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United States Patent
Blanchette , et al.
6,848,211
February 1, 2005

 
Description
 

BACKGROUND OF THE INVENTION

Agarwood is a highly prized incense that is extremely rare. It has at least a 3000-year history in the Middle East, China and Japan. There are also references to agarwood in the literature of India and France, and even in the Old Testament of the Bible. Agarwood remains today the world's most expensive incense. The value of agarwood shipped out of Singapore alone each year has been estimated to exceed $1.2 billion. E. Hansen, Saudi Aramco World 51:2-13 (December 2000). This aromatic resinous wood has many common names including agarwood, gaharu, eaglewood, aloeswood, agila wood, aguru, agar, oud, ude, ud, ood, oode, jinkoh, jinko, Ch'Ing Kuei Hsiang, Ch'En Hsiang, Chan Hsiang, Chi Ku Hsiang, Huang Shu Hsiang, kalambak, and grindsanah.

The resin is used by Traditional Chinese, Unanai, Ayuravedic, and Tibetan physicians. Used medicinally, agarwood is a remedy for nervous disorders such as neurosis, obsessive behavior, and exhaustion. Agarwood is highly psychoactive and is used in spiritual rituals. Many religious groups prize it as a meditation incense, to calm the mind and spirit. In Ayuravedic medicine it is used to treat a wide range of mental illness and to drive evil spirits away. In Japan, it is considered by many to be sacred, and is used to anoint the dead. In Buddhism, it serves as a major ingredient in many incense mixtures, and it is considered to be one of the three integral incenses, together with sandalwood and cloves.

The source of agarwood is the Aquilaria tree. The Aquilaria tree is an evergreen that grows up to 40 meters high and 60 centimeters in diameter. It bears white flowers that are sweetly scented. The genus Aquilaria is an angiosperm taxonomically placed in the Thymelaceaceae family. Fifteen species of Aquilaria have been reported and all produce agarwood. The taxonomy of these species is not completely clear and not all species are recognized by taxonomists. Species include Aquilaria malaccensis, A. agallocha, A. baillonii, A. crassna, A. hirta, A. rostrata, A. beccariana, A. cummingiana, A. filaria, A. khasiana, A. microcarpa, A. grandiflora, A. chinesis or A. sinensis, A. borneensis, and A. bancana. Aquilaria bancana has been questioned as a true species of Aquilaria and has been placed in the Gonystylaceae family of the Gonystylus genus, as Gonystylus bancanus. Gonystylus has also been found to produce an aromatic resin that is considered the same as or very similar to agarwood.

Aquilaria trees are native to Asia from Northern India to Vietnam and Indonesia. The healthy wood of the Aquilaria tree is white, soft, even-grained, and not scented when freshly cut. Under certain pathological conditions, the heartwood becomes saturated with resin, and eventually becomes hard to very hard. The best grade of agarwood is hard, nearly black and sinks when placed in water. In general, agarwood is considered inferior as it appears lighter in tone, with diminishing amounts of resin.

The process of agar deposits is not fully understood. A Dutch paper from 1933 (J. P. Schuitemaker, "Het garoehout van West Boreno" Boschbouwkundig Tijdschrift Tectona Uitgave der Vereeniging van Hoogere Ambtenaren bij het Boschwezen in Nederlands Oost-Indi 26:851-892) reported the occurrence of agarwood in Borneo and discussed many different types of resin produced in trees. Most of the local people at the time believed that agarwood formed from mysterious ways and was associated with the spirit world. The author stated that "the mysterious occurrence of the `holy` wood is connected to supernatural powers" and that agarwood was referred to as "wood of the gods." The author also noted that "we cannot exclude the possibility of a pathological occurrence of which the cause was unknown," that "perfect trees never have agarwood," and that agarwood "is formed around wounded or rotting parts of the trunk." The author also suggested that salt put into holes in trees might promote resin. The paper also stated that if the agarwood was infectious, maybe it would be possible to induce agarwood formation by infecting the trunk artificially by putting fresh cut agarwood into the stem.

Later authors also reported the longstanding belief was that agar deposits were created as an immune response by the tree, the result of attack by a fungus. I. H. Burkill, A dictionary of the economic products of the Malay Peninsula. Vol. I Crown Agents for the Colonies, London p. 197-205. In the 1940's and 1950's, several researchers investigated the origins of agar deposits with varying and sometimes conflicting results. Rahman and Basak, Bano Biggyan Patrika 9:87-93 (1980). Others concluded that it was unlikely that there was a specific fungal cause for the production of agarwood. Gibson, Bano Biggyan Patrika 6:16-26 (1977). It was suggested that the resin deposits might arise as a direct response of the stem tissues of the tree to wounds with subsequent invasion by weak pathogens. Id.

Rahman and Basak suggested that wounding produced color changes in the wood with some "oleoresin" deposits. Rahman and Basak, Bano Biggyan Patrika 9:87-93 (1980). They postulated that the presence of an exposed, open wound seemed to be of more importance than the presence of certain species of fungi within a wound. They, however, concluded their paper by stating that further investigation was needed in order to determine what factors were responsible in wounding, which are important in agar deposition.

The identification of the small proportion of the trees having agar is difficult and destructive, which added greatly to the near-extinction of natural stands of tress. Also, large-scale logging operations have destroyed many forested areas where the Aquilaria trees are found. Thus, the current source of agarwood, the naturally-growing old-growth Aquilaria trees, is becoming extinct. To date no one has successfully cultivated agarwood. E. Hansen, Saudi Aramco World 51:2-13 (December, 2000). Therefore, there is a growing need for a means to cultivate Aquilaria trees that produce agarwood as a renewable source for agarwood.

SUMMARY OF THE INVENTION

The present invention provides a method of producing agarwood by forming an artificial wound into the xylem in an Aquilaria or Gonystylus tree, and providing a means for aerating the wound. Additional wounds may be formed either at the same time or after a discolored area has begun forming in the tree. The wound may be formed by cutting, drilling, or chopping or by inserting a nail. The wound is formed to reach the xylem. The wound may be formed to a depth of at least about 1 to 10 cm into the xylem. In one embodiment the wound is formed to a depth of about 4-6 cm. The wounds may be made as a series of closely spaced wounds in the tree. For example, the series of wounds, such as about 30-100 wounds, may be positioned in a spiral up the tree. The wounds may be positioned at an interval of about 5 cm apart.

In the present method, the aeration means may be an aeration device inserted into the wound, such as a nail, tube or pipe inserted into the wound. The aeration device may contain aeration holes in it and/or it may contain grooves on its exterior surface. The aeration device may be made of plastic, bamboo, wood or other organic material, or metal, such as iron. It may be about 2 cm in diameter. When inserted, the aeration device may extend out from the exterior of the tree, such as about 2 to 15 cm from the exterior of the tree.

Alternatively, the aeration means of the present invention may be a periodic (e.g., monthly) re-wounding of the wound. This may be by scribing a patch of cambium around the wound one or more times over the life span of the tree. It may also be by removing a region of cambium adjoining the wound.

The present method may also involve applying a resin-inducing agent to cells surrounding the wound. This resin-inducing agent stimulates resin production in the tree. It may kill live parenchyma cells around the wounded region of the xylem. The resin-inducing agent may be a chemical agent. If a chemical agent is used, it may kill cells locally. It can be, for example, sodium bisulfite, NaCl, ferric chloride, ferrous chloride, chitin, formic acid, cellobiose, salicyclic acid, iron powder, or yeast extract. In particular, it may be 1:1:3 sodium bisulfite, Difco yeast extract and iron powder. Alternatively, or additionally, the resin-inducing agent may be an organism, such as an insect or microbe, such as a fungus (e.g., Deuteromyota sp., Ascomycota sp., Basidiomycota sp.)

The tree that is used in the present invention is less than 100 years old, preferably is about 2-80 years old, more preferably 3-20 years old, or even only about 3-12 years old. The tree used in the present invention is not growing naturally in an old growth forest. An "old growth forest" is defined herein as a forest that is ecologically mature and has been subjected to negligible unnatural disturbance such as logging, roading and clearing. Also included in this definition are ecologically mature forests where the effects of disturbance are now negligible. In such old growth forests, the upper stratum or overstory is in the late mature to over-mature growth phases. Species of trees that can be used in the present invention include, for example, Aquilaria malaccensis, A. agallocha, A. baillonii, A. crassna, A. hirta, A. rostrata, A. beccariana, A. cummingiana, A. filaria, A. khasiana, A. microcarpa, A. grandiflora, A. chinesis or A. sinensis, A. borneensis, and A. bancana, or Gonystylus bancanus.

The present invention also provides agarwood produced by the methods described above. The present invention further provides agarwood from a tree grown in a home garden, in a plantation, in a greenhouse, or in agricultural lands.

It should be noted that the indefinite articles "a" and "an" and the definite article "the" are used in the present application, as is common in patent applications, to mean one or more unless the context clearly dictates otherwise.

BRIEF DESCRIPTION OF THE FIGURES

FIG. 1. Schematic drawing of wounded Aquilaria tree at time of harvest with nothing done to promote agarwood showing internal callus formation produced by bundles of included phloem cells, and wound closure from inside the drill wound. Surface cells also produce callus tissue and wound closure occurs from the outer edge of the drill wound. Little discoloration forms and insignificant amounts (if any) of agarwood may form in a very thin band between the discolored wood and the sound, unaltered xylem.

FIG. 2A. Schematic drawing of Aquilaria tree that was wounded and tube with aeration holes inserted. FIG. 2B. Drawing of trees that were wounded and had multiple aeration tubes inserted into the trees.

FIG. 3. Schematic drawing showing wounded Aquilaria tree at time of harvest with plastic tube inserted into the drill hole. Tree was treated with sodium bisulfite. A discolored region around the wounded area extends above, below and around the wound. An area of agarwood resin forms in a thick band between the discolored wood and the sound, unaltered xylem. This area of agarwood production gets larger and more dense over time.

FIG. 4. Schematic drawing showing the effects of new wounds made about 1 year after original wound. These new wounds allow the agarwood to be formed in the new xylem produced after the original wounds are made.

DETAILED DESCRIPTION OF THE INVENTION

Aquilaria has a unique anatomy, and one who wishes to induce agarwood in young trees must understand its anatomy. Unlike most trees in the Angiospemae that produce phloem cells external to the xylem (growing out from the circumference of the cambium), Aquilaria produces bundles of phloem cells throughout the xylem as well as in a layer external to the xylem. This means that the xylem (consisting of vessels, fibers and parenchyma cells) also contains groups of phloem cells called included phloem or interxlyary phloem of the diffuse (foraminate) type. When trees are wounded they respond by forming new wood cells by the cambium. These cells differentiate and close the wound with newly produced cells (Blanchette R. A. 1992. Anatomical responses of xylem to injury and invasion by fungi. In: Defense Mechanisms of Woody Plants Against Fungi. Edited by R. A. Blanchette and A. R. Biggs. Springer-Verlag Berlin. Pp. 76-95). Once the wound is closed, aeration to the affected wood stops and internal processes needing air cease. Most trees close wounds by producing new cells at the edge of the wounded cambium. Aquilaria trees close wound from inside the xylem as well as externally.

The present experiments have shown that the cambium of Aquilaria trees reacts to wounding by producing new cells all around the wound and even on the surface of the wound. See FIG. 1. Phloem cells apparently produce new cambial cells that produce new differentiated wood cells. Wound closure occurs rapidly. Phloem bundles on the surface of the exposed xylem produce secondary cambial cells that produce new cells to seal and close the wound. Large surface wounds do not close by only producing callus at the edge of the wounds (like most trees) instead the entire surface of the exposed xylem produces new cambial cells which in turn differentiate producing new wood cells that close the wound.

Although wounding has been suggested to cause agarwood, the typical types of wounds that are produced in trees produce no agarwood. If artificial wounds are made into the xylem by boring into the tree, the included phloem present throughout the wounded site reacts and may produce new cambial cells. New wood formed from this new cambium will grow within the wounded xylem. This seals and closes the internal wound. Aquilaria trees with internal wounds can seal and close wounds from the inside of the trees as well as along the wounded surface of the exterior surfaces of the tree. The present experiments show that wound closure stops agarwood formation.

The literature has suggested that fungi growing in the wounded Aquilaria tree may cause agarwood formation. Different types of fungi have been suggested including Phialophora parasitica, Torula sp., Aspergillus sp., Penicillium sp., Fusarium sp., Cladosporium sp., Epicoccum granulatum, Cylimndrocladium, Sphaeropsis sp., Botryodiplodia theobromae, Trichoderma sp., Phomopsis sp., and Cunninghamella echinulata. With all of these fungi suggested as a possible cause and no clear definitive research to show that a fungus is responsible for agarwood to form, researchers have indicated "that agaru arises from a much more generalized cause than previously invisaged" (Gibson, Bano Biggyan Patrika 6:16-26 (1977)). Punithalingam and Gibson, Nova Hedwigia 29:251-255 (1978) report a new species of Phomopsis from Aquilaria but indicate "no evidence was obtained to show that this fungus was the cause of the formation of agaru." In a paper by Rahman and Basak (Bano Biggyan Patrika 9:87-93 (1980)) on "Agarwood production in agar tree by artificial inoculation and wounding" after experiments to produce agarwood they concluded, "More experimental work needs to be done before the generation of agar deposit is fully understood. There is no doubt that we are still far from the development of techniques which would provide an assured supply of agar products." The paper by Rao and Dayal (International Association of Wood Anatomist Bulletin N.S., 13:163-172 (1992)) discusses the formation of agarwood and provides microscopic views of affected wood from naturally growing trees with agarwood. They conclude by suggesting that "it is important to study factors such as tree age, within-tree seasonal variation in responsiveness, and environmental variation" to determine how agarwood is formed. Research by the present inventors has shown that tree age is not important (planted young trees not growing naturally in a forest can produce agarwood) and agarwood has been produced in trees at three different geographical locations in Vietnam showing variation in the environment is not a critical factor.

 


 




 
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