Quassia, a bitter drug, the properties of which, it is said, were first made known to Europeans by a negro slave named Quassi; the tree producing it was named Quassia amara by Linnaeeus, and belongs to the simarubeoe. Its wood is intensely bitter, and is sold in billets 2 to 4 in. in diameter. The supply of the drug originally came from Surinam; small quantities are exported to Europe, and under the name of Surinam quassia it is still used in Germany and France. Toward the end of the last century it was discovered that a tree known in Jamaica and neighboring islands as bitterwood and bitter ash had properties almost identical with the quassia; being much more abundant and in much larger pieces than the Surinam drug, this has almost entirely supplanted it, and, though afforded by a different tree, the drug is called quassia. The tree is picoena excelsa, an allied genus in the same family with the other, having the general appearance of an ash, inconspicuous, greenish flowers, and black drupes the size of a pea.
Bitterwood (Picraena excelsa).
The wood is imported in logs, sometimes a foot thick, with a smooth brittle bark; it is kept in the form of chips or turnings, which are nearly white when first cut, but become yellowish by exposure; it has no odor, and a. strong, pure bitter taste, which is imparted to water and to alcohol. A neutral, substance, to which the bitterness is due, has been separated and called quassiine. - The properties of quassia are those of the simple bitters, and as a medicine it is adapted to cases of dyspepsia and the debilitated state of the digestive organs which sometimes succeeds acute disease. Animals have been killed by concentrated preparations of the drug. A sweetened decoction is sometimes used for poisoning flies. It is given in the form of cold infusion and in tincture. Bitter cups or quassia cups were at one time very popular; these are goblets turned from the wood, which quickly impart a bitter taste to wine, water, or other liquid placed in them. The decoction was formerly used in England by some of the brewers as a substitute for hops, but this is now prohibited under severe penalties.