The Black Poisonwood tree (Metopium Brownie or Metopium Toxiferum of the family Anacardiaceae) is also known as Chechen, Chechem (Mayan name), Coral Sumac, Caribbean Rosewood, and Cedro Prieto. It is found throughout Central America, the Caribbean and the West Indies. This tree produces beautiful decorative wood used for carving, wood turning, furniture etc. But it has a very powerful defense mechanism against people!
This form of defense is a highly irritating sap, and when human skin comes in contact with it, the result can be quite an ordeal. It starts with a redness, (like a bad rash similar to poison ivy, poison sumac, poison oak and the rest of them…) but often will develop into itchy and burning blisters, and is extremely painful. Depending on the amount of sap and how quickly you treat it, it can remain a rash and be gone in just a few days, or it can develop into a 1st to 2nd degree burn(s). Plus another interesting thing, in my husband’s case, nothing major happen for 3 days, but then on the fourth day he was covered! When you scratch (and you will) and then touch another part of your body (or someone else’s), the infection can easily spread. The picture below is of a hand (mine) and an infected arm (my husband’s) with blisters. The pictures are not that bad, but for the squeamish, you may not want to click it!
That was extremelly painful and lasted for a few weeks. To get it that bad is rather rare though. Usually you only touch the bark of the tree and hopefully treat it immediately. It is then a mild rash and in a very limited area. In that particular case, we did cut lots of trees, which means that the sap was also in the air, landing all over our clothes and body. It was also a very warm day and we were sweating a lot… perfect way to spread it all over your body!
Pictured on the left below is the bark of the Black Poisonwood tree. The black stuff (the sap comes out of the tree clear, but upon being introduced to oxygen it then turns black), which actually looks a lot like tar, is the poison. You do not want to touch this tree at all, but especially the black spots. The leaves of the tree can also be toxic. Now even after the tree is chopped down and dried… it still can be just as potent. In the saw mills when cutting the wood, the dust can have the same burning affect. Or even when you are just burning off a pile of old logs, the smoke can also spread the poison. Pictured on the right is the Gumbo Limbo tree (Bursera Simaruba of the family Burseraceae), which is the natural antidote of the Black Poisonwood. The tree sap relieves rashes, stings and burns. A medicinal tree, tea from its leaves is use to treat fever, low blood pressure.
~~~~~~~~Black Poisonwood ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Gumbo Limbo ~~~~~~~~~~
Gumbo Limbo trees grow in the same area of the Black Poisonwood trees. If you have touched the Black Poisonwood, the first thing to do is to find a Gumbo Limbo tree. And as soon as possible you must wash the area very well with any oil dissolving substance as just water and regular soap will not remove all of it (I have also read somewhere that WD40 can be quite effective). You cut a piece of the Gumbo Limbo bark and wipe the inside on the affected area. Hang on to this bark and reapply several times early on. What you can also do is boil the bark, add powdered vitamin C to the boiled water to make a paste that you apply on the burn. But in an extreme case as in the picture of the hand and arm, it is way past the Gumbo Limbo power! You are now dealing with 1st or 2nd degree burns and believe me, it is atrocious. Medicated, anti-itch first aid cream helps relieve the burning and itching and also helps keeping the infection down. And in some cases, as in my husband’s, antibiotics and a steroid medication are in order! I myself used a Sunburn Relief Gel with lidocaine, tea tree oil and aloe vera and it was very soothing and cooling!
One more trick… if you are going to cut or handle Black Poisonwood, apply the Gumbo Limbo to your face, hands and arms before you start. This will provide a good protection as it prevents the sap to stick to your skin. Obviously, we learned that ‘after’ we had to deal with those trees! Not a lesson that we will soon forget!
The Black Poisonwood is hard, dense and very decorative. Here’s a Black Poisonwood Handcrafted drum by Greg Gaylord of Drum Solo
Photo credit Frankie Frost
And due to the high risk in harvesting this wood, it is pricey. Hey, maybe we are sitting on a gold mine here?
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Filed under: health, lifestyle, nature, places, Uncategorized Tagged: | belize, black poisonwood, burns, carving, central america, gumbo limbo, hardwood, jungle, medicinal trees, poison, tree bark, woodturning