A St. John Lignum Vitae in lovely surrounds. Image from st john beach guide, accompanied by a great article for further reading .
Lignum Vitae has many common names, each one a history lesson is their own right. "Palo salto", Spanish for "holy wood," comes from the woods many medicinal uses and healing properties. "Guayacan" or "guaiacum", is a word with Maipurean origins, the ancient language of the native Tainos. "Greenheart" is based literally on the color of the tree trunks Heartwood and also it's practice of turning green when exposed to sunlight. "Ironwood", is a common name many different woods have been called with reference to their density and hardness. "Pockenholz" is used in some parts of Euorope. By far the most popular common name is Lignum Vitae, "tree of life," which stems from it's Latin roots which literally translate to "wood of life". This tree certainly has a long history, deep rooted in the Caribbean but with far reaching purposes all over the world. It has been classified as the hardest of all traded woods ( 4500 lbf on the Janka hardness test scale), and for this reason stayed in high demand up until the advent of high quality plastics and composite materials. History indicates that lignum vitae was used commonly as mortar and pestles and in many labor industries; wood carvers, ship builders for belaying pins, deadeyes, and various types of bearings due to it's high wax and resin content, clock builders for wheels (including the famous inventor John Harrison), mechanics for bushings and axles, even jewelers in the process of cutting jems. Up until recently the British police used lignum vitae Batons, yielding the strength of steel without breaking skin. Today it is used by forensic scientists and doctors to trace blood as the resin, combined with an alchohol solution, will turn blue when it comes in contact. Impressed yet? Now read this from wikipedia., "After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the urgent need to rebuild the streetcar system and the inability to obtain regular composition, porcelain, or glass insulators for the electrical feeders fast enough, a significant number of insulators were turned from this wood.(readily available from the ships in the harbor as ballast) as a "temporary" solution. Many of these lasted into the 1970s with a small number remaining in service as of 2009."
100 years of longevity! This wood sinks in water, resists termites, stands up to marine conditions, self lubricates, and is a non toxic pharmaceutical! Talk about a miracle of nature!
A mill turbine with lignum vitae bearings, image from danes notes on boats
By the turn of the century the wood was not only being used at work but also at play. Cricket and croquet, sports imported to the Caribbean by the British in the early 1900's, made use for the very durable, dense wood in mallets and heavy bails, and also for European Skittles balls and Lawn Bowls. To read more about the interesting history of cricket in the Caribbean please click here. The Hardy Brothers of Alnwick began using lignum vitae for their world famous Greenheart fly fishing rods. Even antique sets, like those pictured below, are often in immaculate condition due to the great durability of the wood.
Native Americans used lignum vitae to treat tropical diseases. From the mid- to late 16th century in Europe, the bark became popular as a treatment for syphilis. It is a traditional British treatment for rheumatoid arthritis and gout. In folk medicine, people used guaiac resin to treat respiratory problems and skin disorders. A derivative has been used in cough medicines. Lignum vitae also has served as an anti-inflammatory, a local anesthetic, and a help for herpes. Lignum vitae is subject to legal restrictions in some countries.
Information found on herbs2000
Information below from a Bahamian bush medicine article found on ravens voyage
LIGNUM VITAE (guaiacum off icinale) - Commonly referred
to as 'ironwood
Image from beinecke.library, please follow the link for detailed views and fascinating descriptions.