by Richard L. Thornton, Architect & City Planner
If living in the right climatic zone and have damp soil, you can grow this powerful herbal medicine tree in your yard.
Today’s accidental discovery is a prime example of why the three dimensional approach to historical research in The Americas Revealed can be far more than entertainment for bored internet surfers. I was working on a feature article about the Okefenokee Swamp, when I came across an article, listing the many plants identified by John Bartram or his son, William.
Thirty years ago, natural quinine was the only medicine that gave me relief from the chronic pain throughout my body, caused by simultaneous infections of several tickborne organisms, including Lyme. Tickborne Relapsing Fever has almost the same symptoms as malaria. Each day, the victim cycles from extremely high fevers to chills by early morning. The quinine reduced the extreme temperatures by abount 75%. Then suddenly natural quinine became unavailable in the pharmacies because of civil war in Peru. The artificial quinine seemed to have little effect. At the time, I had never heard of a Georgia Fever Tree!
- Common Name: Georgia Fever Tree
- Tree with similar properties: Franklinia (Franklinia alatamaha)
- Alternative botanical names: Pinckneya pubens, Pinckneya bracteata, cinchona lancifolia
- Native Range: Southeastern Coastal Plain
- Climate Zone: (Fevertree – 7B to 9B) (Franklinia – 5 to 8 )
- Height: 10.00 to 20.00 feet
- Spread: 6.00 to 15.00 feet
- Bloom Time: June to August
- Bloom Description: Pink
- Fall foliage: Similar to a Poinsettia.
- Sun: Full sun to part shade
- Water: Prefers damp soil
- Maintenance: Medium
- Botanists only know this tree as a landscaping ornament, but Southerners, in particular Native Americans, have always known its bark to be a powerful and safe medicine for the treatment of malaria, tickborne diseases, parasites, muscle cramps and high fevers. There is a good reason. It is a cinchona tree. the source of quinine.
During 1564 and 1565, the colonists of Fort Caroline near the South Atlantic Coast, became friendly with a wealthy, militarily powerful, culturally-advanced tribe, living on the “May” River, about 20 miles upstream. The Alekmanni grew medicinal herbs such as the Cinchona Tree on cultivated lands
They were called the Alekmanni. Captain René de Laudonnière, commander of Fort Caroline said that their name meant, “Medicine People.” Alekmanni means “Healer with herbs-people” in Archaic Anglisk (English).
The Alekmanni were a Georgia tribe on the Altamaha River, which eventually moved inland and joined the Creek Confederacy. The capital of the Alecmanni was called Alek Talufa (Doctor Town) in Muskogee Creek. The Alekmanni also had a trading colony near Alec Mountain in Northeast Georgia. The word, alek, now means “medical doctor” in contemporary Muskogee-Creek.
In contrast, Florida-authored anthropology and history books tell readers that the Alekmanni were a Timucua tribe and lived somewhere on the St. Johns Rive near Jacksonville. However, they were never mentioned by Spanish officials in Florida.
In 1765, botanist John Bartram and his son, William, explored the Altamaha River Basin on an official expedition, chartered by King George III. They returned to Philadelphia with samples of several flowers and shrubs, whose descendants now grace the yards of homes across America. He found two beautiful flowering trees that his Creek Indian friends used as medicine. They are now called the Georgia Fever Tree and Franklinia. The Franklinia is now apparently extinct in the wild, but Georgia Fever Trees have been transplanted to other areas of the Lower Southeast then become feral.
The mixed-blood Creeks, who continued to live in many parts of Georgia after the Trail of Tears passed on their knowledge of indigenous herbal medicines to their neighbors and relatives. By the time of theAmerican Civil War, use of the Georgia Fever Tree bark was widespread in Georgia. The Confederate Government paid 40 cents a pound for Georgia Fever Tree bark, because it was found to be an effective medication for many parasitic diseases, including malaria. That’s the equivalent of $12.80 a pound today.
Indigenous quinine may be a more effective medicine than South American quinine. At the onset of the Spanish-American War, the US Army found that over one-third of the recruits from northern Alabama and eastern Tennessee had malaria. They were sent home. However, very few Georgia recruits had malaria. Army officials decided that the Georgia recruits apparently must be part Creek Indian, which made them immune to malaria. That’s probably not true, but as a result of this myth, Georgia troops were pulled from combat duty and instead assigned to mosquito eradication programs in Cuba and the Philippine Islands. What more likely is the fact that many rural Georgians relied on a tea brewed from Fever Tree Bark to treat many diseases. This is powerful evidence that this indigenous cinchona will actually kill the malaria protozoa, not just slow its growth and ameliorate its symptoms.
During the early 20th century, the Georgia Fever Tree was almost completely forgotten. Natural cinchona cultivation shifted from Peru to Southeast Asia then in 1942, the Japanese intentionally conquered the region in Southeast Asia where the cinchona wa cultivated. There is a strong possibilty that the Japanese might have not captured the Philippines, if quinine could have been available for US troops.
To give an indication of the severity of malaria and the impact it could have on the battlefield, estimates from the Philippines in 1942 indicate that roughly 24,000 out of the 75,000 American and Filipino defenders were suffering from malaria at the time of the invasion. Given that the Japanese invasion force included only 57,000 troops, the loss of an entire division’s worth of soldiers was significant. At the least, those 24,000 soldiers would have bought time and killed many more of the enemy.
Until synthetic quinine was invented in 1944, many American soldiers in the Pacific theater suffered from malaria, because the substitutes for quinine, such as Atabrine, were not as effective. At any given time, at least 50,000 American soldiers were sick with malaria and out of action. Had anyone in a position of authority remembered about the Georgia Fever Tree, the health of several hundred thousand soldiers would have been vastly improved. Over 60,000 US soldiers died of malaria in World War II, because of the extreme scarcity of quinine.
To date, all selective cultivation of the Georgia Fever Tree has focused on enlargement of the flowers and intensifying the red color of fall leaves. There has been absolutely no effort to increase the level of quinine in the bark or creating a variety, which will thrive in colder climates. If you are interested in planting Indigenous Cinchona Trees as seeds or seedlings, contact the Georgia Native Plant Society (www.gnps.org) for a list of native plant nurseries.