Tree addictions

Trees provide thousands of products we use every day and they are a great blessing to our society. Some tree products are even addictive and consumed in large amounts. Take chewing gum for instance. A few decades ago the chewy part of gum was obtained from a tree called the Sapodilla that grows in Central America. The sap from the tree is called chicle, and was the mainstay of the chewing gum industry until after World War II, when synthetic gums largely replaced it. Gum chewing is a common habit and some folks are never without it.

Another very popular vice is chocolate. The main flavor ingredient is from the Cacao tree, another tropical plant that produces squash-like pods that contain the all-important cocoa seed. Chocolate is blamed for the mass consumption of empty calories that are eaten in place of more nutritious, less fattening foods. But a silver lining of chocolate is that the dark variety does have antioxidants and some positive nutritional components. But to get the benefit you have to go with dark-dark chocolate, like 75 percent cocoa content. Chocolate is also a source of caffeine, an addictive stimulant. “My name is Steve, and I’m a chocoholic.”

Speaking of empty calories, another heavily consumed product is soft drinks, of which the dark colas (the ones with caffeine) are the most popular. Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola, Royal Crown-Cola, all the cola drinks use the nut from the Kola (also called cola) tree for that popular cola flavor. The tree grows in western Africa and is a cousin of the Cacao tree.

Those who cannot face the day without that morning cup of coffee should give thanks to the Coffee plant, a woody evergreen shrub grown in Africa and the tropical Americas. The roasted seed (they are technically not beans) provides that all-important jolt of caffeine people have grown to depend on.

Iced and hot teas are also popular caffeinated beverages consumed by half the world population. It originates from the young leaves and leaf buds of the Tea plant, which grows in many Asian countries. There are several varieties of Tea Plants, but all are woody evergreen trees that can grow 50 feet tall, but are normally cultivated in plantations to only grow to around waist high.

The recent energy drink craze is like coffee on steroids. The caffeine source for these high octane beverages varies, but one common source is Guarana, obtained from seeds off a vine by the same name, which grows in the Amazon forest.

I doubt this will change your caffeine habit (whatever form it is), but the reason all of these plants produce caffeine is that it acts as a natural toxic pesticide to protect it from insect attack. So you are consuming something considered poisonous in the plant world…something to talk about at the breakfast table.

Steve Roark is the area forester in Tazewell, Tennessee, for the Tennessee Department of Agriculture, Forestry Division.