The capirona tree (Calycophyllum spruceanum) forms part of the canopy of the Amazon rainforest. The capirona is extremely fast growing, and it is said that after just eight years of growth a young capirona can be cut for timber. Traditionally, the attractive hardwood of the capirona, ranging in color from light brown to deep red, has been used for parquet flooring. When left to thrive in its rainforest habitat, the capirona will grow tall and straight, soaring up to 30 meters (around 100 feet) in height and becoming one of the many giants of the forests of South America.
Capironas can be found in the lowland tropical forests of Colombia, Ecuador, Brazil, Bolivia and Peru, and they are present in the protected Amazon forests of Tambopata National Reserve, in southeastern Peru.
During summertime in the Amazon basin, which runs from early December to late February and is also the rainy season, the capirona produces a great mass of beautiful small, white, highly aromatic flowers, which go on to produce long seedpods containing just three to five seeds each. The seeds of the capirona are dispersed by the wind and by forest watercourses, rather than by animal or bird seed dispersers.
In the highly competitive world that is the Amazon rainforest, where plants struggle to thrive in in nutrient-poor soils and race to beat each other in the competition for sunlight, the capirona has developed its own strategy to ensure that it will flourish.
The capirona avoids the potential threats to its survival posed by lichens, fungi, epiphytes and lianas by shedding its bark regularly. This strategy makes the capirona quite easy to spot during trail walks in the Amazon basin, in an ecosystem where to the untrained eye the thousands of species crowded around the walker might at first appear to look the same.
Up to twice a year, the capirona sheds its bark entirely, appearing to unpeel itself from its own protective outer layer, meter after meter along the entire length of its massive trunk. As the capirona sheds its bark, it will change color, shifting from reddish-brown to a smooth green that feels like sleek rubber to the touch.
Because the capirona sheds its bark regularly, the bark can be harvested and used sustainably by humans, without harming the tree. Capirona bark is extremely important to the rainforest ethnic groups that share the pristine ecosystems where it grows.
In traditional Amazonian medicinal practices, the dried bark of the capirona tree is used to treat fungal infections of the skin. Made into a poultice, the bark is said to be effective in the treatment of cuts, wounds and burns. Capirona bark is also used in the treatment of eye infections, and it is believed to be effective in treatment of the symptoms of diabetes. Capirona bark is also used as an insect repellent and to sooth insect bites. Indigenous peoples make an infusion from capirona bark, with which they coat their bodies after bathing. In the modern world, thanks to its beneficial properties, capirona bark is now being used in some natural cosmetic products, most notably in Peru and Brazil. In 2006, government funded research in Brazil led to capirona bark being approved by the European Union for use in cosmetics, as part of efforts to discourage the felling of the tree for timber.
In traditional ceremonies involving use of the hallucinogenic ayahuasca vine, Amazon shamans are said to invoke the spirit of the capirona tree in order to bring calm to the space in which participants are sharing the ayahuasca experience.