Venezuelan Cow Trees

In reading Henry Williams’ 1903 collection Curious Facts, I came across the description of a tree that grows on the plateaus of Venezuela:

The sap of the cow tree, as its name implies, resembles milk, both in look and taste. A slight balsamic taste has been reported by some naturalists who have drank of the strange liquid; otherwise it was said to “have the flavor of rich cream, and to be very wholesome and nourishing.”

As the book is certainly not without its errors, I went searching for the truth of the cow tree. What I found was that, yes, a tree exists that produces nutritious “milk”!

Collecting the milk from the "cow tree". Photo from tree-nation.
Collecting the milk from the “cow tree”.
Photo from tree-nation.

It’s first known description is by Johannes de Laet. Translated from its original latin by Alexander Von Humboldt (explorer, geographer, and naturalist), it reads:

There exist trees in the province of Cumana, the sap of which much resembles curdled milk, and affords a salubrious nourishment.

Portrait of Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1806)
Portrait of Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1806)

Humboldt was on a journey through the rainforests when he came across the tree for himself. In his book, Personal narrative of travels to the equinoctial regions of America, during the years 1799–1804 (vol. 2), Humboldt tells of his first encounter:

When incisions are made in the trunk of this tree, it yields abundance of a glutinous milk, tolerably thick, devoid of all acridity, and of an agreeable and balmy smell. It was offered to us in the shell of a calabash. We drank considerable quantities of it in the evening before we went to bed, and very early in the morning, without feeling the least injurious effect.

The sap of the milk tree. Photo by Reinaldo Aguilar
The sap of the milk tree.
Photo by Reinaldo Aguilar

It was only once he returned home that he discovered Laet’s passage, but his journey confirmed the existence of the tree. Today it is still mostly unknown outside the local people, but they continue to use it for nourishment. This includes a form of “cheese” created by allowing the sap to oxidize.

B. utile can grow up to 200 ft tall! Photo by Reinaldo Aguilar
B. utile can grow up to 200 ft tall!
Photo by Reinaldo Aguilar

Strange as it is, there are other plants, used for a similar purpose, around the world. The Canary Islands hold a shrub called sweet tabaiba, used for medicinal purposes. Hya hya of Demerara, Guyana is used for nutrition by the Arawak peoples. Though, it suddenly seems quite normal to us when the sap is of an amber color and dribbled on breakfast foods.

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