Tonka Bean

Ten species of evergreen trees make up this tropical American genus. The seeds of Dipteryx odorata and other species, such as D. oppositifolia, contain coumarin (1-3 percent) and coumarin glycosides, which release the scent of sweet hay in the course of drying. Dipteryx odorata was grown in Victorian times to scent snuff, but the value of the species in perfumery has decreased since the discovery of synthetic coumarin in 1868. Medicinal uses are also largely discontinued following recent findings that coumarin may damage the heart and liver and cause cancer. The seeds are available dried for use in potpourris but cannot be germinated; like most rainforest seeds, they are viable for only a short time and have no dormant period. Most are collected from the wild in Venezuela, or from cultivated trees in Trinidad, which are grown both in plantations and as a windbreak for cocoa trees. Dipteryx is derived from the Greek dis, "double", and pteron, "wing", and refers to the wing-like upper lobes of the calyx.

The tall tropical South American tonka tree produces pulpy, egg-shaped pods that contain fragrant black, almond-shaped seeds (beans) used primarily for flavoring. The tonka beans contain coumarin, and anticoagulant that has a delicious vanilla-like aroma. Because of this, the beans have been used to scent tobacco and snuff, to flavor castor oil, and as a vanilla substitute. In traditional Suriname medicine, a decoction made of tonka beans boiled with sugar was considered an effective treatment for the common cold.

Tender, compact rainforest tree, with a trunk to 1m (3ft) n diameter, smooth, pale gray bark, and leathery, glossy leaves, divided into 3-6 elliptic leaflets, to 15cm (6in) long. Small, very fragrant, rose-violet pea flowers are followed by fleshy, pale yellow-brown, oval fruits, to 10cm (4in) long, each containing a single mahogany-colored seed, 3-5cm (1¼-2in) long.

Common Name:
Tonka Bean
Other Names:
Cumaru, Dutch Tonka, English Tonka, Tonka, Tonka Seed, Tonquin bean
Botanical Name:
Dipteryx odorata syn. Coumarouna odorata
S America, mainly Venezuela
Well-drained, gravelly or sandy, acid soil, with ample rainfall and humidity. Remove leading shoots of saplings when 2m (6ft) tall.
By fresh seed sown in situ, which takes about 6 weeks to germinate. Seedlings do not transplant well.
Fallen, ripe fruits are collected and dried to remove seeds, which are then cured by soaking in rum for 2-3 days. This process causes the coumarin to crystalize on the surface, known as "frosting".
25-40m (80-130ft)
15-20m (50-70ft)
Min. 15-18°C (59-64°F) depending on cultivar.
Parts Used:
Chemical Constituents:
  • Coumarin
  • Gum
  • Sitosterin
  • Starch
  • Stigmasterin
  • Sugar
  • Properties:
    An aromatic herb taht improves the lasting qualities of perfumes.
    Known Effects:
  • Delays or stops blood clotting
  • Anticoagulant

  • Miscellaneous Information:
  • Coumarin interferes with the synthesis of vitamin K in the human intestines. The absence of vitamin K prevents blood clotting.
  • The tonka bean was once a common adulterant of vanilla extracts.
  • It's used as flavoring in tobacco
  • The FDA has banned its use as a flavoring agent in foods.
  • Possible Additional Effects:
  • May prevent clotting in deep veins
  • May prevent blood clots from breaking away from blood vessels and lodging in vital organs, such as lung or brain (use must be monitored carefully with frequent laboratory studies of prothrombin time)
  • Medicinal Uses:
    Formerly used to treat whooping cough.
    To treat cramps, nausea, cough, spasms, tuberculosis, earache, mouth ulcers, and sore throat; as an aphrodisiac.
    Possible Side Effects:
    Tonka bean's side effects include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, insomnia, and dizziness.
    Drug Interactions:
    Taking tonka beans with these drugs may increase the risk of bleeding or bruising:
    Antithrombin III, (Thrombate III)
    Aminosalicylic Acid, (Nemasol Sodium, Paser)
    Aspirin, (Bufferin, Ecotrin)
    Choline Magnesium Trisalicylate, (Trilisate)
    Choline Salicylate, (Teejel)
    Salsalate, (Amgesic, Salflex)
    Argatroban, (Argatroban)
    Bivalirudin, (Angiomax)
    Dalteparin, (Fragmin)
    Danaparoid, (Orgaran)
    Enoxaparin, (Lovenox)
    Fondaparinux, (Arixtra)
    Heparin, (Hepalean, Hep-Lock)
    Lepirudin, (Refludan)
    Tinzaparin, (Innohep)
    Warfarin, (Coumadin, Jantoven)
    Warnings and Precautions:
    Don't take if you:
    Are pregnant, think you may be pregnant, or plan pregnancy in the near future.
    Consult your doctor if you:
  • Take this herb for any medical problem that doesn't improve in 2 weeks (There may be safer, more effective treatments.)
  • Take any medicinal drugs or herbs, including aspirin, laxatives, cold and cough remedies, antacids, vitamins, minerals, amino acids, supplements, other prescription or non-prescription drugs

  • Pregnancy:
    Dangers outweigh any possible benefits. Don't use.
    Dangers outweigh any possible benefits. Don't use.
    Infants and Children:
    Treating infants and children under 2 with any herbal preparation is hazardous.
    Dangers outweigh any possible benefits. Don't use.
  • Store in cool, dry area away from direct light, but don't freeze.
  • Store safely out of reach of children.
  • Don't store in bathroom medicine cabinet. Heat and moisture may change the action of the herb.

  • Safe Dosage:
    Consult your doctor for the appropriate dose for your condition.
    Adverse Reactions, Side Effects, or Overdose Symptoms:
    Signs and Symptoms What to do

    Growth Retardation Discontinue. Call doctor when convenient.
    Jaundice (yellow skin and eyes) Discontinue. Call doctor when convenient.
    Testicle Atrophy Discontinue. Call doctor when convenient.
    Uncontrollable Internal Bleeding Seek emergency treatment
    Disease Effects:
    May cause liver toxicity due to the coumarin in tonka bean.
    Economic Uses:
    Used as a vanilla substitute for flavoring candy, cocoa, liqueurs, and medicinal preparations, such as cod liver oil. (Banned in some countries including the USA); perfume fixative in potpourris and scented goods; also used as an aromatic ingredient in tobaccos and snuff.
    Encylopedia of Herbs by Deni Brown Copyright ©: 1995, 2001 Dorling Kindersley Limited pg 195
    The Essential Herb-Drug-Vitamin Interaction Guide by Geo. T. Grossberg,MD and Barry Fox,PhD Copyright©2007 Barry Fox,PhD. Pp.453-454
    Vitamins, Herbs, Minerals & Supplements The Complete Guide by H. Winter Griffith, MD Copyright©1998 Fisher Books pp. 452-453