Jamaican dogwood (botanical name Piscidia piscipula) is a deciduous tree that is native to southern regions of Florida, Texas, the Florida Keys, Caribbean and Latin America. Centuries ago, the indigenous people of the West Indies found that extracts obtained from this medium-sized tree had the ability to tranquilize fish, thereby enabling them to catch these fish by hand. Owing to this practice, the Jamaican dogwood is also commonly known as the fishfuddle and fishpoison. This tree has therapeutic properties and is used for analgesic as well as sedative purposes.
In Latin, the generic name of this tree denotes "fish killer", while the Latin translation of its specific name means "little fish." Usually, this tree grows up to a medium height - anything between 12 meters and 15 meters and the diameter of its trunk varies from 46 cm to 118 cm. The Florida fishpoison tree grows with strong and vertical branches.
The leaves are deciduous and grow up to a length of anything between 9 cm and 23 cm. The leaves appear alternately on the branches and are pinnately compound. Each leaf has five to 11 leaflets, each of them measuring 4 cm to 8cm in length and is arranged opposite to each other. On the upper surface, the color of the leaflets is dark green, while it is markedly paler and greenish-grey on the reverse when they are young.
These trees bear white blooms with a slight touch of red or pink. Jamaican dogwood blooms appear in May in clusters having the form of peas. They are very alluring to bees. Usually, the trees start flowering when they are about four years old and have grown up to a height of 4 meters. The flowers give way to pale brown pods that are bean-shaped. The length of these pods is approximately 8 cm to 10 cm and each of them has four delicate wings. The pods mature during the period between July and August and contain reddish-brown oval-shaped seeds.
The flowers of Jamaican dogwood appear in lateral clusters and in large numbers before the leaves sprout. Each flower has five-jagged calyx, which are broad and shaped like bells. In addition, they have a papilionaceous (somewhat akin to a butterfly, as in the case of peas) corolla having a dirty white hue with a dash of purple. The leaves of this tree are unevenly pinnate having complete, oval-shaped and acute leaflets that are similar to the leaflets of the coffee-nut tree. The fruit or pod of the Jamaican dogwood tree is actually a legume with four papery wings.
The bark of Jamaican dogwood is extremely astringent and it is believed that people have used it for tanning. In the place of its origin, this bark is used extensively in the form of a fish poison. The generic name of Jamaican dogwood has been derived from this use of the tree. It seems that the bark has a toxic effect on lower animals.
The bark of the stem has an olive grey hue with rough dark patches and is quite skinny. This bark also has several minor scales. The odour of the bark is somewhat undesirable and markedly acrid. It has a bitter taste, which causes a burning feeling in the mouth when used orally.
Root, stem bark.
Jamaican dogwood or the Florida fishpoison has a number of uses, including medicinal, fishing and even its timber is used for various purposes.
However, you should exercise adequate caution while using it for therapeutic purposes. As this herb can prove to be toxic, it is advisable that you always use it under the direct guidance and management of a qualified physician or healthcare provider. In herbal medicine, this herb has been traditionally used to alleviate pain as well as treat nervous conditions. Findings of recent studies undertaken on animals indicate that the extracts obtained from the barks possess anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic and sedative properties and may have the potential for use to treat a number of conditions.
Since 1844, people have been using Jamaican dogwood or the Florida fishpoison for therapeutic purposes for the herb's analgesic, narcotic and diaphoretic (ability to promote perspiration) properties. People have mainly used this herb for treating conditions like anxiety, nervous breakdown, fear, insomnia, severe toothaches, dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation periods) and menstrual cramps.
The decoction prepared from the dried out root bark of Jamaican dogwood has been used in the form of an herbal remedy to provide respite from cough as well as whooping cough. In addition, this decoction has also been prescribed to induce sweating, alleviate spasms of the smooth muscles and to treat fever as well as inflammation.
In Central as well as South America, the native of Jamaican dogwood, people have been using the extract from this tree in the form of a fish poison. This extract encloses a chemical compound called rotenone, which is also used in the manufacture of insecticides to get rid of fleas, lice and larvae. However, this chemical compound found in Jamaican dogwood does not have a toxic effect on warm-blooded animals, counting humans.
In fact, even the leaves and the stems of Jamaican dogwood are used in the form of a fish poison. Natives of South America pack the leaves and stems of this tree in a bag and thrash them before placing the bags under water to make the fish unconscious and then catch those dazed fish by hand. Nevertheless, Florida and the Bahamas have declared using Jamaican dogwood for fishing as illegal.
The timber of Jamaican dogwood tree is resilient to decomposition or decay and this attribute of the wood makes it ideal for outdoor use. Wood from this tree can be used to make poles, fence posts and even in boat building. The wood from Jamaica dogwood trees is solid and tight-grained. It is also used in the form of fuel, to produce charcoal and also as an excellent material for wood carvings.
It is worth mentioning here that Jamaican dogwood or Florida fishpoison does not have any relation whatsoever with the Dogwood Family. The name, Jamaican dogwood, has been derived from the trees' use for shipbuilding purpose. In shipbuilding, the timber from these trees is carved to make the "dog" or the central axis on a boat.
It has been found that the Jamaican dogwood or Florida fishpoison trees generally grow along the coasts. This tree has a preference for sandy soils that are well-drained and covered with a humus layer. To some extent, this tree can endure temporary storms that arise from seawater or brackish water. While this tree grows well in conditions prevailing in the coastal regions, adjoining vegetation is necessary to protect it from the direct salt spray. However, trees that are well established can tolerate drought conditions well.
Jamaican dogwood trees are usually propagated from their seeds and by cuttings. After they are removed from the ripened pods, the seeds usually germinate within eight to ten days, provided they are sown approximately 6 mm inside damp soil. The seedlings require regular fertilizing and watering till they become well established. The wood cutting is positioned in damp soil for rapid sprouting of roots. In effect, it has been seen that the wood cuttings root so easily that even the posts made from freshly felled trees sometimes begin to grow roots involuntarily.
Florida fishpoison or Jamaican dogwood grows into strong and average-sized shade trees that bear attractive blooms when they are grown in suitable soils and climatic conditions. The timber of this tree is excellent for fencing and yards. Trees belonging to this species cannot endure shade and always need full sunlight for optimal growth.
Jamaican dogwood's main constituents are:
The dried out root bark of the Jamaican dogwood is used for therapeutic purposes, either in the form of a tea, tincture or a decoction.
Dehydrated root bark: It has been found that the root bark does not release its elements easily when soaked in ordinary water. Therefore, it should always be boiled in water to prepare a decoction. To prepare the decoction, add 1 gram to 4 gram (about 1 to 2 teaspoonfuls) of the dried root bark in one cup (250 ml) of water and simmer it gently for about 10 to 15 minutes.
Tea: To prepare the remedial tea with the dried Jamaican dogwood root bark, you should always use ceramic or glass containers. In fact, they are best for preparing any therapeutic decoction, as they help to prevent the herb from being contaminated. Using metal containers often result in a reaction between the metals and the herb, tainting the latter. For instance, you should never use containers made from aluminum or any utensil that has been coated with synthetic non-stick materials either for preparing the herbal formula or to store it. The medicinal tea prepared with the dried root bark of Jamaican dogwood may be drunk as and when required.
Tincture: To prepare a tincture with Jamaican dogwood dried root bark, use the herb in proportion of 1:5 in ethanol diluted up to 45 percent. The standard is taking it in measures of anything between 5 drops and 30 drops (about 1 ml to 2 ml) thrice every day. Alternatively, you may take the tincture as prescribed by your physician or as required.
While the bark of the Jamaican dogwood offers a number of health benefits, it should always be used with caution as it may also results in unwanted side effects. Wrong administration of this herb and using the decoction prepared from it inappropriately may cause a number of side effects such as nausea, gastric problems, salivation, sweating, numbness and even depression. Therefore, it is important to always use this herb under the management of a skilled and competent healthcare professional, who is familiar with its toxicology, pharmacology as well as the appropriate herbal preparation.
Scientists have undertaken very little studies regarding the use of Jamaican dogwood on humans so far and, hence, not much is known about this herb's interactions with conventional medicaments. Nevertheless, it has been established that this herb is a very potent sedative, and may possibly interact with other herbs as well as a variety of drugs, especially those that are used to treat anxiety and insomnia. Here is a word of caution, this herb should never be given to children and aged people. In addition, nursing mothers and pregnant women should avoid using Jamaican dogwood.
To treat insomnia or sleeplessness, it is advisable that you combine Jamaican dogwood with valerian and hops for better results. For curing dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation) combine this herb with black haw (also known as sheepberry).