The Fabulous Florida Fish Fuddle Tree

By Steven W. Woodmansee, FNPS President

More commonly known as the Jamaican Dogwood, Florida Fish Fuddle Tree (Piscidia piscipula) merits attention in the landscape as it is indeed a showy flowering native tree. Flowering in May, it holds its own with another member of the pea family (Fabaceae), the Madagascar native Royal Poinciana (Delonix regia). Tree branches become covered by papillionoid (butterfly shaped) flowers possessing a blend of rosy white with green spots (Fig. 1). Also similar to many showy flowering trees, it typically sheds its leaves before flowering (Fig. 2). Fruits are chartaceous (papery) winged seedpods, beige in color (Figs. 3,4). Jamaican Dogwood is a large tree to 45 feet in Florida, and is constituent of rockland hammock and/or shell mound habitats along the coast line from Miami-Dade County, through Monroe County including the Florida Keys, north along Florida’s west coast to Pinellas County in addition to the Tropical Americas. It does not tolerate freezes, but is drought and salt wind tolerant, and well adapted to our soils and climate.  In hurricanes, they tend to shed their limbs first, rather than fall over. It is pollinated by insects (including butterflies) and is a host plant for the Hammock Skipper Butterfly (Polygonus leo ssp. savigny) and likely the Cassius blue (Leptotes cassius), as I have seen dozens flying around the top of my tree.

So what’s up with the funky names of this native tree you may wonder? Well the Jamaican Dogwood nomenclature, is due to the fact that at one time the wood of the tree was used to build dogs (the word dog here is applied to its engineering use, which is a mechanical device used to grip things) on a sea going vessels. It is not due to any physical similarities to true Dogwoods, which are members in the genus Cornus in the Cornaceae. The Scientific Name, Piscidia piscipula and the other common name Florida Fish Fuddle Tree, refer to its use to poison fish. The extinct Calusa and Tequesta Native Americans used the bark, leaves, and roots to go fishing. Native Americans would take advantage of small bays and tidal creeks that occur naturally, or create them as part of their shell mound design (all shell mounds were built by the Native Americans). They would block off the entrance to the pool, and then dump the bark and leaves in the water. The rotenone found in this plant leaches out into the water, fish inhale it through their gills, stunning them, whereby they float to the water surface making them easy to gather. Although toxic in our bloodstream, rotenone is poorly absorbed within our gut, thereby leaving the fish edible. Today it is illegal in Florida to use this method of fish capture.

Early May is ideal for a drive along the Overseas Highway through the Florida Keys as you will see everywhere Jamaican Dogwood in spectacular bloom.

Image sources
Figure 1.
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Anonymous said…
nice opinion. thanks for posting.

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