The Lignum Vitae tree is our very own indigenous Florida Keys Tree. Their beautiful luminescent blue flowers have a gorgeous lavender hue and cover the trees in their flowering season, these colors are then followed by the red orange berries. Although it is slow growing, this little dynamo of nature is built of one of the strongest types of wood, plus it is self lubricating. It has been widely used in ship building, for propeller shafts, and by cabinet makers and stone cutters, as well wood carvers and gem cutters. The resin is known for several medicinal properties; it reduces inflammation, suppresses coughs and much more. Famous fishing rods have been made from the wood – as well the neck of the much played banjo of musician/song writer Pete Seeger.
About 20 years ago, I gave a dear friend of mine a birthday gift of a juvenile, very small but healthy Lignum Vitae tree. It has grown slowly and steadily and has blossomed out beautifully – despite the protestations of the pea rock ground and the salt water canal that starts about 10 feet from the tree. This brave warrior has weathered countless storms, a constant barrage of squirrels, raccoons, dogs and cats, iguanas and the occasional wood rat. Not only does it survive hot summers, it absolutely thrives on warmth and coolness alike.
Lignum Vitae is actually an evergreen tree and has a dense crown packed with many small, dark green leaflets. Unencumbered, the crown often develops an umbrella-like shape. Although this tree is more than not considered a small tree, it can actually grow quite large in time, occasionally up to 40 feet tall – the species is extremely long lived, by some reports up to one thousand years. It’s wood is among the heaviest and densest of trees and resists damage by insects and moisture very effectively. Remains of Lignum Vitae wood used as posts for dwellings of Caribbean Indians have been discovered and have been carbon dated to be over eight hundred years old.
Both the authors Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Charlotte Niedhauk incorporate uses for the wood in their wonderful books. I am presently reading “Charlotte’s Story” by Ms. Niedhauk for about the 5th time. It is a delightful, vastly entertaining and true account of the couple who lived on both Elliots Key and Lignum Vitae Key for years, creating homes and crafting tools from everything locally, quite often using the wood of the Lignum Vitae tree. They took care of Lignum Vitae Key for years, and it is now a state park, and a place you do not want to miss.
Guaranteed to transport you back in time, as you walk the path adorned with gumbo limbo trees and see the Lignum Vitae all around, you can smell and feel the history of the Florida Keys. And when you do go, be sure and take your snorkel gear, the snorkeling around the island is superb, an unexpected surprise when I first arrived at the island.
On Lignum Vitae Key, most of the population of these dynamic trees was spared from the overharvesting – it is only assessable by boat. Due to all of its uses, and extremely slow growth, the numbers of these trees were severely reduced and put on the endangered list. However, they are all around the Keys now, and are a lovely and unique sight to see. I have found them on neighboring, unpopulated islands, miles from the “mainland” of the Keys.
When you see a Lignum Vitae tree, you will be seeing a true part of the history of the Florida Keys and the Caribbean Islands. It certainly deserves our care, awe and respect.