Thursday, May 27, 2010

Wood mystery solved

There's a little known service provided by the USDA Forest Service that offers free wood identification. Many years ago, someone gave me a few boards of a highly figured wood - and I hadn't a clue what it was. I sent in a sample, and sure enough, about eight weeks later, I had my answer - lacewood. Pretty cool, for a young teenager in her first woodworking class.

Last Autumn, I built this desk

using some lumber of which - once again! - I hadn't a clue about it's origin. A few of my old college textbooks offered some suggestions - possibly yellowheart, avodire, or satinwood. This wood had a very light yellow hue, with a fairly open grain and was somewhat dense. All I knew is that I'd acquired about six 2x10s of it, and it was just enough to complete the desk, with it's three drawers and upper hutch.

But it bothered me that I couldn't be sure of the wood specie, so I sent off another sample to the USDA, asking for their help.

If you're a wood geek like me, you will be surprised at their answer. Brosimum alicastrum, better known as a breadnut tree.

Depending on what you read in your high school literature classes, you may remember the book - Mutiny on the Bounty. The British Royal Navy sent the HMS Bounty to the South Pacific to pick up saplings of the breadfruit tree in Tahiti, and transport them to the West Indies. The tree was believed to be a complete food source, and they intended on using it to feed the natives on the islands, whom they hoped to enslave. As far as I can tell, the breadfruit tree is a close relative to the breadnut tree, although it is difficult to get any reasonably current information about this genus of trees.

Guess what book is currently on my nightstand?

This lumber probably came from a tropical rainforest, but how it ended up in the middle of Las Vegas, up for auction, is beyond me. It belongs to the fig tree/mulberry tree family, and is native to Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. There's a very informative article - The Mighty BreadNut Tree written by T.H. Culhane, published in Zoo View, a Los Angeles Zoo magazine. If you search on Google long enough, you will find it. I downloaded a PDF of it, and if you're interested in reading it, I would be happy to send you a copy. (I just can't find the link again!) The article might sound boring, but it's really a pretty great source of current information as well as some fascinating historical background about this tree.

In this article, the tree is likened to the soybean - a perfect source of protein. It was believed to be the main food source for the Mayan civilization, more than three thousand years ago. Think "edamame" for natives who lived in rainforests. (And what did they do without salt - or did they have some?)

Better yet, the tree provides a natural habitat for monkeys and birds, requires little maintenance, and it's "fruit" can be used for anything from making "coffee" to grinding into flour and used as grain for various foods like breads, cakes, cookies, tamale masa, and so on.

Even the young leaves of the tree can be eaten, much like we eat spinach. The better question is - why was this tree turned into lumber, when it's usefulness is far better served as a food source?

One of my current students/friends actually knew most of this information off the top of his head, when I told him the name of this tree. It's amazing to me that some people can store that amount of trivia in their head! (Steve, if I made any glaring technical errors in this post, would you kindly help me in correcting them? You are - as I said the other day - officially the smartest person I know!

1 comment:

jen said...

I love that desk. Very interesting article.