THE BRAZIL NUT.
Every one is acquainted with the hard-shelled, triangular fruit called the Brazil nut, but there are, perhaps, but few who know anything about the tree that produces it, or its mode of growth. The Brazil nut tree belongs to a genus of Lecythidaceae of which there is only one species, Bertholletia excelsa. This tree is a native of Guiana, Venezuela, and Brazil. It forms large forests on the banks of the Amazons and Rio Negro, and likewise about Esmeraldas, on the Orinoco, where the natives call it juvia. The natives of Brazil call the fruit capucaya, while to the Portuguese it is known as castaña de marañon.
The tree is one of the most majestic in the South American forests, attaining a height of 100 or 150 feet. Its trunk is straight and cylindrical, and measures about 3 or 4 feet in diameter. The bark is grayish and very even. At a distance, the tree somewhat resembles a chestnut. Its branches are alternate, open, very long, and droop toward the earth. The leaves are alternate, oblong, short petioled, nearly coriaceous, about 2 feet long by 6 inches wide, entire or undivided, and of a bright green color. The flowers have a two-parted, deciduous calyx, six unequal cream-colored petals, and numerous stamens united into a broad, hood-shaped mass, those at the base being fertile, and the upper ones sterile.
The fruit is nearly orbicular, and about 6 inches in diameter, and has a hard shell about half an inch thick, which contains from 18 to 24 triangular, wrinkled seeds that are so beautifully packed within the shell that when once disturbed it is impossible to replace them. When these fruits are ripe, they fall from the tree and are collected into heaps by troops of Indians called Castanhieros, who visit the forests at the proper season of the year expressly for this purpose. They are then split open with an ax, and the seeds (the Brazil nuts of commerce) taken out and packed in baskets for transportation to Para in the native canoes. The "meat" that the Brazil nut contains consists of a white substance of the same nature as that of the common almond, and which is good to eat when fresh, but which, by reason of its very oily nature, soon gets rancid. Besides its use as an article of dessert, a bland oil, used by watchmakers and artists, is obtained from the nut by pressure. Brazil nuts form a considerable article of export from the port of Para, whence they are sometimes called Para nuts.
The Brazil nut tree remained for a long time unknown to European botanists, although the fruit has been from a very remote epoch consumed in large quantities in certain southern countries of the New World. The first description of the tree we owe to Humboldt and Bonpland, who established the genus and species in the botanical part of the account of their voyage. The genus is dedicated to the illustrious Berthollet.
"We were very fortunate," say these authors, "to find some of these nuts in our travels on the Orinoco. For three months we had been living on nothing but poor chocolate and rice cooked in water, always without butter, and often without salt, when we procured a large quantity of the fresh fruits of the Bertholletia. It was along in June, and the natives had just gathered them."
The formation of a large woody fruit, often in the shape of an urn, from which the top spontaneously separates in the form of a lid, is one of the characteristics of the order Lecythidaceae, which includes the Couronpita Guianensis, or "cannon ball tree"; the gigantic Lecythis ollaria, or "monkey-pot tree," whose great woody pericarps serve as drinking vessels; and the Lecythis Zabucajo, whose fruit is known in the market as sapucaia nuts, and is greatly superior to the closely allied Brazil nuts as regards flavor and ease of digestion.
All the trees of this order are natives of South America, and especially of Guiana.