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!