The lignum vitae (Guiacum Officinale) was found in Jamaica by Christopher Columbus. The short, compact tree is native to continental tropical American and the West Indies. Locally, it grows best in the dry woodland along the north and south coasts of the island.
The plant is extremely ornamental, producing an attractive blue flower and orange-yellow fruit, while its crown has a rounded shape. Its name, when translated from Latin, means “wood of life,” – probably adopted because of the tree’s medicinal qualities. A gum obtained from its resin was once regarded as a purgative, which was exported to Europe from the early sixteenth century as a remedy (combined with mercury) for syphillis and has also been used as a remedy for gout.
The body, bark, fruit, leaves and blossom are also useful. The wood was once used as propeller shaft bearings in nearly all the ships sailing the ‘Seven Seas.’ According to this University of Florida article by horticulturist Stephen Brown, it is the only wood with a specific gravity of 1.09, enabling it to sink in salt water. It also resists rot caused by insects and moisture. Because of its toughness, the wood is also used for items such as mortars, mallets, pulleys and batons carried by policemen. Sometimes it is used for furniture and carvings.
The lignum vitae and all other species of the genus Guaiacum are now listed in Appendix II of CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).