- Scientific name: Hevea brasiliensis
- Family: Euphorbiaceae (spurge)
Deciduous tree up to 40m tall with leafy crown. Trunk cylindrical but swollen towards base. Bark pale to dark brown, smooth surface, abundant white or cream-coloured latex. Leaves in spirals with three leaflets. Flowers small with no petals, bright or cream-yellow, extremely pungent, either male or female but both are found together on the same inflorescence (monoecious). Fruits exploding three-lobed capsules. Pollinated by insects, mainly midges and thrips attracted by smell.
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- When the bark is cut, an interconnecting system of tubular vessels just beneath its surface exudes rubber latex, a sticky, milky fluid.
- Tapping rubber is a highly skilled operation; the vessels need to be tapped without damaging them. With skill, a single rubber tree can be tapped for 20 to 25 years.
- Today, some rubber is sourced from designated areas of rainforest rather than plantations.
- Seedlings planted in the Eden Project’s Rainforest Biome in 1998 grew rapidly and the trees can now be tapped for milky latex.
Where it grows
Native to Brazil but now also cultivated in other humid lowland tropical areas in Malaysia and Indonesia. Thrives best in deep, well-drained soil composed mainly of sand and clay (loamy), covered by natural undergrowth or cover-crop of plants from the pea family that protect from erosion.
Versatile and pliable, rubber has been used in many ways. Spanish colonists in Mexico used the magic substance to waterproof coats. Further south, in Amazonia it was made into made torches, boots, bottles and even syringes. In the mid 18th century scientists from the west began to take an interest manufacturing a wide range of goods, from waterproof clothing to catheters.
The invention of the car and our new passion for travel led to a spiralling demand for rubber to keep those wheels turning. Demand led to the death of thousands of Amerindians in the greedy race to supply from the wild, a frantic global search for alternatives and the rise of the cultivated rubber industry in Asia.
Economics came into play…more demand, more supply, oversupply and the implementation of complex schemes to restrict output causing rivalry between players. Wars restricted supplies and a new player entered the game, synthetic rubber. Rising oil prices and the Aids-related demand for condoms and rubber gloves then meant natural rubber bounced back.
Sky Rainforest Rescue – a partnership between Sky and WWF – is providing small rubber production units to families in Acre, northwest Brazil, to give them a crucial livelihood, and in turn encourage them to protect the rainforest.
These come with the equipment needed to press liquid latex into sheets of rubber, meaning locals can tap existing wild rubber trees sustainably, rather than clear large parts of the rainforest to cultivate rubber plantations. You can find out more about this in our Wild Rubber exhibit in the Rainforest Biome.
- Deciduous: sheds all leaves annually. Inflorescence: part of the plant that bears the flowers.
- Lobe: incomplete division in any plant organ (eg fruit).
- Capsule: dry fruit that opens by valves, slits or pores to release seeds (dehiscent) and is composed of two or more united carpels (the basic unit of the female sexual organ).