Plants of the Cockrell Butterfly Center: Guaiacum officinale

Our winner this month was Corrie Kennelly! She received 2 tickets to our Cockrell Butterfly Center for correctly giving us the scientific name of the plant pictured above, which happens to also be the national flower of Jamaica.

The correct scientific name was Guaiacum officinale.

Guaiacum officinale is a very slow growing flowering tree in the family Zygophyllaceae. It is native to South America and the Caribbean where it is now on the endangered species list due to overexploitation of its miraculous wood, which is commonly known as Lignum vitae.

Wood Of Life

Lignum vitae is Latin for “wood of life” and after learning more about this versatile trade wood it is easy to see where it got its name. Not only does the resin of the wood contain medicinal qualities that are used to treat everything from arthritis to venereal disease to sore throat, its wood is the strongest and densest wood in the world, so dense in fact that it will sink immediately when placed in water.

Due to its strength and weight, Lignum vitae wood has been used to make British police batons, croquet mallets, and cricket bails. Also, thanks to its high concentration of resin the wood is very resistant to insects and rot, which makes it a great candidate for use at sea as deadeyes on many sailing vessels including the USS Constitution.

Until the 1960’s, and the invention of sealed metal bearings, Lignum vitae was the primary wood used for shaft bearings in propellers of ships. In fact, the USS Nautilus, the first nuclear powered submarine, main strut bearings were Lignum vitae.

If all of its many uses don’t make it cool enough; in The Once and Future King, T.H. White’s version of the Arthur legend, Merlin’s wand was made of Lignum vitae!

To see the national flower of Jamaica and many other, stop by the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science!

This entry was posted in Plants & Insects and tagged , , , , by Zac. Bookmark the permalink.

About Zac

Zac joined the museum in January after returning to Houston from a stint studying plants in Hawaii. He is the full-time horticulturist for the Cockrell Butterfly Center, and is in charge of daily maintenance and design for the rainforest exhibit. Zac specializes in tropical plants, particularly epiphytes, and his duties in the rainforest range from feeding all of the plants and animals to hand pollinating some of the tropical fruits, such as vanilla and cacao.

5 thoughts on “Plants of the Cockrell Butterfly Center: Guaiacum officinale

  1. Hi Joyce! First, apologies to Zac, our horticulturist – I accidentally published this post under my name. It’s now been corrected to show him as the author.

    But I did ask him for an answer to your question – the plant is labeled with a large metal sign. It’s next to the large iguana cage that’s close to the top of the stairs that lead down to lowest level of the center, by the waterfall. Ask any staff member where Charro (the iguana) is, and they’ll be able to direct you to the area.

  2. how is this wood propagated? are there seedlings or cuttings that can be purchased for planting? We have an acreage property at the outskirts of Houston where we are planting several varieties of trees to enhanced the habitat of wildlife around the area.

  3. Hi Lola! Due to all of the resin in the wood it is virtually waterproof and therefore it can’t be propagated from cutting. You can purchase seeds on the internet, but finding an established plant may be a little tricky as it is an incredibly slow grower and is on the endangered species list. I’d like to know how they fair in our climate (they are labeled zone 9-11), so if you have any luck please let us know!

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