1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Catechu

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CATECHU, or Cutch (Malay, kachu), an extract obtained from several plants, its chief sources being the wood of two species of acacia (A. catechu and A. suma), both natives of India. This extract is known as black catechu. A similar extract, known in pharmacy as pale catechu (Catechu pallidum), and in general commerce as gambir, or terra japonica, is produced from the leaves of Uncaria gambir and U. acida, cinchonaceous plants growing in the East Indian Archipelago. A third product to which the name catechu is also applied, is obtained from the fruits of the areca or betel palm, Areca catechu.

Ordinary black catechu is usually imported in three different forms. The first and best quality, known as Pegu catechu, is obtained in blocks externally covered with large leaves; the second and less pure variety is in masses, which have been moulded in sand; and the third consists of large cubes packed in coarse bags. The wood of the two species of Acacia yielding catechu is taken for the manufacture when the trees have attained a diameter of about 1 ft. The bark is stripped off and used for tanning, and the trunk is split up into small fragments, which are covered with water and boiled. When the extract has become sufficiently thick it is cast into the forms in which the catechu is found in commerce. Catechu so prepared is a dark brown, or, in mass, almost black, substance, brittle, and having generally a shining lustre. It is astringent, with a sweetish taste. In cold water it disintegrates, and in boiling water, alcohol, acetic acid and strong caustic alkali it is completely dissolved. Chemically it consists of a mixture of a peculiar variety of tannin termed catechu-tannic acid with catechin or catechuic acid, and a brown substance due to the alteration of both these principles. Catechu-tannic acid is an amorphous body soluble in cold water, while catechin occurs in minute, white, silky, needle-shaped crystals, which do not dissolve in cold water. A very minute proportion of quercetin, a principle yielded by quercitron bark, has been obtained from catechu.

Gambir, which is similar in chemical composition to ordinary catechu, occurs in commerce in the form of cubes of about an inch in size, with a pale brown or yellow colour, and an even earthy fracture. For the preparation of this extract the plants above mentioned are stripped of their leaves and young twigs, and these are boiled down in shallow pans. The juice is strained off, evaporated, and when sufficiently concentrated is cast into shallow boxes, where, as it hardens and dries, it is cut into small cubes.

Gambir and catechu are extensively employed in dyeing and tanning. For dyeing they have been in use in India from the most remote period, but it was only during the 19th century that they were placed on the list of European dyeing substances. Catechu is fixed by oxidation of the colouring principle, catechin, on the cloth after dyeing or printing; and treated thus it yields a variety of durable tints of drabs, browns and olives with different mordants (see Dyeing). The principal consumption of catechu occurs in the preparation of fibrous substances exposed to water, such as fishing-lines and nets, and for colouring stout canvas used for covering boxes and portmanteaus under the name of tanned canvas. Black catechu is official in most pharmacopoeias except that of Great Britain, in which pale catechu is the official drug. The actions and uses of the two are similar, but black catechu is the more powerful. The dose is from five to twenty grains. The pulvis catechu compositus contains catechu and kino, and may be given in doses twice as large as those named. The drug has the actions and uses of tannic acid, but owing to the relative insolubility of catechu-tannic acid, it is more valuable than ordinary tannic acid in diarrhoea, dysentery and intestinal haemorrhage.