Two men with chain saws stand in the warm Chilean sun, cutting branches from trees. There are plenty of bees here buzzing around in the central valley, especially in this part where pesticides are not used. The men are careful to cut only up to 35 percent of each tree – quillaja saponaria – and to leave the rest for re-growth. These same trees will not be touched by saws again for another five years. It is all part of a sustainable harvesting program supervised by the Chilean forestry department CONAF, for the making of saponins from the so-called soap bark tree.
Growing in dry sclerophyll forests, the hardy, drought-resistant quillaja tree possesses hard leaves that are characteristic of trees in that type of forest. In Chile, quillaja is found naturally in a general area of central Chile approximately 800,000 hectares in size, and nowhere else, though the tree has been introduced as an ornamental in arid parts of California. Thus quillaja is not only a valuable crop, but a Chilean natural treasure.