rheumatism. Seeds were transformed into a powder and employed against vaginal infections.
Various parts of the peumo plant also have an antiseptic action. Extracts from the fruit can stop the growth of food bacteria, of both gram positive and gram negative types. Extracts from the leaves were less effective, inhibiting only one strain of Staphylococcus aureus.
The oil that can be extracted from the seeds is valuable. It is edible, with a high content of linoleic and oleic acid. It is rich in both polyunsaturated and saturated fatty acids, while being a great natural source for beta-sitosterol and tocopherols.
Cryptocarya alba is mainly cultivated for its edible berries, the peumos. However, the attractive look also makes it a very popular ornamental plant. When the fruits are ripe, the tree is a spectacular sight, with thousands of small berries with a vivid red color that resemble a coral reef. The broad evergreen leaves also contribute to the ornamental value of the species.
Peumo tree has several other industrial uses. It can be fed as fodder to various animals, while the wood has a hard essence and resists water. The bark can be turned into an orange pigment or used in tanneries.
Habitat and cultivation
Cryptocarya alba is a very resilient tree, which makes it easy to cultivate. Despite being an evergreen species, it survives frosts as low as -8 °C. It can also tolerate periods of snow of up to two weeks per year.
The trees grow best when located in a position with full sun exposure. They enjoy water and can grow with their roots permanently submerged.
The peumo tolerates cold climates and wet ones. It can survive drought but usually likes moist environments. Mountain areas are very favourable, especially slopes located from 500 to 2000 m high.
Cultivation is easily done using the viable seeds, which germinate readily. It doesn’t require much attention afterwards and can survive frost and being completely covered by snow for up to two weeks.
The fact that the leaves, fruits and bark have a content of resins and tannins has been known for a long time, ever since Gautier first investigated its phytochemistry. The leaves have a strong aroma and the essential oil extracted from them has important medical properties. Because it was known to have the ability to kill germs, the oil was studied by three or more separate teams of researchers. They found a high concentration of monoterpenoids like terpin-1-en-4-ol, β-terpinene, 1,8-cineole (eucalyptol), p-cymene, α- and β-pinene.
Numerous other bioactive compounds have been identified in the plant. Back in 1995, a study isolated chlorogenic acid and ten flavonoids in the fruits and aerial parts. The methanol extracts were found to be antioxidant in nature. Two types of α-pyrones are found in the fruits after they become ripe: cryptofolione and 6-(4,6-dimethoxy-8-phenylocta-1,7-dienyl)-4-hydroxytetrahydropyran-2-one. Cryptofolione is active against Trypanosoma cruzi and Leishmania species, as well as mildly cytotoxic.
Side effects and cautions
No side effects have ever been reported after eating the berries. However, any natural product has a small chance to trigger an allergic reaction in some people. If you notice any problems, ask for medical advice.