: the Latin
name for the rubber tree*. This is a very significant economic crop, grown mostly in South-East Asia
, but other significant populations exist in China
, equatorial Africa
and some parts of central America
. The crop flourishes in regions within about 5° to 10° of the equator
, and at moderate elevations.
* Note, Please do not confuse the economically-important Hevea crop with the Ficus Elastica, commonly known as the rubber tree plant
Mature Hevea trees are typically some 10 metres tall and have a trunk diameter of around 1 metre, however, these figures are subject to wide variation depending on climate, agronomic conditions and other factors.
The crop is best known as the main producer of natural rubber latex. In recent years, as the international price of rubber has remained well below historical levels, the crop has become increasingly important as a generator of biomass, and the wood is used to make furniture and other products for use in a domestic environment. Exports of Hevea wood and products made from it are now economically significant in Malaysia, which has now fallen to third in the world rankings of natural rubber producers, after dominating the industry for 100 years.
Hevea trees typically have a useful life of around 30 years, becoming economically significant six to seven years after planting, and reaching full production three to four years after that. Latex yields tend to decline after 20 to 25 productive years, given good care, or more quickly if the trees have been neglected. Malaysia, one of the most productive countries, typically achieves a yield of around 2.5 tonnes of latex per hectare per year.
The agronomy of the Hevea tree has been thoroughly researched and now almost all plants are propagated vegetatively. They are clones. Each growing tree is typically a result of two grafts, with the rootstock coming from a disease-resistant strain, the trunk comes from either a high-yielding strain, or a fast-growing strain depending on the objective, while the crown comes from a strain known to produce large, healthy canopies. In South America, the trees are normally made from strains resistant to the deadly disease, South American Leaf Blight. Because these have lower latex yields, SALB-resistant strains are not used in Asia, where the disease in unknown.
Hevea Brasiliensis originated in Brazil. It was viewed as a very significant crop by the Brazilian government. During the mid-19th century, European demand for rubber grew quickly, and a bubble economy grew up in the Amazonian rainforest. Enormous wealth was generated by exports of rubber from the region. Ladies would bathe in French champage, while French, Italian and British luxury goods were exported to the region to soak up some of the huge amounts of wealth generated by the new plantations.
In 1876, the British Government sent Sir Henry Wickham to investigate the native plants and trees of the Amazonian forests. Wickham brought back some Hevea seeds and a few were subsequently made to germinate at the botanical research centre in Kew Gardens, London.
This was the beginning of the end for the rubber barons. Soon after the Hevea plants were shown to be viable in the UK, the British exported some live plants to Sri Lanka (Ceylon as it was then known) and started some plantations. By the 1890s Hevea trees were being planted throughout Sri Lanka and all up the Malayan peninsula (Now Malaysia, and Thailand).
Demand for the material continued to soar, which allowed British rule in the region to continue for a few more years. Meanwhile SALB had decimated most of the Brazilian plantations, leaving South-East Asia as the world capital of NR production, a role it maintains to this day.
In the 1920s Henry Ford attempted to grow rubber in the Amazon in a project known as Fordlandia. The project failed dismally, once more because of SALB. Today the main area of Hevea production in South America is a small area of Guatemala, where the micro climate ensures that SALB cannot thrive on the plant’s leaves