A Jamaican Dogwood Story

Jamaican Dogwood tree (Piscidia piscipula)

A pre-story note; I wrote this as an article after I first gathered Jamaican dogwood in January 2007. I recently wildcrafted this plant again in January 2014, and decided to present this earlier edition as a blog with photos. I have avoided giving the exact whereabouts where I gather the Piscidia as I get nervous about people over-harvesting and/or gathering the wrong plant. So the location has been withheld, sorry.

This is the tale of my first encounter with identifying, gathering and preparing Jamaican dogwood in January 2007.

This is the story of me and Jamaican Dogwood, a plant I have longed to meet. The botanical name is Piscidia piscipula and it is in the Fabaceae family (the Leguminosae or the Pea family).  I have heard a lot about this plant over the years, most famously for its pain-relieving properties and wanted to give it a try. My problem was finding a reliable source for the raw herb (the bark being the part used most commonly). At least twice, I asked friends who were going to Jamaica with connections there, to bring back a sample. And each sample was different despite each of my buddies telling me the ‘bush doctor’ that had gathered the bark was knowledgeable and reliable. So I felt apprehensive about what was on the current market without having anyone I know having gathered this plant themselves. So as is my nature, I began to formulate a plan to someday find and gather this plant myself.

The trunk and bark of a mature Jamaican dogwood tree

First question, does it grow anywhere in the continental U.S?  This point is important for a number of reasons. One is that I am not likely to visit Jamaica any time soon. And just as importantly, if you have ever wildcrafted overseas, you learn how difficult it can be to transport plant material to the US (often for sound environmental reasons). Also, it can be prohibitively expensive to send from another country. And lastly, the plant can rot en route.

So I was excited to see that Piscidia grew in southern Florida, thereby circumventing all my above concerns. Now I have to say that South Florida was not high on my list of places to visit (and perhaps even avoid, as a New York Jew, it seems we are destined to spend our days in the ‘second homeland’). South Florida, as I have learned has many similarities (at least floristically) with nearby and similar climated places such as Jamaica hence Piscidia is a native down there.

A fortunate circumstance opened an opportunity to me. A friend of mine invited me to teach at the Academy of Five Element Acupuncture near Ft. Lauderdale, Florida.  And so after teaching there, I inquired amongst knowledgeable botanical persons if anyone knew where it grew in any abundance, and learned where it was most common.

So a plan was struck. I taught my 6 days and then got me a little rental car and cruised on down to begin my search.

Actually, before I left I belatedly began to call state parks in the neighborhood to find a place to camp.  First I should say they all ran about $35 a night, which is a friggin’ hefty sum to pay for setting up a tent, little did I realize it was about to become worse.

A typical Jamaican dogwood tree alongside a road

I spoke to a guy on the telephone about making reservations for staying in one of the state parks. It went something like this;

Me: Do you have any opening in the local state park for tonight?
Him: Hmmm (a few minutes of him searching somewhere), sorry all filled up for that night.
Me: How about tomorrow night?
Him: Let me see, no nothing for tomorrow night either.
Me: How about a campsite at one of the other parks?
Him: I’ll check (a few minutes pass) no nothing for tonight or tomorrow night.

This went on for a while and I finally asked, “When is the next opening for any state park campsite in this region?
Him: Oh, about mid-March.

Well that would have been much handier to know from the outset, as I was calling in mid-January. Granted I had waited way too long to call, but still, talk about being strung along. I imagined a bunch of reservation people giggling in the background as this conversation continued.

Then desperation set in as I was leaving that day to head down to (hopefully) Piscidia-land. So I hopped onto the internet, looked at a couple of somewhat scary-looking campgrounds, and chose the one closest to the park in the hope of a bit of nature.
Well they did have a spot or two, and you know how it is when your feeling desperate about something all the sudden the thing you would have not even considered a choice all the sudden looks tantalizing.  And so it was, even after looking at the map and noticing privacy would not be mine, I was still ecstatic to get a place to sleep that night on arriving.

My $40 a night campsite

And just as I suspected, it was basically a trailer park with many permanent RV’s and some camping spaces. But after a few tries, I found my own tiny little space on some white gravel surrounded by fence and patrons. And for $40 a night, oh well,  I am still indignant, but so it goes.

Now the Piscidia searching begins in earnest. I asked around if there were any trails which had plants labeled and identified. There were two, in a state park where I currently sat and a botanical walk a few miles up the road. I soon drove to the later and was walking, wondering, could any of these plants be my to-be Piscidia first-acquaintance? I looked at most of the obvious placards which showed interesting plants, but none yet the Jamaican dogwood (which is not actually a ‘dogwood’, i.e. a Cornaceae,  it is instead as noted previously a Fabaceae). I noticed that some of non-placarded trees had a small metal tag hung about them, and one, yes you can guess it, one had the Piscidia tag. Oh joy, oh good fortune! I stood there studying it, trying to memorize the features that would help me to sort it out later. The lowest branches were up too high for me to get a good look at the leaves and other conspicuous features.

I should add here that back in my car I had no fewer than 16 books on the plants of the region (or 48 pounds as the plane flies). This may seem excessive, but again I give sway to my tendency to pack heavy and be prepared for any number of alternate scenarios (just ask about my first aid kit). And sometimes one of these numerous books will be the one to provide that crucial detail that allows for positive botanical identification.

Young growth, very useful for identification

Young Piscidia growth. The roundish 'hood' shape (top of photo) is a bud with stipules. On the bottom is a very young leaf, covered in hairs. It will turn green and begin to photosynthesize later. There is a small round axillary bud in the middle.

Young growth, very useful for identification

I should also add here that while the focus of this story is about Piscidia, I am generally interested in keying-out (that is, making a positive botanical identification) any plant whose path I cross. So though I am writing about Piscidia, I was also enjoying other plants and looking forward to identifying and photographing these later. Hence a caravans’ worth of books. The book that was most helpful was The Biology of Trees Native to Tropical Florida by Tomlinson, as it has some beautiful black and white line illustrations (how I adore these), and showed some characteristics that were not included in any of the other books. You see, botany is primarily based on the reproductive characteristics of plants, that is, flowers and their sequel; their fruits (such as seedpods). As this was January, there were none of these to look at.  I felt fortunate just in the fact that Piscidia at least still had leaves on it.  And so with the aforementioned book, while it did describe the flowering and fruiting parts, it also illustrated what turned into one of the best field marks for the season, the youngest growth; the buds and very young leaves. These are quite distinctive.

Compound pinnate leaf of Piscidia (typical of many Fabaceae, plants in the Pea family)

Piscidia leaflets, showing the difference of color, dark green above, white hairy below

Back to the initial tree I saw in the botanical walk. I still had questions of knowing how to recognize other Piscidia since I could not clearly see the lowest leaves which were about 8 feet above my head.  I just stood looking for any obvious clues such as the tree trunk width, color of bark, or distinctive features such as stipule scars. I might add that due to my questioning ways, I also didn’t out rightly assume that this was Piscidia. I have traveled to many botanical gardens and the tags are often not scrutinized and are sometimes wrong. This is not as unusual or as uncommon as it may seem, and so especially on a trail like this without any clear association with a botanical garden I had my reservations. Also that it was just an unadvertised metal tag inconspicuously placed on it, I did not assume that it was an off-the-rack Piscidia. Still, I had done my homework and I could see that they were compound leaves, darker green on the topside, hairier on the bottom and arranged alternately on the stems. And I knew it grew around here from all accounts. So I kept walking looking to see if there were any more conspicuously labeled Piscidia’s. There were none, but it was a nice walk and I stumbled upon an abandoned condominium complex, and growing amidst the broken concrete slabs was a plant that looked suspiciously like a young Piscidia tree. So, I cut a couple of branches to bring back to the campground to further identify. At this point I was hoping that this was Piscidia as it was growing in a highly disturbed habitat which is good news to the wildcrafter. This means that it might be found it in other like-minded disturbed areas, thus not negatively affecting the local flora if gathered. Plants that grow weedy-like are some of my favorite to gather, as I feel I do less damage when gathering. And I knew Piscidia was native, which means it might not have these characteristics making a more difficult wildcrafting proposition, or not to be gathered at all (for more wildcrafting ethics and quandaries, see the Wildcrafting handout on website).

Jamaican dogwood stems in trunk of rental car

Excited by the day’s findings, I drove back to my acorn-sized crappy $40 a night campsite (such a complainer am I), ate a quick din-din, and busted out the botany books to compare. Unfortunately there was not enough there to convince me that I indeed had the right plant. Fortunately I met someone who had an excellent wireless card (this was 2007) and went on-line and perused as many Piscidia photos and descriptions as I could find in the internet universe.  Unfortunately nothing I came upon was good enough to convince me. Fortunately it was time to go to sleep and let go of my brain for the night.

Also, after being frustrated with not finding a photo on the internet to help me discerns Piscidia’s identity, I determined myself that if I was to find this plant, that I would post a butt-load of useful photos (hence this article).

Piscidia bark being peeled off stem

Piscida bark soon after being peeled

Next day, field guides in hand, I went off onto the less inhabited side roads. I found a likely place to pull over and began my explorations of the day.  And sure enough, trees of various sizes similar to the Piscidia I had seen the day before were in evidence. This time I did a more in-depth survey of all the available plant parts. And once again, disappointingly, there were still no flowers or fruits to work with. But I was able to look more carefully at the leaves, barks of various aged trees, and other distinctive characteristics such as buds, new growth and stipule scars. These matched up with the Tomlinson book and I felt I had a match. This was okay for photographs as they can be changed later, but not good enough for gathering. As I was driving around, I stopped at a nature center and asked the person working there some questions to see the breadth of his floristic knowledge. Fortunately he knew many plants, especially trees. As there was what I thought was a Piscidia in the lot there.  I asked and he unequivocally said it was Piscidia and showed me the positive identification characteristics. Excited and losing my last shreds of doubt, I asked his references (same as mine, Tomlinson, good) and if it could be confused with any other plant, which he answered with a firm “no”.

I felt pretty well satisfied from this experience, and now fired-up, I went back to my expensively-rented tiny piece of gravel-strewn earth.

Later that day, small foldable saw and pruners on hand, I headed out to find some inconspicuous roads to gather a bit of Piscidia. Not easily done in this densely inhabited area. But I came upon some lesser used roads and set up shop, meaning I parked my trusty rental, and sussed out where it would be best to do the least damage to the local plant population.

Typical size Jamaican dogwood growing alongside roads

In wildcrafting there are a lot of questions raised about how to gather and do the least harm. So that this paper does not become overly extended by covering a wildcrafting review, I will say that I chose to cut down small trees that were close to the road and mostly had limbs already chopped off for right-of-ways for cars and power lines.
So I cut and gathered a few smallish trees and then further cut their stems to fit into the boot of my rental car. And the whole time I was furtively glancing about for those who may not appreciate my wildcrafting work (for instance, Johnny Law). Eventually I had a few armloads and headed back to my ignominious budget-swallowing (yet cute in its own way) campsite. And then as those who wildcraft know, the longer and more tedious work begins. And so, post-sunset I put on my new iPod and began the long night of listening to mopey indie rock that I so cherish and peeling Piscidia bark. And indeed I did, well beyond the blisters and the general I-want-to-do-something-else crankiness. With kava as my spacing-out late-night buddy, I peeled until most of the local retirees and snowbirds had gone to sleep and then I peeled some more. Wildcrafting tip #501; most barks peel off much easier from freshly cut stems. There is more moisture between the cambium layer (the medicinal part) and the heartwood. Eventually tiredness (and kava) got the best of me and asleep I fell.
I awoke around sunrise and finished the job. This was made more painful by the big aching blister I had accrued the night before which lay between my thumb and forefinger. Eventually I used some vet wrap (a type of sports wrap, which is not a style of sandwich) during the night to cushion off this blistered area.

Young growth and leaflets of a Piscidia piscipula tree

And then the next part of the day’s events began. I got back into my vehicle and went off to gather more Piscidia before it got too hot (it reached into the 80’s by midday). And again I scuttled about, scouting for new areas, and gathering another armload.
Same routine, a bit of dinner and back to peeling bark into the wee hours. And again, rising early to finish the job.
What a relief to finally finish with all the stems (now just heartwood) looking pretty in their de-peeled state. It was now time to find a place to inconspicuously drop these stems off in an environmentally friendly manner.
It felt good to finishing peeling all that I gathered. It is one of the ethical risks wildcrafting entails, biting off more than you can chew. Sometimes it is so easy to gather a whole lot of a plant only to have some hampering factor slow you down for processing it all, and then you are left with ‘wasted’ material. So, it was with relief that this had not happened, though the risk was not over yet. Now that I had all this freshly peeled bark I had yet to dry it and somehow get it back to Ithaca in an un-moldy state to process.

But this decision needed to wait, as I now wanted to get the heck out this most immodestly-priced and privacy lacking campsite and into the Everglades. So away I drove.

I will not go into the details of this second part of the story except to say that how much I enjoy the sweeping beauty of the Everglades, the vast landscape of Sawgrass (Cladium jamaicense) and the wildflowers poking out here and there. And while I was in Everglades (and spending a more reasonable $16 a night for a handsome campsite) it was hard to not kick myself for not having spent more time of my short time down here in Flamingo, Everglades rather than the human-fill area of where I was.

A mature Jamaican dogwood tree

But then there was the Piscidia drying in my tent. The pungent smell now becoming ever more familiar. (I’m not sure I will want to sleep in a small tent with a lot of drying Piscidia for a long time to come.) If you have not visited the Everglades or the nearby Big Cypress, may I suggest it if you are ever in this part of the world. It is an uncommon and lovely ecosystem.

Just a little bit more to this torrid undulating tale. Two days later it was time to head back to civilization, and before I left The Land of Piscidia I thought about how I was to get all this peeled bark back to myself in Ithaca. So I obtained a cardboard box of the right size and materials from a box store going out of business, along with a big roll of packing tape. And as I was to leave soon, I packed the bark in the box and taped it up, brandishing a cloth sack-full that I would carry with me on the plane as a back up. Why a back up? Well, actually I was kind of nervous about what state the mailed bark would arrive back to me. I had dried it some, but it is humid in South Florida, so I was packing some perishable material. But the time had come, and so the first town I passed thru I stopped at the post office and after a 45 minute wait and $29 later, I sent this bad boy box of Piscidia to Ithaca, realizing there was nothing more I can do but wish it well on its journey.
The next day, I was home quiet home. Yes. And the day after that, I was thankful as my package arrived safely to my home. Anxiously I opened the box, nervous for the rank whiff of bacteria or mold. But, instead, a box full of beautiful Piscidia that I very soon put in my large dehydrator, and that’s how the story stands to this day.
Thank you for reading My Piscidian Adventure~7Song

Drying (and sleeping with) Piscida bark in my tent

4 Responses to “A Jamaican Dogwood Story”

  1. Debbie says:

    I was looking for pics of the Jamaican Dogwood and ran across your blog. My step daughter has one growing in her front yard and my husband was so enamored he wants one for our yard. (We live in St Petersburg, Fl). We had planned a 2nd camping trip to the Everglades Feb 23-28 but unfortunately I sprained my ankle on the last day of a yoga retreat I went to in Sebastian Florida about 3 weeks earlier so we had to cancel! I enjoyed your blog and wanted to let you know we love the gorgeous nature this state offers! We hope to be traveling to the NE this summer.. We have a friend who has a house on one of the lakes in northern NY…looking forward to seeing other gorgeous parts of the country!

  2. SiStar C says:

    Are the medical properties of dogwood similar to those of cats claw.

  3. 7Song says:

    Hello SiStar
    I don’t use Cat’s claw often, but I think they are very different medicines.

  4. 7Song says:

    Hello SiStar
    I do not use these two plants similarly, and I do not have much experience with Cat’s claw (Uncaria tomentosa) as medicine. Sorry
    ~7Song

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