Not only is it the National Tree of the Bahamas but its name alone is Latin for Tree of Life. This tree got its name because it has so many life restoring properties, the resin or ‘sap’ as Bahamians call it, has been used throughout the ages to treat ailments such as the common cough and even arthritis. Some have even used the shavings of the wood to brew tea that can help with asthma.
Besides the medial uses for the wood it would be useless to mention it if its uses in industry was not also mentioned. The Lignum Vitae wood is so hard it is listed as one of the hardest woods in the world. On the Janka Scale of wood hardness the lignum rates at 4500lbf. The closest wood hardness or density to the Lignum is the African Blackwood which is rated at 2940lbf and next in line Hickory at 1820lbf, there is no comparison in fact the Lignum Vitae is so hard its often referred to as ‘iron wood’ it literally will sink in water. The only wood harder than Lignum wood is the Australian Buloke.
The Lignum Vitae tree is indigenous to the Caribbean and parts of South America not only is it The National Tree of the Bahamas but its blooming flower is the National Flower of Jamaica. Yes that is right the lignum vitae does bloom. Its flower is about the size of a Bahamian 10cent piece. But they cluster together into little bunches that make them irresistible to insects thus pollination can take place. Fully grown trees are often hard to find on the island of New Providence but if you are willing to walk through the forest of the islands a few can still be found fully grown.
The budding flower of the Lignum Vitae is a purplish lavender color but most scientist may argue that it is a shade of blue. It blooms virtually year round and also produces a small fleshy fruit. The tree can grow up to 30-40 feet but because it is so slow growing most persons will only see a tree at about 7-15 feet tall. The tree often may seem to have multiple trunks but its all to help with its slow growth rate.
The uses for this iron wood throughout the ages have been from as simple as making cricket bails and croquet mallets to being used as canon mortar and ballets for wood carvers. The most interesting usage for the wood was as the gears in pendulum clocks and another little interesting fact, The British used the wood to make the truncheons (billy or baton) used by their bobby (British police officer).
One other amazing fact about the Lignum Vitae is that it is one of the few hard woods that is self lubricating thus it has been used in water lubricated shaft bearings for ships and hydroelectric power plants. An even better example are the insulators used by the San Francisco Railroad company. These insulators were used to support feeder wires for the trolley systems around the city from 1904. Because the wood can withstand high stress and heat that is generated when the trolleys turned corners it was installed for safety reasons. The wood is so hard that they survived the 1906 earthquake and subsequent fires of San Francisco and many lasted until the 1970’s with a few that made it to the new millennium which made most of them last between 60 and 90 years.