Sandy’s Garden ... The Chinchona Tree

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

Following on from my mention of Fever-tree tonic water, my curiosity led me to think about the best-known tonic water world-wide.

Schweppes is drunk in many times the number of gins and tonic as any other brand. At one time, the company coined the wonderful world ‘Schweppervescence’ to describe the fizziness which their tonic water imparts to that most British of all pre-dinner drinks, although that word was dropped from the company’s advertising quite a few years ago. However, to the best of my belief, two words which have always appeared on the label of a bottle of Schweppes tonic water are ‘contains quinine’. So what is quinine, and why is it an ingredient of the world’s best-selling mixer drink?

Quinine, and here I quote, “is a white crystalline alkaloid having antipyretic (fever-reducing), antimalarial, analgesic (painkilling), and anti-inflammatory properties and a bitter taste.” So far so good, the bitter taste being the property which makes tonic water such a good partner for gin and makes the combination so refreshing. And what is the source of quinine? Why, it’s a tree … the cinchona tree to be precise … and quinine occurs naturally in the bark of that tree. Its medicinal properties were discovered by the indigenous peoples of Peru and Bolivia in South America, being brought to Europe by the Jesuit Agostino Salumbrino (1561–1642), an apothecary by training who lived in Lima and observed the Quechua people in Peru using the bark of the cinchona tree to halt shivering due to low temperatures.

Brother Salumbrino was well aware that malaria was endemic to the swamps and marshes surrounding the city of Rome and was familiar with the shivering brought on by the disease. He sent a small quantity of cinchona bark to Rome to be tried as a malaria treatment; and the success of the trials led to the bark becoming one of the most valuable commodities shipped from Peru to Europe. By the 1670s it was a well-established remedy in Britain; and what more natural than that generations of British explorers, adventurers and colonists included cinchona bark among the medicinal contents of their stores whenever they ventured to lands where there was malaria. It remained the antimalarial drug of choice until the 1940s, since when many effective alternatives have been introduced, although quinine is still used to treat the disease in certain critical circumstances, like severe malaria.

Now, let’s look at the cinchona tree – at last! It was named by that true master of the plant world Carl Linné who, as was typical of 18th century scientists, used the Latin form of his surname … Linnaeus … in his professional life. He named the cinchona tree in honour of the Countess of Chinchón, the wife of a viceroy of Peru, who was supposedly introduced to the medicinal properties of cinchona bark by native Quechua healers. Since there are written accounts of the healing properties of the tree dated well before her time, Linnaeus credited the wrong lady. The plants are large shrubs … with several stems … or small trees … with a single trunk …with evergreen foliage which grow to a height of between 5m and 15m, say, roughly, between 15 and 50 feet. The lance-shaped leaves are up to 40cm (16 inches) long; the flowers are white, pink or red; and the fruit is a small capsule containing numerous seeds.

Cinchona is native to the tropical Andes forests of western South America and is the national tree of both Ecuador and Peru. The bark’s medicinal value to Europeans led to seed being sent to many countries; and the British found that cinchona grew well in those parts of India and Sri Lanka which are favoured by tea plants. However, the development of synthetic anti-malarial drugs during WWII left the flavouring of tonic water as quinine’s main role.