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Publication #ENH445

Guaiacum sanctum: Lignum Vitae1

Edward F. Gilman, Dennis G. Watson, Ryan W. Klein, Andrew K. Koeser, Deborah R. Hilbert, and Drew C. McLean2

Introduction

Lignum vitae is an extremely slow-growing broadleaf evergreen which ultimately reaches 30 feet in height and casts light shade, but few people have seen plants of this size because it is not grown in the trade. Most are seen 8 to 12 feet tall with a beautiful array of multiple trunks and a rounded canopy much like that of a mature crape-myrtle. The one to two-inch-long, leathery, dark green leaves are joined at many times throughout the year by the production of large clusters of bluish purple flowers, the old flowers fading to a light silvery-blue and creating a shimmering haze over the rounded canopy. These flowers are followed by small, heart-shaped, yellow orange berries, appearing on the tree at the same time as the bluish purple flowers and creating a lovely sight.

Figure 1. 

Full Form—Guaiacum sanctum: Lignum vitae


[Click thumbnail to enlarge.]

General Information

Scientific name: Guaiacum sanctum

Pronunciation: GWY-uh-kum SANK-tum

Common name(s): Lignum vitae, holywood, tree of life

Family: Zygophyllaceae

USDA hardiness zones: 10B through 11 (Figure 2)

Origin: native to Florida, the West Indies, Mexico, and Central America

UF/IFAS Invasive Assessment Status: native

Uses: tree lawn 3–4 feet wide; tree lawn 4–6 feet wide; tree lawn > 6 ft wide; sidewalk cutout (tree pit); parking lot island < 100 sq ft; parking lot island 100–200 sq ft; parking lot island > 200 sq ft; container or planter; specimen; deck or patio; Bonsai; highway median

Figure 2. 

Range


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Description

Height: 10 to 30 feet

Spread: 8 to 12 feet

Crown uniformity: symmetrical

Crown shape: round, vase

Crown density: dense

Growth rate: slow

Texture: fine

Foliage

Leaf arrangement: opposite/subopposite

Leaf type: even-pinnately compound; made up of 3-5 pairs of leaflets

Leaf margin: entire

Leaf shape: obovate, elliptic (oval)

Leaf venation: pinnate

Leaf type and persistence: evergreen

Leaf blade length: 1 to 2 inches

Leaf color: dark green

Fall color: no color change

Fall characteristic: not showy

Figure 3. 

Leaf—Guaiacum sanctum: Lignum vitae


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Flower

Flower color: bluish purple

Flower characteristics: very showy; emerges in terminal clusters

Flowering: most abundant in spring, but also year-round

Figure 4. 

Flower—Guaiacum sanctum: Lignum vitae


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Fruit

Fruit shape: oval

Fruit length: ½ inch

Fruit covering: fleshy; 5-winged capsule

Fruit color: yellow orange

Fruit characteristics: does not attract wildlife; showy; fruit/leaves not a litter problem

Fruiting: most abundant in summer, but also year-round

Figure 5. 

Fruit—Guaiacum sanctum: Lignum vitae


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Trunk and Branches

Trunk/branches: branches droop; very showy; typically multi-trunked; no thorns

Bark: creamy white to gray, and peels in patches with age

Pruning requirement: needed for strong structure

Breakage: resistant

Current year twig color: gray

Current year twig thickness: thin

Wood specific gravity: 1.09

Figure 6. 

Bark—Guaiacum sanctum: Lignum vitae


Credit:

Gitta Hasing


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Culture

Light requirement: full sun to partial shade

Soil tolerances: clay; sand; loam; alkaline; acidic; well-drained

Drought tolerance: high

Aerosol salt tolerance: high

Other

Roots: not a problem

Winter interest: yes

Outstanding tree: yes

Ozone sensitivity: unknown

Verticillium wilt susceptibility: unknown

Pest resistance: free of serious pests and diseases

Use and Management

Underneath the smooth, beige/grey bark of Lignum vitae is some of the heaviest of all wood, sinking under its weight instead of floating in water. This dense wood was once popular for use in the manufacture of bowling balls and has also been used for propeller shafts on steamships, gears and for mallets. The picturesque crooked, typically multiple trunk, evergreen leaves, and beautiful flowers, and fruit would all combine to make Lignum vitae a popular choice for use as a container, patio, or specimen planting if it were widely available in a range of sizes. Unfortunately, like many other slow-growing trees, this one is not often grown in nurseries. One must travel to arboreta to view nice specimens of this tree.

Lignum vitae can be grown in full sun or partial shade on a wide variety of soils, including alkaline. Plants will easily tolerate wet or dry soil, wind, and salt, making it an ideal choice especially for seaside plantings.

Guaiacum officinale grows 10 to 30 feet tall, has blue or sometimes white flowers, and light to dark brown seeds.

Propagation is by seed.

Pests and Diseases

No pests or diseases of concern.

Reference

Koeser, A.K., Friedman, M.H., Hasing, G., Finley, H., Schelb, J. 2017. Trees: South Florida and the Keys. Gainesville: University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Footnotes

1.

This document is ENH445, one of a series of the Environmental Horticulture Department, UF/IFAS Extension. Original publication date November 1993. Revised December 2006 and December 2018. Visit the EDIS website at https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu for the currently supported version of this publication.

2.

Edward F. Gilman, professor emeritus, Environmental Horticulture Department; Dennis G. Watson, former associate professor, Agricultural Engineering Department; Ryan W. Klein, graduate assistant, Environmental Horticulture Department; Andrew K. Koeser, assistant professor, Environmental Horticulture Department, UF/IFAS Gulf Coast Research and Education Center; Deborah R. Hilbert, graduate assistant, Environmental Horticulture Department, GCREC; and Drew C. McLean, biological scientist, Environmental Horticulture Department, GCREC; UF/IFAS Extension, Gainesville, FL 32611.


The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) is an Equal Opportunity Institution authorized to provide research, educational information and other services only to individuals and institutions that function with non-discrimination with respect to race, creed, color, religion, age, disability, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, political opinions or affiliations. For more information on obtaining other UF/IFAS Extension publications, contact your county's UF/IFAS Extension office.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, UF/IFAS Extension Service, University of Florida, IFAS, Florida A & M University Cooperative Extension Program, and Boards of County Commissioners Cooperating. Nick T. Place, dean for UF/IFAS Extension.