The Piscidia Piscipula Story
February 14, 2007A Pre-Story Note; I have avoided giving the whereabouts where I gathered the Piscidia as I get nervous about people wildcrafting badly and damaging the local ecosystem and/or gathering the wrong plant, and so the location has been withheld.
I have highlighted and set up links in this story to places in my website where other information may be gleaned.
This is the story of me and Piscidia, a plant I have longed to meet.
Piscidia also known as Jamaican dogwood, with the full botanical moniker of Piscidia piscipula in the family Fabaceae (aka 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 and had 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.
First question, does it in fact grow anywhere in the continental U.S. This point is important for a number of reasons. One is that Jamaica and the Bahamas are not high on my list of places to visit (no offense here), and perhaps more importantly, if you have ever wildcrafted overseas, you learn quickly how difficult it can be to transport plant material on an airplane, for the shear weight of it all, and often it is illegal to move plants between places (such as Hawai’i and the mainland). And it can be prohibitively expensive to send. One more, it may rot in route.
So I was excited to see that in fact Piscidia grew in southern Florida, thereby circumnavigating all my above concerns. Now I have to say that once again 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 and the Bahamas and hence Piscidia is a native of the forest down there.
A fortunate circumstance opened this opportunity to me, a friend of mine worked at an acupuncture school (Academy of Five-Element Acupuncture) and invited me to teach. So after teaching there, I inquired amongst knowledgeable botanical persons if anyone knew where it grew in any abundance. And a ranger in the Everglades told me where it was most abundant.
I had received an invitation to teach at a conference in this region in April and figured this would be an opportune time for me to finally meet Piscidia. Well, Hurricane Katrina put a big damper on those plans and I waited for my next opportunity which came soon enough after being invited to teach again at the school
So a plan was struck. I taught my 6 days and then got me a little rental 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.
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 a 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 on one of the other parks?
Him: I’ll check, 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.
Then the 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 State park in 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 what 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.
And just as I suspected (and my euphoria worn down about having any place to sleep that night), it was basically an odd trailer park with many permanent-ish RV’s and some camping spaces. And 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, damn!!, I am still indignant, but so it goes.
Now the Piscidia searching begins in earnest. I drove over to a State Park and asked were there any trails which had plants labeled and identified? There were two, in the state park where I currently sat and a botanical walk a few miles up the road. I chose to drive to the later. I went through the big arch and was walking, wondering, could any of these plants be my to-be acquaintance Piscidia? 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- the dogwood family; 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 perhaps 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.
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 write 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-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 sexual characteristics of plants, that is, flowers and their sequel; 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 myself, that is the youngest growth, bud and very young leaves. These are quite distinctive (photos can be view on my website; 7Song.com>Search for Photos> type in Piscidia in the search box. There are about 20 photos).
Back to the initial tree I saw with its metal tag. I still had questions of course. Since I could not clearly see the lowest leaves (about 8 feet above my head), I just stood staring for any obvious clues from this angle. Width of trunk, color of bark, distinctive features such as stipule scars. I might add, that due to my questioning ways, I also didn’t outrightly assume that this was Piscidia. I have traveled to many botanical gardens and walks, and the tags are often not scrutinized by professionals, hence they 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, and also that it was just an unadvertised metal tag inconspicuously placed on it, I could 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. And so I kept walking, trying to let it go, and 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, meeting the description, and looking like it does well in such a clear-cut environment. So, I looked for any tell-tale signs, but it did not have new clues to offer such as old fruits near its base, 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 the right plant, as it was growing in a highly disturbed habitat which is good news to the wildcrafter, as it means that one can usually find it in another like-minded disturbed area, thus not negatively affecting the local flora. 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).
So, excited by my findings, I drove back to my acorn-sized crappy $40 a night campsite (such a complainer!), 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 so I went on-line at the campsite 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. (Job done-see here)
Next day, floras on hand, I went off onto the less inhabited side roads, found a likely place to pull over, explore 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 available plant parts. Once again (and 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 ‘crocodile center’ that looked like an environmental center. There was one person working there and I asked him some questions out of general curiosity and 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 (Tomlinson, good) and if it could be confused with any other plant, which was 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, small foldable saw and pruners on hand, I headed out to find some small inconspicuous roads to gather a bit of Piscidia. Not easily done on this densely inhabited area. But I came upon some lesser used roads and set up shop, meaning I parked my trusty white rental, and sussed out where it would be best to do the least harm to the local plant population.
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 chopped off previously in making 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 under-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 bark. Indeed I did, beyond blisters and the general I-want-to-do-something-else crankiness. With kava as my spacing-out late-night buddy, I peeled until most 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 sleep (and kava) got the best of me and asleep I fell.
Awoke around sunrise and finished the job. Ouch, the achin’ blister between 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 this worn off blistered area.
And then the next part of the days events began. I got back into my vehicle and went off to gather more Piscidia before it got too hot (it reached into the young 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. All the stems, 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 you are left with ‘wasted’ material. So, it was with relief that this had yet to happen, 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-molded state to process.
But this decision needed to wait, as I now wanted to get the fuck out this most immodestly-priced and total privacy lacking campsite and into the Everglades. So away I went.
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- a Cyperaceae) 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 the past 3 days of my short time down here in Flamingo, Everglades rather than the human-fill of where I was.
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 to get your booty down there and enjoy this very uncommon ecosystem.
Just a little bit more to this torrid 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, ($1.40, a score). And now, 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 kinda nervous about what state the 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 Poste 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 next day, 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.
My Piscidian Adventure.