Guaiacum sanctum

Today’s photograph is shared by Peter Buchwald (original image | Creative Commons License). Lindsay continues with January’s thematic series on conservation of rare plants as part of the International Year of Biodiversity. Lindsay writes:

Commonly known as lignum vitae (“wood of life”) or holywood, Guaiacum sanctum is native to the Florida Keys of the southeast USA, Central America and the Caribbean. It is the national flower of the Jamaica. Lignum vitae is an extremely slow-growing, multi-trunked, broadleaf evergreen which can reach 9m to 12m, but because of its slow growth and heavy harvesting, it is more commonly found at 2.5m to 3.5m tall in the wild.

A number of times each year, the leathery, dark green leaves are offset by large clusters of deep blue flowers. The old flowers fade to a light silvery-blue, and create a “shimmering halo” over the rounded canopy. Flowers are followed by small, heart-shaped, yellow fruits, which sometimes appear at the same time as the blue flowers–a stunning sight. The wood of this genus is famous for its density, durability and strength. It is the hardest trade wood measured via the Janka hardness test and will sink in water. This dense wood was once popular for use in propeller shafts on steamships, gears and mallets.Lignum vitae was also harvested, somewhat notoriously, for medicinal purposes. Purportedly, during his travels in the New World, Christopher Columbus picked up both syphilis and its cure–a concoction of lignum vitae!

All species of the genus Guaiacum are now listed in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. According to the World Conservation Monitoring Centre, Guaiacum sanctum is considered endangered. It is similarly listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species. Population estimates suggest less than 2500 mature specimens in the wild, and those remaining individuals still face a rapid decline. Decline is principally due to deforestation and exploitation for human uses. In Central America and Florida remaining populations are threatened with habitat loss or exploitation, e.g., in Guancaste in Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Florida Keys. Conservation groups in both Costa Rica and the Bahamas have been successful in lobbying local authorities to ban sale and export of lignum vitae by establishing protected areas in its natural range. Despite its slow growth rate, propagation of Guaiacum sanctumis fairly easy. Current research suggests its use in rehabilitating degraded sites within its natural range.

Guaiacum sanctum

18 responses to “Guaiacum sanctum”

  1. C. Concannon

    I’d like to thank you for the beautiful quality of your postings.

  2. SoapySophia

    Those are absolutely adorable!! They remind me of tulips on a tree–a good reminder of spring in this cold, white winter.
    I don’t know much about classification of plants, but I’m assuming this one is not related to tulips in any way. Does anyone know if they are, by chance, related to tulips?
    I love the combination of the orange/yellow/red with the purple/yellow in the background.

  3. beverley bowhay

    I have some coasters made from lignum vitae. The wood is incredibly dense, and aromatic when warmed by a hot mug of coffee. The aroma seems magical to me…I can understand how it could be used as medicine. I have not seen this tree on Vancouver Island…are there any?

  4. Sheila

    A breath of fresh air seeing such beautiful colours. ( especially when it has been constantly sunless here this month.)
    I would love to be able to grow this in our garden
    A beautiful pic and interesting write up.
    Thank you Peter and Daniel.

  5. Sheila

    Apologies.(See above) Thank you Lindsay

  6. Scott

    The yellow fruits split open to reveal bright red seeds, which adds to the color show. A red seed is just visible in the photo. The red appears to be a fleshy seed coat. Mockingbirds love to eat the seeds.

  7. susan

    Love the combination of colours. Can this plant grow in colder climates, such as zone 5? Would love to have it in my yard, though we do have mockingbirds. Thanks for all the variety in your postings. I look forward to it every day.

  8. Connie

    Unfortunately, it will not grow in Zone 5. It is related to tulips in that it has chlorophyll (green) and reproduces by seeds.
    Lovely photo- thank you.

  9. Stuart

    Back in the 1970’s I had the opportunity to visit Lignum Vitae Key in the Florida Keys. The small island was completely covered with Lignum Vitae trees (although I never saw one in flower — thank you very much for this photo!). It was a very special experience. The Key was very closely protected by the US Dept of the Interior. The only way I got permission to visit was that a friend was doing research there. According to Wikipedia, it has been a State Botanical Park since 1999. The state conducts walking tours, but they only permit 50 people on the island at a time.

  10. elizabeth a airhart

    lovely picture peter i live on the
    central west coast this tree is lovely
    i hope the trees were not hurt by our
    freezeing weather a great deal of our plants
    some trees were damaged even the keys did not
    the write ups and links are so helpful
    lindsay logged myself on to red list
    thank you to one and all

  11. Brandy

    Today I opened up this email and felt so lucky to be receiving this non-economic, non-political, non-stressful information every day. It gives me nothing but pleasure and I thank Daniel and Lindsay and Eric and everyone involved with it. This picture today made me say outloud, “oooh, that’s pretty,” before I even knew I had spoken!

  12. Vicki

    I love these e-mails! I learn something new each day about interesting plants. Thank you

  13. Jan Baker

    I wish the photos gave the type of camera, lens, and even the settings!

  14. Daniel Mosquin

    Not always, but in this case, Jan:
    original image link -> right-hand sidebar -> Photo Information -> more info

  15. Anne

    Wow! I finally have a name for that tree I saw growing in a central common in San Juan, PR a few years back!! The only way I was able to describe it to my other botanically inclined friends was to say that it looked like a tree version of exacum! That was the only place I saw it and it wasn’t in the book on local flora I got while I was there. Thanks so much!

  16. Jan Phillips

    LIgnum vitae is still used to make the belay pins for traditional wooden sailing vessels. It is the only timber that is strong enough to resist the huge strain of heavng the yards round or hauling them up on tall ships.

  17. pikadoo

    this tree is save life to my friend 30 years ago like a tee sory for my bed english but I want to share this whit You he head leukemia and today is alive and healthy

  18. Sheri

    My husband and I just planted a lignum vitae in the backyard of our new home. It’s been happily growing in a pot for the last 2yrs (until we had a place to plant it), and even though they are slow growing I’ve noticed such an interesting change in the way the branches grow! Can’t wait for it to mature 🙂

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