Bitter Ash, Bitter Wood Tree, Bois

Quassia amara syn. Q. excelsa, Picraena excelsa F. Simaroubaceae

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free from Isabell Shipard’s Herb book.

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Description (p 279)

Two varieties of quassia are used commercially; a West Indian large tree, to over 30 metres, with thick upright trunk, and pinnate, oblong leaves, yellow/green, small flower spikes and pea size, shiny, black seed capsules.

The second variety is a smaller tree grown in Surinam, Brazil, Columbia and the West Indies. It is said the 2 trees have identical properties.

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Medicinal Uses

A time-honoured folk remedy from the West Indies, for fevers, malaria, snakebite, dysentery, dyspepsia, venereal diseases, rheumatism, alcoholism, intestinal worms and cancer.

The therapeutic properties of the tree, it is said, were divinely revealed to a lowly, Surinam Negro slave, named Quassia. With this knowledge of the tree, he made a tea of the wood from the tree and used it as a remedy to help many people with a deadly fever, blacks and whites alike, all who needed it he freely gave, and they were healed and restored to health.

He kept his recipe to himself for a long time. White doctors looked on and saw the tremendous success he was having of saving lives, and pressured Quassia to sell his secret for a large sum of money. Eventually, in 1756 he shared his life-saving quassia recipe and a large supply was taken to England, and, at once, quassia became famous in Europe. But, owing to the small size of the trees, the remedy became scarce, until the larger and more abundant tree variety was found growing, plentifully, in Jamaica.

For many years, it was the most famous fever remedy in the world, until the appearance of synthetic drugs. Today, it is used, or remembered, as a treatment to kill lice in the hair of children. Over the years, many people have shared with me some very colourful, amusing stories of being the subject of lice infestation and how their mothers vigorously rubbed the bitter quassia infusion into their hair.

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