The Tree of Life Goes On

Gaïac, Lignum Vitae, Guayacán—there are many names for the tree of life. This tree is a Caribbean original, found only the islands of the West Indies and the Caribbean coast of South America. It is one of the most beautiful and precious trees on the island. It has survived Irma and many trials before.

Before Irma, a series of trunks joined to form a dense crown.

The Gaïac evolved here, and the climate of the Caribbean helped determine its form. These trees have deep roots so they can keep their green leaves during the driest of dry seasons. They have the hardest wood in the world, thick with resin to discourage insects that might try to eat it. Deep roots and a strong trunk also help ensure that the heart of the tree can survive a hurricane and be reborn.

Today, leaves are returning to a skeleton of bare branches.

Historically, we have been the greater threat to this wondrous tree. They were cut down for their strong wood, which was used in boats, mortars, billy clubs and even billiard balls. The bark of the Gaïac was known—incorrectly it seems—as a cure for syphilis. Today the tree is endangered. People often think of it as a small tree because all the huge old ones are gone.

Luckily, the Gaïac has many fans. It is a beautiful tree, bursting out into blue flowers once or twice a year. They have been planted in yards around the island and a few wild ones can still be seen in the hills. The storm has given us a chance to watch their recovery up close.

New growth came quickly after Irma.

In Grand Case, a tree near the sea lost almost every branch, but new leaves were growing right away. After a few weeks of growth, all the new leaves were eaten by caterpillars of the Bewitching Melipotis moth. Today, a balance has been reached and the tree continues to recover while also providing food for some caterpillars.

Caterpillars eat new growth down to the last leaf.

In Cay Bay, a number of twisting trunks reach up together. Bare patches reveal their form, new leaves point to the life returning. Previously, they formed a thick, shady crown together. Eventually, they will again.

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