cinchona chĭngkōˈnə [key], name for species of the genus Cinchona, evergreen trees of the madder family native to the Andean highlands from Bolivia to Colombia and also to some mountainous regions of Panama and Costa Rica. The trees are now cultivated elsewhere for “Peruvian bark,” the source of quinine. Quinine is still the drug of last resort in the treatment of malaria, but its commercial importance was greatly reduced after the development of synthetic analogs in the 1950s. Several species yield quinine and several other antimalarial alkaloids. The bark of the uprooted tree is beaten loose, peeled by hand, and dried quickly to prevent the loss of alkaloids. Final extraction is conducted in factories.

The trees were named in honor of the countess of Chinchón who, legend says, was cured of a fever in 1638 by a preparation of the bark. Supposedly, at her instigation the bark was collected for malaria sufferers and later exported to Spain. Native peoples, however, had long used it for medicinal purposes and this use was observed by Jesuit missionaries, who brought the bark to Europe. Cinchona is sometimes called Jesuits' bark because of the part the group played in its dispersal. So successful were the Dutch and English in transplanting cinchona to Java and India that until World War II these countries, especially Java, grew practically the entire commercial supply.

Cinchona is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class division Magnoliopsida, order Rubiales, family Rubiaceae.

See M. L. Duran-Reynals, The Fever Bark Tree (1946); P. E. Thompson and L. M. Werbel, Antimalarial Agents (1972); F. Rocco, The Miraculous Fever-Tree (2003).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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