By ROBIN ROBINSON Key West Garden Club
Torchwood (Amyris elemifera) has such strong resinous properties that it was named after them both in the scientific name and the more familiar common name. Elemifera means resin bearing in Greek. Romantic couples wandering through the hardwood hammocks and finding themselves lost at dusk could take a branch of green torchwood and light their way home ... if they wanted to go home. Torchwood was used for torches and firewood throughout the Caribbean and Central America. Night fishermen used it to attract fish species drawn to light. Commercially, it is used to make lacquer, perfumes, cosmetics, soap and incense. It is also known as candlewood.
Today it is important because it is the caterpillar host plant for the Bahamian giant swallowtail and the endangered Schuas swallowtail butterfly. The Schaus is one of Florida's rare butterflies. It was named after its discoverer in 1911 who was William Schaus, a physician drawn to Florida to treat yellow fever. It is endangered because of habitat reduction and mosquito control pesticide use. Hardwood hammocks are now subdivisions.
The shiny, green, ovate leaves are compound with three or five two-inch, opposite leaflets on each and a single terminal leaf. The round, pointed leaflets droop down and smell slightly of citrus. Torchwood is in the Rutaceae Family that includes wild lime, key lime and satinwood.
Tiny, white, fragrant flower clusters at the ends of branches open one by one, with sweet nectar enticing butterflies and other insects. Bees make an excellent honey from this nectar. Amyris means intensely scented.
The man Amyris was an astute Greek sent by his village to seek out the future from the Oracle at Delphi, which resulted in the respectful proverb, "The wise man is mad." The small, dark fruits, which form on the ends of petioles after it flowers, emerge green then turn purple and black. The fruit is edible and sweet, but don't eat the brown seed. The birds go wild for the fruit's nourishing taste.
Torchwood grows at the edges of a hardwood hammock in a wide variety of soil textures. As any good native should, it likes well-drained, nutrient-poor soils. It is moderately salt and wind tolerant. Its wood is light-orange colored and close-grained. Lichens often cover thin, grey bark on the many trunks.
It would make a good building material, as its fine grain wood is resistant to dry wood termites. It has been used for fences. However, the tree is scarce and therefore not readily available for building. Found along the edges of understory hardwood hammocks in South Florida, it can grow to be 22 feet tall with a vertical branching habit and a single trunk or multiple trunks. The Florida Champion tree found in Monroe County is 30 feet tall and has a circumference of 20 inches.
It produces oxazole that is an effective antibiotic. This is not unusual as most drugs originate in the plant kingdom. Think of penicillin that came from a fungus. Pharmaceutical companies may be looking at its other medicinal qualities. Traditional uses link it to reducing fever, treating cuts and sores, venereal diseases, influenza, diarrhea and shortness of breath.
Amyris is also sold as an essential oil with aromatherapy patrons finding it useful as an antiseptic, antispasmodic, expectorant, antifungal, hypotensive and of course, an aphrodisiac. Oil is extracted from the resin-filled bark. Twigs can be burned as incense.
Nature has provided a light in the forest with the creation of torchwood.
Key West Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist for the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her books "Plants of Paradise" and "Roots Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys," can be found at the Garden Club and on Amazon.com This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. For more information visit www.keywestgardenclub.com.