Ecuador’s Life-Saving National Tree

Referred to locally as “Quina’, the national tree of Ecuador has long been appreciated in many parts of the world for its life-saving medicinal properties. Cinchona pubescens is one of thirty-eight species in the genus Cinchona of the family Rubiaceae, indigenous to the tropical forests in the Andes mountains of western South America, including Ecuador. With shiny evergreen foliage and pink, white or red flowers, Cinchonas are either large shrubs or small trees that produce a small fruit with many seeds.

The most notable medicine extracted from the Cinchona is quinine, a substance used for the prophylaxis and cure of malaria. Today, quinine and equivalent medicines are produced synthetically in modern laboratories, but it is still used in its natural form in some areas and in days gone by it was the medicine of choice in dealing with malaria and fevers. Legend has it that the first European to be cured from malaria with the use of this medicine, which local tribes had used for generations, was the countess of Chinchón – the wife of Luis Jerónimo de Cabrera, the Viceroy of Peru – in the 1640s. The physician attending the countess tried every remedy at his disposal to break the waves of fever experienced by the countess, but to no avail. In desperation he gave her some medicine provided by local Indians who had been using it successfully for similar symptoms. The countess survived the illness and took some of the bark home to Europe with her. By 1677, the bark of the Chinchona was noted in the London Pharmacopoeia and went on to become widely used in Europe and beyond. It was world-renowned Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus who named the genus in honor of the countess of Chinchón.

Initially restricted to its natural habitat of between 300 and 3,900 meters in Ecuador, Cinchona pubescens has become an invasive species in some areas where it was introduced by man. This is particularly the case in tropical climates. Within the Galapagos National Park measures have been taken to prevent the tree from crowding out native species, but research by the Charles Darwin Foundation on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos revealed that it has become a dominant species over an extended area making its removal problematic and prohibitively expensive.