Pre-Columbian people used its bark as a medicine while South American liberator Simon Bolivar adopted it in Peru’s coat of arms, but the cinchona tree is facing a battle for survival as vast swathes of forest are chopped down to make way for plantations.
The wider cinchona species is used in the production of the anti-malaria medicine, quinine.
But experts say the cinchona tree is in danger of extinction due to government neglect, while many Peruvians can no longer tell it apart from fig trees or quinoa plants.
“Peru has 20 of the world’s 29 cinchona species but already many of them are hard to find due to deforestation, degradation of the soil and the growth of agriculture,” forest engineer Alejandro Gomez told AFP.
“Their habitat is very fragile and they are exposed to extermination due to the burning of large areas of land to grow coffee and other crops, and also for the quality of their wood,” added Gomez, who is managing a preservation project.
Cinchona trees grow up to 15 meters (50 feet) in height, in humid forests between 1,300-2,900-meters above sea level, mostly in the north west but also the center of Peru.
It was first used for medicinal purposes by the pre-Columbian peoples of Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela to treat fever and pain, but now cinchona is also used in the production of tonic water and angostura bitter, an alcoholic beverage used in Peru’s national cocktail, pisco sour.
According to Jose Luis Marcelo, professor at the National Agrarian University, “six cinchonas that grow only in Peru and containing a high concentration of quinine, are under threat of disappearing.”