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Guaiacum officinale: The wood of life

It may not look that remarkable, but this small tree, which reaches a maximum height of 9 meters in the wild, was once one of the most sought-after products from the tropics of the New World. Why was the guaiaca tree, Guaiacum officinale, so important? Because its wood has some very rare qualities.

Its heartwood is unusually hard. It’s extraordinarily strong and tough, resisting even termites and salt water, and it’s the heaviest wood in the world. Another remarkable feature is the large quantity of resin it contains. Under mechanical stress, this resin functions like a lubricant and prevents wear. It’s no surprise, then, that this wood was coveted around the world. It was used for everything from ship’s propellers to gears and bearings.

Guaiaca wood, also known as ironwood, is native to the tropical Americas. The Spanish brought it to Europe at the beginning of the 16th century, where it became popular as lignum sanctum, “holy wood”, or even lignum vitae, the “wood of life”. Its sweet-smelling resin was thought to help against rheumatism, and even cure syphilis. Though it didn’t really do anything to stop the spread of that particular epidemic, demand for this purported miracle cure was so strong that, soon, almost no guaiaca trees were left in the wild.

Even today, the guaiaca is still prized for its wood and the aromatic qualities of its resin. For this reason, the sale of lignum vitae has been regulated since 2002 by the Federal Agency for Nature Protection.

Audio file download
Guaiacum officinale: The wood of life (MP3, 791 KB)

Audio production and copyright: Soundgarden Audioguidance GmbH
Text: Ehrentraud Bayer, Botanischer Garten München-Nymphenburg

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