Any tree with the name lignum vitae - translated it means ‘the wood of life’ – is surely worth a nod of respect. But this is one to doff your cap to. Lignum vitae takes the word hardwood to a new level. It is a very hard wood indeed, 4500 on the Janka Scale of Hardness no less, according to Wikipedia (the next closest, Brazilian ebony, comes in at 3692 and teak gets a paltry 2330). Unsurprisingly lignum vitae is also known as ironwood.
A native of tropical America, it grows on most of the large Caribbean islands. It has been adopted by the Jamaicans for their national flower – for what turns out to be a monster of a tree, it has a very delicate purple, five-petalled bloom. But here’s an example of how hard it is. Lignum vitae wood has been used as replacement ball bearings, even as an axle. It is quite resinous and so it lubricates itself, meaning that it works well in a marine environment, for pulleys and in working parts.
In the story of how Richard Lupinacci of The Hermitage came to Nevis in the 1960s, he talks of fighting his way through overgrowth to the old plantation house that turned out to be nearly 300 years old. The builder took a hammer and knocked the frame of the building and said - ‘Ah, lignum vitae, lignum vitae…’ Doubtless if it had been any other type of wood it would have been eaten by termites and fallen down long before.
Lignum vitae is also exceptionally heavy. And so it was used around the Caribbean for ballast in ships. Elsewhere it has been used for cricket bails and for British police truncheons. And there is another disarming quality to it too. The wood of lignum vitae is so heavy that it actually sinks in water (doubtless, like ice, it sinks in jack-iron too, see the article below).
For all of this, the name ‘wood of life’ apparently derives from the tree’s medicinal qualities rather than any physical prowess. The resin has been used for many years, in the treatment of arthritis and other ailments. At one stage it was thought to work both a contraceptive and a treatment for syphilis – and you can imagine, the naughtier calypsonians have had some fun with the idea of the strongest wood around. This stuff is so strong you can brew tea from the wood shavings. By gum, that’s probably harder even than Yorkshire Tea…
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