Lignum vitae is the heartwood of species of the genus Guaiacum, the trees of which are usually called guayacan. The name is Latin for “wood of life”, and derives from its medicinal uses. Other names are palo santo, holy wood, and of course ironwood (one of many). The wood is obtained chiefly from Guaiacum officinale and Guaiacum sanctum, both slow growing trees that do not become large.
This wood has a specific gravity between 1.28 and 1.37, so it will sink in water. It is a hard, dense and durable wood, one of the densest woods in the trade. The wood was important for uses requiring strength, weight and hardness. Master clockmaker John Harrison used lignum vitae as the basis for his nearly all-wood clocks, since the wood provides natural lubricating oils which do not dry out. The Antarctic explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance was ribbed with lignum vitae. Due to its weight cricket bails, particularly ‘heavy bails’ used in windy conditions, are sometimes made of this wood.
The resin has been used to treat a variety of medicinal conditions from coughs to arthritis. Wood chips can also be used to brew a tea.
Various other hardwoods of Australasia (e.g., the acacia and eucalyptus) are also called lignum vitae and should not be confused. Argentine lignum vitae has a strong, fresh aroma and is used as incense.
According to T.H. White’s Version of the Artus Saga “The Once and Future King”, Lignum vitae has special magical powers as the staff of Merlin is made from it.
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