The trees are grown in Florida and California as ornamental plants. The trees grow slowly and can reach a height of approximately 20 m, though it is usually less than half that. They also yield guaiacum resin which has been used to treat a variety of medicinal conditions from coughs to arthritis. Wood chips can also be used to brew a tea.
The genus is famous as the supplier of Lignum vitae, which is the heartwood of several species in the genus. Among many other applications, gum from the wood was once used to treat syphilis. For example, Benvenuto Cellini records this use of it in his memoirs. See also the quote by Nashe in the article Honorificabilitudinitatibus (there spelled 'guiacum').
The artist Jan van der Straet, also known as Johannes Stradanus or simply Stradanus, painted a scene of a wealthy man receiving treatment of syphilis with guaiacum wood sometime around 1580. The title of the work is "Preparation and Use of Guayaco for Treating Syphilis." Epidemic syphilis had been raging through Europe for nearly a century at the time of the painting, and hopes were high that this plant from the New World would provide a cure. The richly colored and detailed work depicts four servants preparing the concoction while a physician looks on, hiding something behind his back while the hapless patient drinks.
A phenolic compound derived from the wood resin of Guaiacum trees is used in a common test for blood in human stool samples.
Guaiacum officinale is the national flower of Jamaica, and
- Johannes Stradanus undated brief review of works. Accessed August 6, 2007.
- Jan van der Straet's "Preparation..." at commercial art site. Accessed August 6, 2007.
- Petrides, George A. A Field Guide to Eastern Trees. ISBN 0-395-90455-2.
- Gordon J. E., González M. A., Vázquez Hernández, J., Ortega Lavariega , R. & Reyes-García A. (2005). Guaiacum coulteri an over-logged dry forest tree of Oaxaca, Mexico. Oryx 39(1): 82-85.