Copaifera langsdorfii

Copaifera langsdorfii Desf.
Diesel tree
Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished.

That the oleoresin called copaiba could be obtained by incising the trunk was first reported in England in 1625, in a work published by Purchas, “…a single tree is said to yield about 40 litres.” (Grieve, 1931, reprinted 1974). Quoting nobel-laureate Calvin, Maugh says (1979), “Natives … drill a 5 centimeter hole into the 1-meter thick trunk and put a bung into it. Every 6 months or so, they remove the bung and collect 15 to 20 liters of the hydrocarbon. Since there are few Rabbit diesels in the jungle, the natives use the hydrocarbon as an emollient and for other nonenergy-related purposes. But tests have shown, he says, that the liquid can be placed directly in the fuel tank of a diesel-powered car.” (Maugh, 1976). The copal is used in lacquers, massage preparations, medicines, and paints. Wood and resin can be used for fuel. The wood is used in carpentry (Burkart, 1943).
Folk Medicine
According to Hartwell (1967-1971), balsam of one species is used in folk remedies as a fomentation, for tumors of the prostate gland. Grieve (1931) describes the balsam as stimulant, diuretic, carminative, laxative; in large doses purgative, causing nausea, vomiting, strangury, bloody urine, and fever. A good remedy for chronic catarrh and bronchitis, as it assists expectoration and is antiseptic; given with advantage in leucorrhoea, chronic cystitis, diarrhea, and hemorrhoids. It is chiefly used in gonorrhea (though not advocated for chronic cases), often combined with cubebs and sandal. It has also been recommended externally for chilblains. Both the volatile oil and resin are greatly altered when expelled in the urine, and when precipitated by nitric acid might be mistaken for albumen; it is considered a valuable hydragogue diuretic in obstinate dropsy. It creates an irritant action the whole mucous membrane, imparts a peculiar odor to the urine and breath, causes an eruption resembling measles attended with irritation and tingling; it is the resin, not the oleoresin, that is used as diuretic. Duke and Wain (1981) note that this species is a folk remedy for dermatosis, eczema, and gonorrhea. In Panama, Yaviza negros mix cabismo resin with honey and give it to the newborne, to impart knowledge and ward off hexes. The gum is also used for treating venereal diseases, for massage, and for hair oil (Duke, 1972, under “cabismo”).
In what could as well apply to other species, Hager’s Handbuch lists delta-elemene, copaene, alpha- and beta-cubebene, cyperene, alpha-bergamoten, beta- and gamma-elemene, beta-farnesene, alloaromadendrene, alpha- and beta-humulene, beta-bisabolene, alpha- and beta-selinene, delta- and gamma-cadinene, ar-curcumene, calamenene. From the wood, Langenheim (1981) reports the following diterpenoids: polyalthic acid; (-)-jkaur-16-en-19-oic acid, (-) 16 betakauren- 19-oic acid and eperu-8(20)-en-15,18-dioic acid. In 1980, Calvin published the chromatogram of products obtained from Copaiba oil.
Langenheim (1981) compares the sesquiterpenes of Hymenaea, shall we call it the “kerosene tree,” and Copaifera, Calvin’s “diesel tree.”

Sesquiterpene Hydrocarbons Hymenaea Copaifera
Allo-arodendrene wood
alpha-Bergamotene wood
beta-Bisabolene wood wood
delta-Cadinene leaf-pod-stem cortex wood, leaf
gamma-Cadinene leaf-stem cortex leaf
Calamenene wood
Calarene pod
Caryophyllene leaf, pod-stem cortex wood, leaf
alpha-Copaene leaf-stem cortex wood, leaf
beta-Copaene leaf-stem cortex wood*, leaf*
alpha-Cubebene leaf-stem cortex wood, leaf*
beta-Cubebene wood
Curcumene wood
Cyclosativene pod
Cyperene leaf wood, leaf
beta, delta, and gamma-Elemene wood
beta-Farnesene wood
alpha-Himachalene pod
beta-Humulene leaf-stem cortex leaf*
alpha-Muurolene pod
beta-Muurolene wood
gamma-Muurolene leaf-stem cortex wood, leaf*
alpha-Selinene leaf-stem cortex wood, leaf*
beta-Selinene leaf-stem cortex wood, leaf*
Selina-4(14), 7(1l)-diene pod
Selina-4(14), 7-diene pod

*probably present Langenheim (1981)
Evergreen tree to 35 m tall, to 1 m in diameter, otherwise rather resembling Copaifera officinalis,. In Argentina (Territorio de Misiones) it is 6-12 m tall, with paripinnate glabrous, subcoriaceous leaves 5-10 cm long; leaflets 2-4 pairs, opposite or semialternate petiolulate, elliptic ovoid, 2-6 cm long, 1.2-2.5 cm broad with finely pinnate reticulate nervation, glandular-punctate. Flowers in terminal racemes to compound panicles with numerous, subsessile whitish flowers. Sepals 4 lanceolate, concave, firm, glabrous outside, pubescent inside. Petals absent. Stamens free, (8-)10, the anthers elliptic, versatile. Ovary hirsute; briefly stipitate; fruit ovoid, compressed, ca 2 x 3 cm, coriaceous, with one large seed partially covered with a thick aril (Burkart, 1943). There is some question about the distinctness of the species. This species, called “Copaiba” in Brazil, is called “Cabismo” in Venezuela, a name applied in Darien Panama to what was identified by Duke (1972) as Copaifera officinalis, but has since been relegated to another species. Duke describes “cabismo” as one of the finest timbers in Darien. Calvin (1980) mentions another similar species, Copaifera multijuga.
Reported from the Middle and/or South America Center of Diversity, the diesel tree, or cvs thereof, is reported to tolerate some waterlogging. Seedlings germinate well in dense shade. In his lecture at Beltsville, Calvin states that he has obtained somatic fusion of Copaifera and Euphorbia. Perhaps he has changed his mind since then. (2n = 2)
Because of the taxonomic obscurity of the species, I cite only northern and Amazonian South America.
Probably ranging from Subtropical Dry to Wet through Tropical Dry to Wet Forest Life Zones, this copaiba probably tolerates annual precipitation of 10 to 40 dm, annual temperature of 20 to 27°C (with no frost), and pH of 4.5 to 7.5. Early USDA publications suggest that most copaiba comes from regions with annual precipitation of 3500 mm or more and annual temperature ca 27°C.
A cross section of the trunk shows that the hydrocarbons collect in thin capillaries that may extend the full 30-meter height of the tree. A holedrilled into the tree probably collects hydrocarbons from capillaries ruptured by the drilling, Calvin speculates, so that it may be possible to increase the yield by drilling additional holes. An acre of 100 mature trees might thus be able to produce 25 barrels of fuel per year. Unfortunately, in the United States the tree would probably grow only in Southern Florida. The Brazilian government has already established experimental plantations. Calvin concedes that copaifera will probably never represent a significant source of diesel fuel for the U.S. It is of interest chiefly as an example of the great diversity of materials produced by plants (Maugh, 1979). Old USDA information summaries give a slightly different harvesting story. “The wood of the tree is honeycombed with a network of connected cavities in which the oleoresin forms. To tap the tree, a drainage reservoir is hollowed out near its base by cutting inward and downward into the center of the trunk. The cavities containing the oleoresin gradually drain into these hollowed-out wells. This process is repeated several times during the season. When first obtained, copaiba is thin and clear but on aging becomes thicker and acquires a yellowish tinge.”
Yields and Economics
USDA once reported per tree yields as high as 53 liters (14 gallons). A tree yields 53 liters of “diesel” and diesel sells for $1.00 per liter, it would pay the natives to gather the material. Apparently this is not happening to any great extent. Back in 1938, the U.S. imported from Brazil nearly 100 tons worth only ca $30,000 then, 106 tons worth ca $34,000 in 1939, and 102 tons worth ca $36,000 in 1940.
Although not specifically recommended as a firewood, the balsamiferouswood, with density of 700-900 kg/m3, should burn readily, perhaps even when green. Calvin (1980) reports yields of 40 liters of hydrocarbon per tree per year, which can be “used directly by a diesel-powered car.” Calvin sent a sample to Mobil Corporation to obtain a cracking pattern. “It produces the same kind of mixture in general as the oil from the E. lathyris [mostly aromatics (50%), LPG (25%), and low-molecular-weight fuel gas (3 to 4%) and coke].” (Calvin, 1980). In his seminar at Beltsville, Calvin (1982) seems to favor the terpenes of Copaifera to those of Euphorbia and hopes, by somatic hybridization to develop a Euphorbia, suitable for our climates, which will produce the sesquiterpenes. Apparently N-fixation has not been reported for this species.
Biotic Factors
No data available.
Burkart, A. 1943. Las leguminosas Argentinas. Acme Agency. Buenos Aires.
Calvin, M. 1980. Hydrocarbons from plants: Analytical methods and observations. Naturwissenschaften 67:525-533.
Calvin, M. 1982. Oil from plants. Lecture at Beltsville, MD., September 8, 1982.
Duke, J.A. 1972. Isthmian ethnobotanical dictionary. Publ. by the author. Harrod & Co., Baltimore.
Duke, J.A. and Wain, K.K. 1981. Medicinal plants of the world. Computer index with more than 85,000 entries. 3 vols.
Grieve, M. 1931. A modern herbal. Reprint 1974. Hafner Press, New York.
Hartwell, J.L. 1967-1971. Plants used against cancer. A survey. Lloydia 30-34.
Langenheim, J.H. 1981. Terpenoids in the Leguminosae. p. 627-655. In: R.M. Polhill and P.H. Raven (eds.), Advances in legume systematics. 2 vols. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Maugh, T.H., II. 1979. Unlike money, diesel fuel grows on trees. Science 206:436.
Complete list of references for Duke, Handbook of Energy Crops
last update July 8, 1996


%d bloggers like this: