Maytenus is a type of flowering tree that belongs to the staff vine, or Celastraceae, family. It is composed of more than 30 species that thrive in warm climates such as Africa and Central and South America, among other countries. Species of this genus can also grow in colder climates, such as Europe and North America. They reach heights of up to 40 feet (12 m) with off-white colored flowers that bloom during the spring and summer. This tree also bears leaves and berries similar to holly.
The species in this genus are generally slow-growing and very resistant to drought. Some species have gained popularity due to their ability to tolerate cold weather. Owing its popularity in South America, Maytenus ilicifolia has made the list of threatened plant species. As of 2010, buying and selling this particular specie is illegal. Quite a few species in this genus are severely threatened by habitat loss.
Some areas use select species as ornamental plants. The genus consists of trees that do not grow very large, which is ideal for residential lawns and commercial landscaping. During breezy days, the branches sway gracefully in the wind. Female trees can produce small, green flowers with purple spots, while male trees produce brown-yellow ones. Some species are combined with European bees to make honey.
Certain Maytenus species are believed to hold medical properties, which are well known to some regions of South America. The indigenous people of the Amazon call the plant the Maytenus chuchuhuasi, which means trembling back. They have used this plant’s roots, leaves, and bark to treat stomach ulcers by boiling the plant and drinking the brew.
Studies suggest that the anti-ulcerogenic properties of the most common specie, Maytenus ilicifolia, effectively reduce gastric juice levels in the stomach after continued consumption of one cup two to three times daily. Research performed in Brazil revealed that this staff vine, as well as a few other species in the Maytenus family, contains maytansinoid chemical compounds that show potent anti-tumor and anti-leukemic activities in vivo and in vitro at very low dosages.
In addition to its medicinal characteristics, the root extract of these plants are also used as a tonic in some regions of Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru. The bark is boiled and infused with a drink called the Ayahuasca, which is used in shaman healing ceremonies. Its role in rituals dates back to the Incan civilization and is still utilized as of 2010.