Field Guide Fridays – Black Torch

Erithalis Fruticosa, known as Black Torch in the Turks and Caicos, fruits and flowers all year long and is commonly found near beaches and growing in limestone soils. It is often referred to as a shrub; most often reaching 1-2 meters or less than 5 feet in height, although this slow grower can reach over 8 meters, or 30 feet, and therefore would classify as a small tree. The following detailed description from
“Usually the
species has multiple stems arising near the ground
line and many branches that are stiff and
sometimes gnarled. The bark is gray and
smoothish to warty. The resinous wood is brown,
hard, fine-textured, heavy, and has visible growth
rings. Black torch plants are supported by brown
roots that are often contorted as they grow over
rocks and into cracks. The foliage may be dense or
diffuse depending on whether the shrubs grow in
full sun or partial shade. The opposite leaves have
3 to 20 mm petioles, orbicular to oblanciolate
blades 2 to 12 cm long with entire edges, and darkgreen
upper surfaces. The inflorescences are lateral
or terminal panicles containing many small, white
flowers. The black fruits are globose or flattened
drupes 3 to 4 mm in diameter that have a bittersweet
flavor and contain five to 10 nutlets
(Howard 1989, Liogier 1997, Little and others
1974, Nelson 1996). It is morphologically a highly
variable species (Long and Lakela 1976).”

The name “black torch”comes from it’s former use as just that, a “candlewood.” The descriptive “black” relates that the resinous nature of the wood would have generally created a great deal of smoke when burned. Elsewhere thoughout the Caribbean, the common names imply the same; “bois chandelle” and “bois chandelle noir” in Martinique, Gaudalupe, and “flambeau” and “bois flambeau” in the Dutch Antilles and Dominica. In Puerta Rico it is called “tea,” perhaps due to the bark, berry, and resins use as a treatment for inflammation of the kidney and bladder. Another medical application was to dry and grind the leaves to create a salve for skin sores. I happen to love Tobago’s common name, “parrot apple” which implies a favorite food of the said bird. Here in the Turks and Caicos it is eaten by the Kirtland’s Warbler and the Rock Iguana and apparently is well liked by butterflies. I would be curious to ask a Cuban where “jayajajico” and “rompe machete” come from. The species is a hardwood, resistant to rot; the heavy, fine textured, wood and dark streaked heartwood, could create fine turned articles (to the highly skilled woodworker patient enough to work with small pieces). 

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