- Lignum Vitae
Lignum vitae (botanical name Guaiacum officinale) is an evergreen tree that can often grow up to a height of 60 feet. This tree generally has a twirled stem and it bears opposite, oval-shaped, compound leaves. The flowers of lignum vitae are blue hued having resemblance to the shape of a star. The laxative heartwood of lignum vitae has a greenish-brown hue and one should not mistake it for other hardwoods found in the Australasian region, which are also known as ‘lignum vitae’.
An explorer in the Caribbean islands had heard about a tree called the guaiac way back in the 16th century. According to the local residents, the guaiac enclosed a medication that had the aptitude to treat numerous diseases. As it happened, this tree is presently known as lignum vitae (denoting the ‘wood of life’). It is an outstanding tree on various aspects, all involving the solidity of the wood as well as its rich fat and resin contents.
The wood of lignum vitae is considered to be the most solid in commercial use and is full of such fats and resins that items manufactured from it are not only impermeable to water, but also self-lubricating. Till the arrival of most excellent quality plastics, lignum vitae was the preferred material for making items like machine bushings, pulley sheaves as well as steamships’ propeller shafts. In addition, wood of this tree was also employed for making bowling balls, axles, chisel handles, mallets as well as other items that required absorbing immense stress.
The heartwood of lignum vitae exudes a brown color resin that has a pungent taste and has therapeutic as well as non-remedial uses. Among the various non-medical utilities of the resin, one extremely remarkable use is founded on the fact that when it is blended with any alcoholic solution, the color of the resin changes to blue when it is exposed to bloodstains. Therefore, the lignum vitae resin is valuable for the police as well as other investigators who use this sap to detect bloodstains that may have gone unnoticed.
Initially, lignum vitae wood was transported from the Caribbean to Europe in the form of an extremely valuable remedy for gout as well as the sexually transmitted disease (STD) syphilis. Although a misleading praise, using this wood to treat syphilis was said to be very effective during the 16th century. In effect, the treatment entailed administering large doses of the resingonen obtained by boiling the lignum vitae wood to patients who were covered tightly with plasters from their head-to-toe and subsequently detained in extremely hot rooms for about a month. Throughout the course of the treatment, the patients were provided with very small amount of food. However, besides being given the resin, they were administered big doses of mercury. While several people succumbed to the disease as well as the treatment process, the few who managed to survive were actually cured of syphilis!
During the current times, scientists have discovered that this resin encloses two very active elements – guaiaconic acid and guaiaretic acid, which are actually highly effectual anti-inflammatory agents and also work as local stimulants. They also possess laxative properties. Owing to their anti-inflammatory attribute, these substances are made use of in pharmaceutical formulations for treating tender throats as well as a number of inflammatory ailments, including gout and rheumatoid arthritis.
The lignum vitae trees grow on comparatively dry lands in the northern regions of South America, the Florida Keys and the West Indies. As mentioned earlier, lignum vitae is an evergreen tree that often grows up to a height of about 60 feet, but rarely grows over half that height. Lignum vitae can be identified by the grooved greenish-brown bark of the tree. The leaves of this tree are split into two or three pairs of light green leaflets each measuring up to 4 to 6 inches in length. Lignum vitae trees bear petite blue hued flowers that emerge in aromatic terminal clusters.
Wood, bark, resin.
The name of this tree, lignum vitae actually denoted as ‘wood of life’ and most possibly it has its origin from the therapeutic properties of the tree. In effect, when he arrived at the New World, famous explorer Christopher Columbus also found lignum vitae, also known as guaiacum. In those days, the Europeans considered lignum vitae as a magical remedy for syphilis and often dangled pieces of the barks of the tree in churches in the form of objects of devoutness. The wood/ timber of this tree is so loaded with fat and resins that items manufactured from it are almost impermeable to water as well as self-lubricating.
The indigenous people of America employed lignum vitae to cure tropical ailments. The bark of lignum vitae became extremely popular in Europe during the period from mid- to late 16th century as a remedy for sexually transmitted disease (STD) syphilis. In addition, the bark of this tree is also a traditional cure for gout and rheumatoid arthritis in Britain. In traditional medicine, people employed the resin exuded by guaiac or lignum vitae to cure respiratory troubles as well as skin complaints. A derivative of the resin was also used as an ingredient in cough medications. In addition, lignum vitae has also been successfully employed in the form of a local anesthetic, an anti-inflammatory agent as well as an aid for herpes. In a number of countries, the remedial use of lignum vitae is dependent on legal constraints.
In Europe, particularly in Britain, lignum vitae is employed in the form of a medication to treat arthritic as well as rheumatic conditions, as the anti-inflammatory attributes of this tree facilitate in providing relief from swelling and joint pains. In addition, lignum vitae also possesses sweat-inducing, laxative and diuretic properties. At the same time, lignum vitae also accelerates the process of eliminating toxic substances and wastes from our body, making it an excellent remedy for gout. The tincture prepared with lignum vitae is often used in the form of a friction rub on the areas affected by rheumatic arthritis. In addition, if you are enduring tooth ache, you may dampen cotton balls with the resin exuded by this tree and apply it externally to the affected area to alleviate pain and swelling, if any. At the same time, the decoction prepared with the wood chips of lignum vitae works in the form of a local anesthetic and it is employed to cure rheumatic joints as well as herpes blisters.
Although the wood of lignum vitae had earned a great standing in the 16th century as an effective remedy for curing syphilis as well as a number of other ailments, in practicality, the wood is very rarely used in contemporary medicine. However, much later, the resin extracted from the wood was introduced to medicine and presently, compared to the wood itself, the resin is very much preferred for therapeutic uses. At times chemists sell the wood of lignum vitae as wafer-thin flakes or splinters and they are commonly known as Lignum Vitae. The color of these fine shavings of the lignum vitae wood changes to green when they come in contact with the air and turns bluish green owing to reactions with nitric fumes. These are some basic tests which establish the authenticity of the wood.
The powdered form of lignum vitae wood is used to cure tonsillitis. In addition, the wood is also particularly effective in treating rheumatic arthritis, chronic rheumatism as well as gout. Therapy with lignum vitae wood helps in providing relief from the pain and inflammation that occurs between attacks and also decreases their repetition, provided the patients continue taking the prescribed doses. The wood also works in the form of a pungent stimulant that enhances the body heat as well as blood circulation. If the decoction prepared with lignum vitae wood is taken hot, it helps to keep the body temperate, besides acting as a diaphoretic (inducing perspiration). On the other hand, when the decoction is taken cold, it works as a diuretic and increases flow of urine, thereby eliminating the toxic substances and wastes from the body. The lignum vitae wood is also used for treating skin ailments, secondary syphilis and scrofula.
The resin of guaiacum or lignum vitae trees yields a phenolic compound that is employed in a common examination for presence of blood in human stool samples. In fact, the presence of haem (a derivative of haematin) in the blood results in the development of a pigmented product when hydrogen peroxide is present. In 1810, Planche was the first to notice the consequence of peroxidases in horseradish on guiacum or lignum vitae.
Guaiacum is also a food preservative and has the E number of E314. It is classified in the form of an antioxidant.
Other medical uses
Habitat and cultivation
The plant, lignum vitae is native to the Caribbean islands, South America, Central America as well as the southern region of Florida. This plant has a preference for damp soil as well as partial shade or sun. In California and Florida, this tree is grown as a decorative plant. This plant requires regular watering or proper irrigation.
The tree, lignum vitae is propagated by its seeds, which germinate extremely sluggishly and have an inclination to demonstrate unpredictable germination.
Therapeutically, the plant lignum vitae is mainly employed in the form of a decoction. To prepare this medication, add one teaspoonful of the chips of wood from the tree in a cup of water and bring it to boil. Allow it to simmer for about 15 to 20 minutes. To gain utmost results from this herbal medication, it needs to be drunk thrice every day.
In addition, a tincture prepared with lignum vitae is used as a friction rub on areas affected by rheumatic arthritis.
Collection and harvesting
The wood of lignum vitae naturally gives out a resin, which is regularly collected and employed per se. Or else the heartwood is itself chopped into little chips. As mentioned earlier this tree is commonly found in South America and also the Caribbean islands.