It has no smell, but it has a bitter taste. The main compound which gives the bitter taste is called “quassin.”
It can be used medicially to kill intestinal worms in the body. It can also be used to stimulate appetite, or as a substitute for hops to provide bitterness in beer.
It comes from a tree that grows in Jamaica, that looks a bit like an ash tree. The tree grows up to 100 feet (30 metres) tall, with a trunk up to 3 feet (1 metre) wide. It blossoms with green flowers in October and November, but the blooms are not very noticeable.
The smooth thin grey bark is removed from the trunk and branches. Underneath, there is yellowish-white, light, brittle wood, which is cut into chips, and kiln dried. The compound is extracted from this.
Cups can also be carved from the wood. You fill the cups with water and let the water stand in the cups overnight to take on the taste of the wood.
Or you can soak the chips in cold water, in the ratio of 1 oz (30 g) in weight of the chips to 20 oz (1 pint / 600 ml) of water.
The tree is native to the Carribean, particularly Jamaica, northern Venezuela and Brazil.
Knowledge of the properties of the wood of the tree were learned from people in Surinam by a Swede named Daniel Rolander, who brought the knowledge in turn with him back to Europe in 1755.
Up until 1809, Quassia Wood referred to wood from a similar shrub, but then the London Pharmacopoeia transferred the name to the tree from Jamaica which supplied the wood in larger quantities.