Friday, April 06, 2007

Flower Power: The Tree of Life

Anyone ready for a little Beauty Relief? I sure am.

My Lignum Vitae - the *Tree of Life* - is blooming like crazy. It's sometimes called the only true-blue tree flower in the world. This small detail, with my neighbor's Traveler's Palm in the background, shows just a few of the flowers covering the tree right now. The glossy ferny evergreen foliage is gorgeous too. Nothing ever bothers it: it's impervious to pests from microbes to insects to cattle.

After a long time the hard green fruits turn yellow and split open to show five brilliant red-covered seeds. Under the red skin the seeds are almost jet black. The flowers, green fruits, ripe yellow fruits, and protruding red seeds often all show up at the same time. It's quite a display.

There are two major species of Lignum Vitae: Guaiacum officinale and Guaiacum sanctum. I'm pretty sure mine is the *holywood,* G. sanctum; rumor has it that G. sanctum has a five-seed pod, and G. officinale has a two-seed pod.

This is a storied tree for an incredible variety of reasons. The wood is so dense it sinks in water, even saltwater. Such woods are called *ironwood,* and lignum vitae is said to be the densest and hardest of all.

Because of a peculiarity in the way the cell walls are structured, it's self-lubricating. Imagine the industrial applications. For hundreds of years, lignum vitae has been used to make giant to tiny-size ball bearings in huge industrial projects, like dams. They'll last 100 years or more without needing repair, replacing or oiling. Virtually impervious to water and salt, the wood is used in all sorts of marine applications: propeller shafts, boat building, you name it.

Do you remember a recent book and subsequent movie called *Longitude,* by Dava Sobel? Several hundred years ago, as European mariners ventured out exploring the world's unknown oceans, they were often lost or wrecked at sea because they couldn't accurately measure longitude. The King of England set up a huge prize, 20,000 English pounds, for whoever solved the problem. That's the equivalent of many millions of US dollars today, so competition was fierce.

The winner was John Harrison of Lincolnshire, England. How did he solve it? By inventing a self-lubricating watch, resistant to temperature change, atmosphere, humidity, salt water, ship movement...The watch, you see, was largely composed of lignum vitae wood. He made it around 300 years ago. It's still keeping highly accurate time today.

Lignum vitae has medicinal properties too. It used to be used to treat syphilis, although I don't know if that actually worked. What we do know is, it's an anti-inflammatory and a mucous thinner. Lignum vitae pharmaceuticals are now used to treat arthritis, fibromyalgia, and nasal and lung congestion - all of which I have. I didn't realize at first that my decongestant prescription, *Guaifenesin/Phenylephrine* - generic for Liquibid-D - is derived from the very same beautiful tree I'm growing in my side yard.

The gorgeous wood is used for fancy guitar picks, judges' gavels - that super heavy wood makes a great whacker - sculptures, all sorts of elegant carvings. It's very expensive stuff, for good reason; then too, people tend to fall in love with it. Like me. It lasts so long that parts of buildings constructed by Caribbean natives from lignum vitae wood 800 years ago still exist today.

It was so over harvested that it's now a protected species. When you read a post where I talk about shelling my lignum vitae seeds, it's because I grow it. It's a very slow-growing tree, sort of shrubby. Me, I know little tricks to grow it faster. I had 1500 seedlings wiped out by Hurricane Wilma. That hurt. But I have a bunch more sprouting as we speak.

I got my little tree about eight years ago from a local wholesaler. He charged me $100 for a 10-year-old tree - the trunk was about an inch across. Fairchild Tropical Gardens wanted $250 for a 7-year-old tree, so I got quite a good deal.

My dentist, a really great guy, is close friends with the family who used to own Lignum Vitae Key in the Florida Keys. It's a park or preserve now, and private, accessible only by boat. The dentist turns wood for a hobby, so he knew all about lignum vitae. Over the years he's cut me lots of slack on payments, and been extremely patient with my dental phobia. A great diagnostician, he understood the implications of the fibromyalgia, and the arthritis in my gums, before I did. With fibro we get an overdeveloped pain nerve network. He knew where to put the double or triple novocaine to deaden my teeth - even though at the time, he had no idea I'd been diagnosed. I'll tell him, next time I see him, how lignum vitae pharmaceuticals are used to treat both fibromyalgia and arthritis. Just in case he didn't know.

A few years ago, after he told me about his friend and Lignum Vitae Key, I stopped by his office one day to give him a small but happy and healthy lignum vitae seedling I'd grown - the biggest and best one I had. He knew how precious it was. The look on his face as I pulled the pot out of the bag for him was something I'll never forget.

This tree, native to the Caribbean, actually does quite well in desert settings too. Imagine my surprise when, one fine day, my surfing turned up all sorts of references to lignum vitae being grown and sold in Tuscon, AZ.

The Tree of Life. I think of this gorgeous tree's diverse and magnificent qualities. Of its great beauty, its healing abilities, its strength and practical usefulness, its association with elegance and art and music and holiness and one of history's great inventors and engineers. I admire its firm resolution to sink even in salt water - going against the tide as it were, and holding its own, yet using that very strength to keep us safe in our boats from the self-same salt water.

From our first acquaintance, these qualities put me in mind of my own extraordinary blogdad, Desert Cat. DC, this one's for you.


Desert Cat said...

We do have a tree called Ironwood that grows native in certain areas here. I don't know if that is Lignum vitae or a related species.
There is also a newer National Monument in the next valley west of Tucson dedicated to preserving them.

The problem is the trees grow in the same areas favored for citrus, so large swaths of them in the Tucson area were cut down in the last century to make way for orange groves.

Desert Cat said...

Olneya tesota, a different tree. Lignum vitae is Guaiacum officinale or G. sanctum.

prettylady said...

Beautiful! Now I want one!

But please don't send one. My fire escape could not do it justice.

Nancy said...


btw: at least one a'tha pretties is peeking through the soil...

Jean said...

wow... you come up with the coolest stuff!
You're better than a walking encyclopedia.

Granny J said...

My Phoenix grandparents had two big old ironwood trees growing outside next to the kitchen. Like your ironwood, the wood is heavy and favored for carving. There's a native tribal group in Mexico that specializes in ironwood carvings, tho the tree is getting scarce. It's blossoms are small, pea-like and lavender, unlike the beautiful blue in your picture. Useful to know that guaifenesin is used to treat arthritis. Thank you for another of your very informative posts. And enjoy the flowers!!!

John P. McCann said...

Very nice write up.

Perhaps I'll come up with verse in praise of ironwood.

A noble plant.

k said...

I'm glad the sense of why I'm so enamoured of this tree came through. I'm head over heels, and there's no coming back.

You guys crack me up! I only learn about stuff that seems neat to me. That's self-indulgence, there.

NOT that there's one thing wrong with self-indulgence, of course. I think many people need more of it, not less. The kind I'm talking about is nice healthy stuff like pretty flowers, of course. That's the difference between ribeye steaks and eating McDonald's. McDonald's, an indulgence in cheap icky phoniness, has its place too - but that ribeye isn't just tasty to eat, it's good FOR you, too.

DC, just now I googled up lignum vitae trees tucson az, and this time I didn't find a single reference to the nurseries that sold it before! Perhaps it was a brief plant fashion thing there a couple years ago.

But I do know they'll do well there. They're amazingly drought-hardy.

That desert ironwood is traditional carving material for several native American tribes I've heard of. Granny J, there may be some closer to you than Mexico. Long traditions of carving, where each family member has their role in it. If I remember, I read about one where Pop did the initial carving, then down the line mom and sis did the finer detail work and/or sanding.

John, *noble* is exactly right. Just like making up a cheer to psyche yourself up for script writing - noble endeavors, both!

And if you come up with any lignum vitae verse for my baby, I'll go outside and recite it to her. Put it to music, and I'll even sing it.

It's okay. The neighbors are used to me by now.

SeaPhoenix said...

Little late to post here maybe, but I've got a Lignum sprouting here in May! Little beauty was the only one of a set of 11 that sprouted, so far...sitting on this thing like a mother hen. Taking it outside in the sunlight in the day time and hurrying it indoors before the cool nights set in. It's about an inch high right now...but it's a little wonder, true leaves right out of the cotyledon. It looks like a miniature tree right now!

N said...


Very interesting post, I am quite in love with this species myself, I have a very small one growing in my greenhouse, and like seaphoenix says, it does look like a miniature tree too!

I have quite a few rare species myself, its a very relaxing hobby to care for them, I will be sowing Guiacum oficinalis this spring, hoping it will grow fast.

Do you or anybody you know knows what are the best conditions to foster faster growth for the G Sanctum?

Best regards


Bob G said...

I don't know if this is an active thread, or if anyone is following it, BUT... I just purchased some Lignum Vitae seeds, and I am researching the best way to germinate and grow the plants from seed...

Gibberellic acid, rootone, removing the red outer seadcoat, among other things I have seen, any suggestions would be helpfull.