Tabebuia is a neotropical genus of about 100 species in the tribe Tecomeae of the family Bignoniaceae. The species range from northern Mexico and the Antilles south to northern Argentina, including the Caribbean islands of Hispaniola (Dominican Republic and Haiti) and Cuba. Well-known common names include Ipê, Poui, trumpet trees and pau d'arco.
They are large shrubs and trees growing to 5 to 50 m (16 to 160 ft) tall depending on the species; many species are dry-season deciduous but some are evergreen. The leaves are opposite pairs, complex or palmately compound with 3-7 leaflets.
Tabebuia is a notable flowering tree. The flowers are 3 to 11 cm (1 to 4 in) wide and are produced in dense clusters. They present a cupular calyx campanulate to tubular, truncate, bilabiate or 5-lobed. Corolla colors vary between species ranging from white, light pink, yellow, lavender, magenta, or red. The outside texture of the flower tube is either glabrous or pubescent.
The fruit is a dehiscent pod, 10 to 50 cm (4 to 20 in) long, containing numerous - in some species winged - seeds. These pods often remain on the tree through dry season until the beginning of the rainy season.
Species in this genus are important as timber trees. The wood is used for furniture, decking, and other outdoor uses. It has a fire rating of A1 (the highest possible, the same as concrete), and is denser than water (it sinks). It is increasingly popular as a decking material due to its insect resistance and durability. By 2007, FSC-certified ipê wood had become readily available on the market, although certificates are occasionally forged.
Tabebuia is widely used as ornamental tree in the tropics in landscaping gardens, public squares and boulevards due to its impressive and colorful flowering. Many flowers appear on still leafless stems at the end of the dry season, making the floral display more conspicuous. They are useful as honey plants for bees, and are popular with certain hummingbirds. Naturalist Madhaviah Krishnan on the other hand once famously took offense at ipé grown in India, where it is not native.
The bark of several species has medical properties. The bark is dried, shredded and then boiled making a bitter or sour-tasting brownish-colored tea. Tea from the inner bark of Pink Ipê (T. impetiginosa) is known as Lapacho or Taheebo. Its main active principles are lapachol, quercetin and other flavonoids. It is also available in pill form. The herbal remedy is typically used during flu and cold season and for easing smoker's cough. It apparently works as expectorant, by promoting the lungs to cough up and free deeply embedded mucus and contaminants. However, lapachol is rather toxic and therefore a more topical use e.g. as antibiotic or pesticide may be advisable. Other species with significant folk medical use are T. alba and Yellow Lapacho (T. serratifolia).
The demand for ipê wood has risen dramatically in recent years, especially in the United States. By the 1990s, numerous environmental organizations working on preservation of the Amazon Rainforest reported that about 80% of logging in the Brazilian Amazon was illegal. The Brazilian government has confirmed this figure, most notably in a leaked report from the Brazilian Intelligence Agency, in which it was confirmed that five times the amount of wood sanctioned to be cut from legal Amazon concessions was being exported and that numerous staff of the environment agency IBAMA were taking bribes.
In an October 2001 study for Greenpeace, five companies were reported to be logging illegally for ipê and other hardwoods in the region around Santarém, Pará: Cemex Commercial Madeiras Exportaçao, Madeireira Santarém (Madesa), Industrial Madeireira Curuatinga, Maderieira Rancho da Cabocla and Estância Alecrim/Milton José Schnorr. The bulk of their illegal timber exports from that region went to The Netherlands and France.
Much of the ipê imported into the US is used for decking. Starting in the late 1960s, importing companies targeted large boardwalk projects to sell ipê, beginning with New York City Parks and Recreation ("Parks") which maintains the city's boardwalks, including along the beach of Coney Island. The city began using ipê around that time and has since converted the entire boardwalk — over 10 miles (16 km) long — to ipê. The ipê lasted about 25 years, at which time (1994), Parks has been replacing it with new ipê. Given that ipê trees typically grow in densities of only one or two trees per acre, large areas of forest must be logged to fill orders for boardwalks and, to a lesser extent, homeowner decks.
A 1998 study for Rainforest Relief stated that at one time average yields were 76 board feet per acre (44 m³/km²) of FEQ (first export quality — FAS four-side-clear) grade ipê over seven feet (2.1 m) in length. Typically, wooden boardwalks are composed of 30,000 to 40,000 board feet (70 to 90 m³) per city block. For New York City's 10 miles (16 km) of boardwalk, this would yield an estimate of 83,360 acres (337 km²) of Amazon rainforest logged.
Nowadays, ipé wood from cultivated trees supersedes timber extracted from the wild. As noted above, customers should check for legitimacy of certificates.