The real name of the Mimosa hostilis tree
Mimosa or acacia? Jurema or tepezcohuite? Hostilis or tenuiflora? What's the real name of this tree?
The Mimosa hostilis tree grows in as many places in the Americas as the variety of names it has received. Throughout history, botanists have given it many different scientific names. In the communities where it grows, people call it by its use. In addition, it has been documented that some of these common names are used generically or to refer to different plants.
In Brazil it is known as "jurema", but this is also the name of almost 20 other species 1.In Mexico it is known as "tepezcohuite", but the origin of the word is not clear. In the scientific world, it has received more than ten names, but only six have been accepted 2. Not to mention some common names such as "charcoal" or "skin tree" (from “carbon” and “arbol de la piel” in Spanish).
The history of its scientific name
The scientific names of the species serve to identify them among themselves and avoid ambiguity. This is useful for glimpsing their evolutionary history. It begins by specifying the basics: is it an animal or a plant? Until each descriptive level makes it clear that we are talking about a single species.
The full scientific description is:
Phylum or division: Tracheophyta
Family: Leguminosae (or Fabaceae)
Species: Mimosa tenuiflora
And, until today, the most accepted scientific name is Mimosa tenuiflora [Willd] Poir (although it is also found as Poiret).
Getting to that name required many years of discussion and comparison of plant descriptions made by explorers, doctors, botanists, among others.
To begin with, there is a long debate in the world about the genus of the Mimosas and Acacias, especially in Africa and Australia 3. Mimosas are associated with invasive behaviour while acacias are associated with decorative uses, although that behaviour depends more on the region to which they belong and their popular names (there are acacias that are popularly called mimosas). In cultural terms, this contrast is important for reasons of historical identity to adopt them as national symbols. For example, in Australia, the genus Acacia is considered almost a national symbol, in its forests they are second only to the eucalyptus. In Africa, especially South Africa, the relationship with the acacias is also strong, as they are part of the landscape. However, there have been conflicts when it has been proposed that some Australian varieties without spines, which are invasive in South Africa, should be of the genus Acacia while, at the same time, it has been proposed to change the genus of the typical African flat-crowned acacias to Vachellia or Senegalia. The differences between the two are not easy to distinguish. Both genuses belong to the family Leguminosae (or Fabaceae) which is characterised by shrubs with fruits in the form of legumes or pods, making them cousins of beans (porotos) and peas. The flowers are the main way to differentiate them: the genus acacia always has more than ten stamens 4.
The name of the Mimosas comes from the Latin mimus, "mime or actor" and from the Greek mimos "imitator, mimic". The name Acacias derives from the Greek akakia, "point, thorn, sharp point" and the first record we have of this name to describe plants comes from the first-century compilation "Of medical matter" (Peri Ylis latrikis, in Greek) made by the Greek physician Dioscorides 5.
The discussion between mimosas and acacias permeated the names that would be assigned to the Mimosa tenuiflora. So much so that the first botanist to describe it, the German Carl Ludwig Willdenow, called it Acacia tenuiflora from Venezuela in 1806. But a few years later, in 1810, French botanist Jean Louis Marie Poiret transferred this species to the genus Mimosa. Thus, the name of the Mimosa tenuiflora tree contains "Willd" (for Willdenow) and "Poir" (for Poiret), in reference to the first botanists who described it 6.
The nineteenth century was characterised by a boom in explorers, mainly Europeans, who travelled the world with the intention of generating scientific knowledge. So, only a few years after Willdenow and Poiret had proposed a name, other botanists found the same plant in different regions of the American continent.
The German Hermann Karsten (in botany his abbreviation is H. Karst) described the Mimosa cabrera in Colombia in 1863. Then, in 1901, the Swiss Jacques Huber, described the Mimosa nigra in Brazil. Both described the same species, but in different regions. Thus, only at the beginning of the 20th century, the following names already existed: Mimosa tenuiflora (Willdenow) Poiret, Acacia tenuiflora Willdenow, Mimosa cabrera Karsten, and Mimosa nigra Huber 7.
In 1846 8, the British George Bentham identified a species he called Mimosa tenuiflora Benth, but it turned out to be another plant so the name was changed to Mimosa zimapanensis Britton. In historical searches, attention should be paid to the full name of the species to avoid confusion, although in current records the only Mimosa tenuiflora is the Willd. Poir.
However, that's not the whole story. Where did, for example, its most popular synonym, Mimosa hostilis, come from?
Bentham proposed the name Mimosa hostilis Benth in 1875 9 in Transactions of the Linnean Society of London 10. A year later, in 1876, the German physician and botanist Carl Friedrich Phillip von Martius mentions it in volume XV of Flora Brasiliensis 11. This extensive compilation, which was written over the decades, is the result of expeditions through Brazil. There, Martius makes a detailed description and proposes to call it Acacia hostilis Mart ... returning to the discussion about its belonging to the genus Acacia or Mimosa. Hence the agreed name was Mimosa hostilis (C. Mart) Benth.
In botany, the accepted name is considered to be the oldest, so Mimosa tenuiflora would be the right one. However, Mimosa hostilis is still very popular, especially in Brazil, and is considered an accepted synonym in botany lists.
But the discussion doesn't stop there. On the list of World Flora Online, a global effort devised in the Global Strategy for Plant Conservation (GSPC) to collect information on all known plants, the following names are recognised as accepted scientific names 12:
- Acacia hostilis Mart.
- Acacia tenuiflora Willd.
- Mimosa cabrera H. Karst.
- Mimosa hostilis (C. Mart.) Benth.
- Mimosa limana Rizzini.
In addition, a compilation published in 2012 13 on nomenclatures of medicinal and poisonous plant use, lists these names that have also been used as synonyms at some point in history, including some of those mentioned above:
- Acacia angustissima(Mill.) Kuntze. [Identified as another species in World Flora Online and Global Biodiversity Information Facility]
- Acacia hostilis Mart.
- Acacia tenuiflora Willd.
- Acacia tenuifolia (L.) Willd.
- Mimosa apodocarpaBenth. [Identified as another species in World Flora Online and Global Biodiversity Information Facility]
- Mimosa apodocarpa var. hostilis(Mart.) Hassl. [Identified as another species in World Flora Online and Global Biodiversity Information Facility]
- Mimosa cabrera H. Karst.
- Mimosa hostilis (Mart.) Benth.
- Mimosa limana Rizzini.
- Mimosa nigra Huber.
- Mimosa tenuifolia L.
- Senegalia tenuifolia(L.) Britton & Rose. [Identified as synonymous with Mimosa tenuifolia L. in World Flora Online and Global Biodiversity Information Facility]
Despite the long history of its name, it seems that the greatest scientific consensus is to use Mimosa tenuiflora and Mimosa hostilis, but let us not forget that it could be mentioned in other documents under other names, especially those published before the 21st century.
Tepezcohuite: the skin tree in Mexico
The Mimosa tenuiflora tree is well known in Mexico as tepezcohuite (also written as tepescohuite or tepexcohuite). The meaning of this word is not entirely clear and there are various sources and interpretations, although they agree that it has its roots in the Nahuatl language, the original language of the Aztecs.
One of the most cited records of the word comes from the Dictionary of Aztequisms 14, a book published in 1912 which sought to bring together words of Nahuatl origin used in Mexico at that time. In this book we find the words "tepecuitazote", defined as a medicinal plant, and "tepehuiscle", described as a hard tree. In no definition is there any reference that gives clues to know which one refers to the Mimosa hostilis.
Researchers have found a direct relationship of the word Nahuatl with the species, which dates back to 1922 15. The American botanist Paul Carpenter Standley compiled in Trees and Shrubs of Mexico almost two thousand pages of tree and shrub species from Mexican territory with their common and scientific names. There he mentions "tepescahuite" (p. 360) as the common name of the Mimosa cabrera Karst which, we know, is another name given to it in 1863. In fact, it does mention a Mimosa tenuiflora Benth (p. 363) but refers to what would later be called Mimosa zimapanensis.
However, there are more records of similar names. Mexican researcher Sara Camargo-Ricalde reviewed them and found, moreover:
- Tepescohuite, mentioned in publications of 1976 and 1991.
- Tepesquehuite, a name frequently given in Oaxaca, southern Mexico.
- Tepexohuitztli, a Nahuatl word quoted in 1987.
It is common to find claims that the tepezcohuite tree is mentioned, and described, in the Codex Libellus of medicinalibus indorum herbis, but the researcher mentions that no reference to it appears. In the digital version of this document from 1552, also known as the Codex Cruz-Badiano, which compiles hundreds of plants from the colonial period, we also find no reference to the tepezcohuite tree.
A possible origin of the word was described in 1975. According to Camargo, it refers to the Nahuatl words "tepetl" (hill) and "cuahuitl" (tree): tree of the hill. In fact, the Aztec Dictionary mentions both words as well.
Another origin cited by Camargo was described in 1986, in which it is suggested that "tepus- cuahuitl" comes from the sum of "tepustli" (iron or metal) and "cuahuitl" (tree): iron tree, alluding to the hardness of its wood. It resembles the word "teposkuouit", from a variant of Nahuatl known as nahuat spoken in the mountains of Puebla, a few hours from the capital of Mexico. In the dictionary of that region "teposkuouit" is described as "tree strong as steel 16 and is formed from the sum of the words "tepos" (steel) and "kuouit" (tree, wood or log).
Traditional herbalists in Mexico refer to Mimosa tenuiflora simply as "skin tree" although they have no etymological origin that refers to skin. This is normal, as it relates to its use. In the Dictionary of Mexicanisms 17, tepezcohuite is described as "a medicinal tree, whose bark is used as an analgesic, fungicide, repairer, and stimulant for the regeneration of the dermis", the most popular use in this country.
Jurema: a sacred plant of the Brazilian caatinga
The jurema is popular in the traditions of the tribes of northeastern Brazil and among groups of African descent. Since the Portuguese colonization, the Indians shared their knowledge with communities descended from slaves, who still use it to treat infections, inflammations and in religious ceremonies 18.
Most of the time, the word jurema or yurema is used to refer to the Mimosa tenuiflora tree. However, they do not always refer to this plant. Almost twenty species have been identified that are popularly called "jurema". To distinguish it from jureminha or jurema-branca it is called jurema-preta, but even so, that name refers to three more species: Mimosa acutistipula Benth., Mimosa ophtalmocentra Mart. Ex Benth., and Piptadenia moniliformis Benth.
Several researchers have found that another common name in Brazil for jurema is "calumbi"19, a common word in the ecosystem called caatinga. The caatinga is considered the largest tropical dry forest ecosystem in South America. But, as with jurema, calumbi is used for several species such as Senegalia bahiensis (Benth.) Seigler & Ebinger 20, the Piptadenia stipulacea (Benth.) Ducke 21 and the Mimosa arenosa (Willd.) Poir 22 – all of them very similar, visually speaking, to Mimosa hostilis and called jurema-branca.
Jurema is a main ingredient in preparations used by indigenous and Afro-Brazilian groups for religious purposes. In the Kariri-Xoko tribe, for example, only those considered "initiated" can scrape the root bark of the Mimosa tenuiflora obeying the strictest rules of the ritual. The Mimosa hostilis root bark is boiled to a thick, dark substance. With tobacco and candles, these rituals are practiced during the Toré festival where mythical entities and ancestors are worshipped. The consumption of the drink, mixed with other ingredients, can cause anxiety, dizziness, changes in vision, tingling, nausea, diarrhoea, and vomiting 23. This substance is also sacred to religions born from syncretism in the north of Brazil, such as Santo Daime and União do Vegetal 24, in neo-chamanic currents and other religions installed in more urban areas such as Catimbó and Umbanda.25
Its other names
While, in Mexico, the most frequent use of tepezcohuite is medicinal and cosmetic and, in Brazil, is used for sacred and healing ceremonies; its use in Central America is not so specific and is reduced to serve as firewood.
In Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, it is known as "black coal" (from “carbon negro” in Spanish) 26. In Honduras, Venezuela, and Colombia, it is called "carbonal", "cabrera" or "cabrero" and “carbón colorado" 27. These names are so common that it is very difficult to find specific references to Mimosa tenuiflora.
Peasant groups have made efforts to document their uses of Mimosa hostilis. In Mexico, some communities have listed uses other than medicinal: from the use as live fences, firewood, charcoal, and even leather tanning 28. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) 29 recognises that the charcoal produced from jurema wood is one of the most caloric and preferred in the area.
What's your favourite name?
1. Sampaio, R., De Souza, O., Paulino De Albuquerque, U., Monteiro, J. M., Lúcia, E., & De Amorim, C. (2008). Jurema-Preta (Mimosa tenuiflora [Willd.] Poir.): a Review of its Traditional Use, Phytochemistry and Pharmacology. Braz. Arch. Biol. Technol. v.51 N, 5(5), 937–947.
2. Camargo-Ricalde, S. L. (2000). Description, distribution, anatomy, chemical composition and uses of Mimosa tenuiflora(Fabaceae-Mimosoideae) in Mexico. Revista de Biologia Tropical, 48(4), 939–954.
3. Carruthers, J., & Robin, L. (2010). Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa Taxonomic imperialism in the battles for Acacia: Identity and science in South Africa and Australia Taxonomic imperialism in the battles for Acacia: Identity and science in South Africa and Australia. Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa, 65(1), 48–64.
4. Rico Arce, M. de L. (2001). El género acacia (leguminosae, mimosoideae) en el Estado de Oaxaca, México (parte A). Anales Del Jardín Botánico de Madrid, 58(2), 251–275.
5. Quatrocchi, U. (2012). CRC World Dictionary of Medicinal and Poisonous Plants: Common Names, Scientific Names, and Etymology. In Nature (Vol. 196, Issue 4855). CRC Press.
6. Grether, R. (1988). Nota sobre la identidad del tepexcohuite en México. Boletín de La Sociedad Botánica de México, 48, 151.
7. Grether, R. (1988).
8. Tropicos.org. (2020). Mimosa hostilis (Mart.) Benth. Missouri Botanical Garden.
9. GBIF Secretariat. (2019). Mimosa hostilis (C.Mart.) Benth. Mimosa Hostilis (C.Mart.) Benth.
10. Tropicos.org. (2020). Mimosa tenuiflora Benth. Missouri Botanical Garden.
11. von Martius, C.F.P., Eichler, A. W., Urban, I., et al. (1876). Família Leguminosae (Fabaceae) SubFamília Mimoseae Tribo Eumimoseae Gênero Mimosa L. Flora Brasiliensis. Vol. XV. Part II. Fasc. 70. Coluna 359-360. Publicado em 1-Jul-1876.
12. World Flora Online. (n.d.). Mimosa tenuiflora (Willd.) Poir. World Flora Online.
13. Quatrocchi, U. (2012).
14. Robelo, C. (1912). Diccionario de aztequismos: catálogo de las palabras del idioma náhuatl, azteca o mexicano, introducidas al idioma castellano bajo diversas formas. Versión digitalizada de la Biblioteca Daniel Cosío Villegas. COLMEX. (p. 244).
15. Standley, P. (1922). Trees and shrubs of Mexico. Contributions from the United States National Herbarium. Vol. 23. July 14, 1922. Smithsonian Institution. United States National Museum.
16. Cortéz, P. (2017). Diccionario nahuat-español de la Sierra Nororiental del Estado de Puebla. Tetsijtsillin. Tzinacpan. Cuetzalan. México.
17. Academia Mexicana de la Lengua. (2010). Diccionario de Mexicanismos. Primera edición. Siglo XXI editores.
18. De Souza, R. S. O., De Albuquerque, U. P., Monteiro, J. M., & De Amorim, E. L. C. (2008). Jurema-Preta (Mimosa tenuiflora [Willd.] Poir.): A review of its traditional use, phytochemistry and pharmacology. Brazilian Archives of Biology and Technology, 51(5), 937–947.
19. Camargo-Ricalde, S.L. (2000). / Quatrocchi, U. (2012).
20. GBIF Secretariat. (n.d.). Senegalia bahiensis (Benth.) Seigler & Ebinger. GBIF Backbone Taxonomy.
21. Cardoso da Silva, J.M., Leal, I., Tabarelli, M. (2017). Caatinga: The Largest Tropical Dry Forest Region in South America. Springer International Publisher.
22. Maia-Silva, C., da Silva, C., Hrncir, M., Teixera de Queiroz, R., Imperatriz-Fonseca, V. (2012). Guia de Planas visitadas por abelhas na caatinga. Projeto de Olho na água. 1ª Ed. Editora Fundação Brasil Cidadão.
23. Sampaio, R., et al. (2008)
24. Gaujac, A., Navickiene, S, Collins, M. Brandt, S., Bittencourt de Andrade, J. (2012). Analytical techniques for the determination of tryptamines and β‐carbolines in plant matrices and in psychoactive beverages consumed during religious ceremonies and neo‐shamanic urban practices. Wiley Online Library.
25. Mercante, M. (2015). Religious use if psychoactive substance. Encyclopedia of Latin American Religions. Chapter. January 2015.
26. Camargo-Ricalde, S. L. (2000).
27. Quatrocchi, U. (2012).
28. Centro Educativo Intercultural Femenino Guadalupano A.C. 2010. Manual: Propagación en viveros de plantas de tepezcohuite. INDESOL. Secretaría de Desarrollo Social.
29. Organización de las Naciones Unidas para la Agricultura y la Alimentación. (1998). Mimosa hostilis. Especies Arbóreas y Arbustivas para las Zonas Áridas y Semiáridas de América Latina. Red Latinoamerica de Cooperación Técnica en Sistemas Agroforestales. FAO.