Citharexylum spinosum

Jamaican fiddlewood


Citharexylum spinosum

L. 1753

pronounced: kith-uh-REX-ill-um spy-NO-sum

(Verbenaceae — the lantana family)


common name: Jamaican fiddlewood

Both the common name ‘Fiddlewood’ and the generic Citharexylum refer to the fact that the timber of these trees can be used to make musical instruments, and is much used for that purpose in the West Indies: Citharexylum is from the Greek κιθαρα (kithara), a lyre, and ξυλον (xylon), timber.

This is a lovely West Indian tree grown for its attractive foliage and fragrant flowers. Although spinosus is Latin for ‘thorny’, as far as I can see the tree seems to have no spines or thorns! It is an evergreen tree that can be up to 15 m tall, and is often cultivated as a street tree; but if it escapes it can become a serious pest by forming dense thickets that choke out other vegetation. This has already happened on several of the Hawaiian islands. As well, the roots of the tree can be very aggressive, and cause damage to pipes and other underground services.

The branches of this tree are generally tetragonal, sometimes cylindrical and ridged, glabrous on the nodes. The leaves have petioles 5 – 30 mm long, glabrous, glandular at the apex; the leaf surface is generally papery or almost leathery in texture, with 1 – 3 pairs of glands near the base, orbicular, oval, oblong, elliptic-lanceolate, or linear-lanceolate, 4 – 20 cm long, 1 – 6 cm wide, glabrous on the upper side, glabrous or with variable pubescence on the underside; dark green on both sides or slightly brighter or rusty on the underside, obtusely pointed or notched at the apex; the margin slightly curled back, normally entire.

The flowers are in racemes which are generally terminal, with others axillary, lax, with many flowers. The flowers are functionally unisexual and the trees are dioecious. These flowers are spreading and fragrant; the calyx a pallid green, 2 – 4 mm long, glabrous on the outside; the corolla white, white-yellow, or white-red.

The fruit is a drupe, oblong, 6 – 10 mm long, initially yellow-orange, but black when mature.

As mentioned above, the wood from this tree is widely used for musical instrument-making, especially in the West Indies. It is very hard, heavy and strong, the sapwood is light brown and thin, and the heartwood is orange to red. It has a lovely grain, and a beautiful glow when polished. It is especially prized for violins and guitars. The wood is exceptionally good for woodturning. It works well when wet, but when dry it will sometimes check. It has other uses: cabinet work, general building construction, and even, in Puerto Rico, for fence posts.

When the tree becomes a pest, control is difficult: cutting, even to ground level, is of little use, as the tree resprouts. A treehopper, Aconophora compressa, was released in Australia in 1995 in an attempt to control Lantana camara, which is closely related to the Fiddlewood. Several populations of Aconophora compressa have since been found on Citharexylum spinosum, and apparently damaging the trees, and other neighbouring plants. It is to be hoped that the treehopper will not become a pest in its own right, as has been the fate of so many of the species introduced into Australia for biological control. According to the Queensland Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries, the treehopper “impacts lantana, fiddlewood and sometimes Duranta species (including Geisha girl and Sheena's gold) and has been found on Eremophila species, Jacaranda, Clerodendrum ugandense, Myoporum species, Pandorea species, grey and river mangrove and groundsel bush but causing minimal damage”. We’ll see!


Photographed in Picnic Bay 2009-2015, and Horseshoe Bay 2014
Page last updated 9th November 2018