Jatoba

(Hymenaea courbaril)

Long before it was imported as ‘Brazilian Cherry,’  Jatoba was well known among the indigenous people of South and Central America. The tree is renowned for the sticky resinous gum it produces. The gum, given time, turns into a dense polymer that traps insects and plant material, offering a window into the prehistoric past. Most of us will recognize this particular trait from the Jurassic Park movies. This sticky resin has also been utilized as pottery glaze and burnt as an incense.

The bark of Jatoba is often macerated to produce a substance to treat a variety of medical conditions. There are hundreds of diverse biochemical compounds produced by the tree and distributed throughout its leaves, bark, and gum. Observations of its use by native Americans has led to it being incorporated into modern herbal medical practices.

The tree is a well known broad-leaved canopy specie growing to heights ranging from 70′ to 125′. It’s free of branches for the first 50′ to 75′, and can grow up to 6′ in diameter at the trunk. The heartwood is a light orange brown ageing to a deep blood red, occasionally having dark grayish brown streaks. The sapwood is a pale yellow, sharply demarcated from the heart. The grain of the wood is often interlocked and has a medium to coarse texture. The wood is very durable given the rich variety of biochemical compounds it produces. It is also very resistant to fungal and insect attack.

Jatoba gained notoriety about 25 to 30 years ago, when the tropical South and Central American forests were being depleted of the more valuable species such as Mahogany and Spanish Cedar. Importers began to harvest lesser known species and Jatoba was one of them.

Jatoba is a very dense hardwood, perfect for flooring and stairs, which is one of the reasons it has become so popular. Due to its reddish colour it became know as Brazilian Cherry even though it has no botanical relationship to the North American and European Cherries (Prunus sp.). For the woodworker, the same properties that make a great floor can cause concern.

Jatoba is heavy and hard to move around, and it’s difficult to nail and screw. However, it stains and finishes beautifully, presents no problems gluing, and turns well. It can also be steam bent, but working the wood by hand is tedious and tiring. Therefore sharp carbide tooling is a prerequisite. This wood must also be dried slowly and carefully to reduce drying stresses which could lead to warping.

While often found as flooring, Jatoba is used for furniture, tool handles, turned objects, and in shipbuilding. It’s a common wood so pricing is relatively inexpensive and predictable, with supplies plentiful in most common sizes. If you have a project that demands toughness and durability, especially if you are willing to break a sweat, Jatoba may be the ideal wood.


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