Lignum Vitae, Guaiacum officinale
Lignum vitae means "long life" in Latin, from which comes one of its common names, Tree of Life.
A Lignum Vitae tree planted by the late Ivan Jadan
Lignum Vitae is the heaviest and densest wood in the world and will rapidly sink to the bottom when placed in water. It resists rot caused by insects and moisture so effectively that remains of Lignum vitae wood used as posts for dwellings by Taino Indians discovered in Tutu, St. Thomas were dated by carbon dating and found to be over 800 years old. In colonial days this hard, strong, and long-lasting wood was an invaluable construction material.
In backtime Virgin Islands when someone's problems were especially severe or when someone was carrying an extremely heavy emotional burden it was said that their troubles were "heavier than a Lingy Vitae cross.”
Before the European colonization, which led to the deforestation of St. John, there were many stands of Lignum vitae on the island. They helped to produce a jungle-like canopy over large portions of the island, providing shade for tropical undergrowth.
On St. John, Virgin Islands, most large native trees were cut down to prepare for sugarcane cultivation or were harvested for their valuable wood. Once plentiful on the island, the Lignum vitae is now relatively rare. Notwithstanding, beautiful mature lignum vitae trees can be seen near the Post Office, on the corner near the Texaco station, by the sugar mill at Caneel Bay and along the Ram Head Trail. Many new Lignum vitae trees have been planted by people such as Hermon Smith, Andy Rutnik and especially by the late Ivan Jadan.
Lignum vitae is a great medium for carvings like the ones shown above, which was crafted by Calis Sewer.
Lignum vitae wood was used in the past to make ball bearings because its extremely high resin content makes it self-lubricating. Another place that Lignum vitae were used was in United States courtrooms, where the judge's gavel was traditionally made from this fine wood.
The bark of the Lignum vitae, especially on the lower part of the trunk, is smooth in texture and purple and green in color.
The tree tends to branch out early and may have multiple trunks, which form a large and relatively low canopy. The leaves are bright green. When the tree blooms, usually in the late spring or early summer, it produces small blue flowers, which later develop into bright orange fruits.
The lignum vitae seeds are formed inside the orange heart-shaped seed capsule that forms after the flowers emerge. The capsule breaks open to yield a red fruit, which dries into a black seed.
Lignum Vitae bark mixed with Maubi bark has been used in traditional Virgin Islands bush medicine as an aid in relieving the symptoms of fish poisoning and a tea made from the flowers and leaves is reputed to be an excellent energy restorative.
Elsewhere, there is abundant anecdotal evidence that the resins of the lignum vitae are effective anti inflammatory agents and have been used to treat arthritis, gout, and sciatica.