Six species of evergreen shrubs and trees make up this genus, which occurs in the West Indies and warm parts of the Americas. Guaiacum officinale grows in dry coastal areas but is now rare in the wild, having been intensively exploited for over four centuries. It is widely cultivated for its magnificent blue flowers, and it is the national flower of Jamaica. Guaiacum is from the Spanish guayaco, originally a Taino Indian word for the plant. The common name "lignum vitae" is Latin in origin, meaning "wood of life". The Spanish began exporting G. officinale to Europe in 1503, monopolizing the trade in its fine, bicolored wood and medicinal byproducts. Exploitation was so intensive that as long ago as 1701 Martinique passed a law to protect lignum vitae trees. Guaiacum officinale was used by native people in S America to treat syphilis, which had been introduced by the colonists; Europeans also adopted this use for 200 years until the advent of modern drugs. The medicinal properties of G. officinale were first described by Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), who practiced medicine in Jamaica. The wood contains about 20 percent resin, which can be used as a chemical reagent to detect bloodstains. Guaicum sanctum is also exploited as a source of lignum vitae, as are the related Bulnesia sarmienti (Paraguay lignum vitae) and B. arborea (Maracaibo lignum vitae). Essential oil is also extracted from B. arborea and B. sarmienti for use as a fixative and fragrance in soaps, cosmetics, and perfumery.

Small tree with dark green, pinnate leaves, about 9cm (3½in) long. Deep blue flowers, to 2.5cm (1in) across, are produced in abundance, followed by orange-yellow capsules, for much of the year.

Common Name:
Other Names:
Lignum Vitae, guaiacum
Botanical Name:
Guaiacum officinale
Native Location:
Southern C America to northern S America, West Indies.
Rich, sandy, fibrous soil. Seedlings and saplings do not transplant well from small pots and should be given relatively large containers at each stage.
By seed, sown with orange-yellow pericarp intact, when ripe at 26°C (79°F); by softwood cuttings in spring.
Wood (preferably heartwood) is cut as required and processed into chips and shavings, which are heated to extract resin for use in decoctions, liquid extracts, and tinctures.
5-9m (15-28ft)
7-8m (22-25ft)
Parts Used:
Wood, resin.
A bitter, aromatic herb that stimulates the peripheral circulation, increases perspiration rate, is diuretic, anti-inflammatory, and expectorant, and clears toxins from the tissues. A mild laxative.
Medicinal Uses:
Internally for upper respiratory tract infections. Internally and externally for rheumatic and arthritic complaints, and gout. Formerly used to treat syphilis.
Economic Uses:
Resin is used to flavor baked products and chewing gum and is added to edible oils to improve keeping qualities. The wood is heavier than water ans is used in the propeller shafts of ships, as well as for bowling balls and carving.
This herb is subject to legal restrictions in some countries.
Encylopedia of Herbs by Deni Brown Copyright ©: 1995, 2001 Dorling Kindersley Limited pg. 229