Lignum Vitae the hardest wood in the known Universe grows right here in the Florida keys
Lignum Vitae Key is a small island that sits about a mile west of Highway US 1. The coordinates are 24' 54.338N and 080'42.194W. Its size is 280 acres and it’s the highest point in the Florida Keys at 18.66 feet above sea level. The name of the island came from the large number of trees that grow on the island that has the same name.
The properties of this tree are very interesting. It is the hardest, heaviest and most dense wood in the known universe. When you place a chunk of it in water, it sinks right to the bottom. It’s three times as hard as oak. It weights eighty pounds per cubic foot and it’s sold by the pound. It’s extremely resistant to moisture and fungal disease. It’s a slow growing tree.
The wood of the Lignum Vitae has a very high resin and fat content. It’s self lubricating. The wood turns reddish brown when it’s cut, and has yellow sap streaks mixed in. When it oxidizes the wood turns into a deep green and black color. It doesn’t dry out and it takes a high polish.
The tree itself can grow to a height of 50 feet but in the Florida Keys they’re mostly in the 15 to 25 foot range. The leaves are bright green and small. It has a small blue star-shaped flower. These flowers turn into pods. When the pod gets mature, it bursts open and inside are four or five bright red beans. When these beans get dried out, they turn black and have white spots on them. As a matter of fact I just planted four the other day. I’ll let you know if they sprout.
Lignum Vitae is the National Tree of the Bahamas. Australia has a tree by the same name but it’s not even the same tree. It grows in the West Indies, Central America, South America and the Florida keys. The name means “long life” in Latin and from that the common name of “Tree of Life” was adopted. I think it was in the Garden of Eden.
This tree has many uses. The bark, wood and resin are all used. It’s the preferred wood for propeller bushings, it’s made into bearings for turbines in hydroelectric plants, it was used to make machine bushings and propeller shafts in steamships, it’s been made into axles, bowling ball, mortar and pestle and if you’ve ever been in a court room the judge’s mallet was probably made of it. During World War II it was used in submarines to make bearing shafts and gears. Because metal rubbing together causes friction and creates noise it could be detected by the enemy submarines. By making these parts from the wood of the Lignum Vitae tree they were able to run undetected.
It’s been used for medicinal purposes. In milling shops the sawdust is collected and sold to drug houses. The tea made form the flowers and leaves is said to be an energy booster. I wonder if it tastes better than Red Bull? Resin boiled down is used for a soar throat, respiratory problems and skin disorders. It’s considered an anti-inflammatory and its been used as a local anesthetic. It gave relief to those who suffered from Syphilis, gout, rheumatoid arthritis, herpes and tooth aches.
For many of these ailments they would put one teaspoonful wood chips in a cup of water and bring it to a boil. Simmer it 15-20 minutes. Then drink it three times a day.
The resin doesn’t respond to acid or alkaline. It was mixed into lard and fat to extend the shelf life. When the resin is mixed with an alcohol solution and put on bloodstains it turns blue, so it’s useful to the cops. The resin readily weeps out of the tree for collection. Otherwise, the heartwood is cut into tiny pieces and processed.
The island itself was named Lignum Vitae Key in 1831. It’s been occupied by Native Indians, Spanish, pirates , hermits, gentlemen and loving caretakers. Records show the island was owned by William Bethel in 1881. He bought it from the state. He sold it for $2000 in 1888 to Edward Hine. In 1919 William Matheson purchased the island and build most of the structures that are presently on the island. He also introduced the exotic plants that can still be enjoyed when you take a tour of the island. There are seventeen species of plants that grow on Lignum Vitae and no where else in the US.
There’s a 3,000 foot long coral wall on the west side of the island. It contains corals
from every species in the Caribbean. It runs north and south and is only four degrees off true north. It’s thought to have been built by the Spanish.
A pirate whose name was Mitchell along with his crew called the island their own in the 1820's. He was said to be a gentleman pirate. The people living in the Keys at that time didn’t mind him being there. Rumor has it that he hid his plunder on Lignum Vitae Key but he took it with him when he left for Cuba. He never returned.
Here’s a little known fact about this island. It played an important role in the “Bay of Pigs” blunder. Its location is mid way between Havana and Miami. And there’s a river or stream that runs thru Lignum Vitae Key. A Cuban exile boat named the Calypso was in this stream sending short wave radio communication to the Anti-Castro movement in Cuba. The Calypso was the only communication the Cuban guerrillas had with the Cuban exile population in Miami. Castro was unable to pin point the location of the transmission because it was in the mangroves. Ten days before the failed attempt of the Bay of Pigs invasion the Kennedy Administration ordered the Calypso radio transmissions to Cuba shut down. This one act doomed the invasion by the Cuban exiles on April 17, 1961, and not the failure to send the air support.
In 1970 Florida again purchased the island. They named it the Lignum Vitae Key Botanical State Park. It’s in the Register of Historic Places. You can visit the island in your private boat or take the tour boat from Robbie’s Marina that’s located Bayside at MM 77.5. Hours of operation are Thursday thru Monday from 8am-5pm. Their phone number is 305-664-2540. I recommend you try and fit this and a trip to Indian Key into your Florida Keys vacation.
Return from Lignum Vitae to the Upper Keys
Return from Lignum Viate to N The Florida Keys