Hevea brasiliensis, otherwise known as the rubber tree, is a tall (15-40m) deciduous tree that grows best in tropical climates. Hevea brasiliensis is native to Brasil, although most trees of the species now grow outside of Brazil. Hevea brasiliensis grows best in tropical climates, and there are plantations in locales such as Sri Lanka, Vietnam, and Liberia.
People indigenous to the Amazon River basin began using Hevea brasiliensis about a thousand years ago. One use that they found for it was waterproofing, as covering fabric with latex creates a reliable seal. When Europeans encountered the peoples living in the Amazon, they noted their use of Hevea brasiliensis fluids and transported seeds back to Europe. From there the seeds were spread across the globe.
As uses and demand for latex increased, the need for more trees increased swiftly. This led to massive latex plantations being planted in tropical climates worldwide, a significant portion in Asia. Because individual rubber trees can only produce a relatively small amount of latex at a time, the production of natural latex occurs at a large scale. Over 12 million tons of natural latex was produced in 2013, requiring millions of trees.
Latex is the natural fluid that is excreted by the tree when its bark is damaged. It contains natural compounds such as amino acids and proteins as well as the actual latex polymers that have become so indispensable to modern life. The raw latex is a milky substance (it referred to as “milk” by many) that is mostly water, and so it must be reduced further to be usable as latex.
Some scientists have hypothesized that latex is produced by plants as a defense mechanism triggered when animals attempt to eat it. Because latex is a naturally adhesive, almost glue-like substance when first tapped, it easily traps insects. Amazingly, this natural product evolved for protecting an Amazonian tree has yielded a wide array of uses that we could not live without today. Thank a rubber tree!