Tree Lovers Beware: Do Not Hug This Tree

Some information contributed by William "Bill" Link, pictured left

My introduction to Poisonwood (Metopium Brownie or Metopium Toxiferum of the family Anacardiaceae) (Chechem in Maya), was unfortunately through a friend. This unfortunate friend ran afoul of Chechem while visiting an off-grid homestead/fishing camp in a village just outside Corozal Town Belize, Central America where we live. The symptoms where horrific and it took a month for my friend to fully recover. Those familiar with Chechem have a healthy respect for this wickedly toxic tree.

My unfortunate friend suffered a head-to-toe painful, itching rash and blisters extending even to bottoms of his feet. Leg-swelling followed by infected lesions, became the result of insistent, irresistible scratching. Barely able to walk, help was sought from local physicians; but none of the salves, creams, pills and more they prescribed prevailed over the poisonous Chechem. We discovered, many painful weeks too late that Nature provides.

The Gumbo Limbo tree (Bursera Simaruba of the family Burseraceae), is the natural antidote of the Poisonwood. The tree's sap when applied using bark from the Gumbo Limbo, relieves rashes, stings and burns. Tea made from its leaves is also said to treat fever and low blood pressure. Gumbo Limbo trees grow in the same vicinity as the Poisonwood trees and should be found and its remedies applied promptly to avoid the serious first and second-degree burns my unlucky comrade suffered.

As witness to my friends suffering, I advocate extreme caution when clearing out these trees, rubbing on some Gumbo Limbo sap before operations begin is recommended by some; WD40 is rumored to work after exposure to Chechem to remove its toxic sap from your skin. I have removed all Poisonwood logs from the bonfire/barbeque wood pile, as some people (and maybe hotdogs) are sensitive to the smoke.

So, I admit to being astonished and intrigued later to find that fine-crafted cabinets, bed-frames and beautiful furniture of every kind, even countertops are made of Chechem; the poisonwood it turns out is seductively dark, dense, very hard and beautifully-grained, and is thus sought after by woodworkers worldwide. Still, I can't help but think of serving salad in a bowl made of poison ivy, or tossing sleeplessly in a poison-oak-built bed.

Unable to shake my poisonwood-dread, I went to visit a local lumber yard that is conveniently just across the street from my Corozal Town abode. The sign out front announces in Belize Kriol-spelling "Lumba Yaad," and should be pronounced just so. My friend Mr. George is the owner/proprietor of "Lumba Yaad," and is full of Poisonwood intelligence. He points out a small stack of red-tinted rough-cut planks about ten feet long. "That," he says solemnly "is Chechem." I hesitate to touch it. It is a beautiful rose color. The saw-marks undulate with the poisonwood's grain and hardness.

"There are two kinds of the wood. The lighter is the rose color; the other is darker with black grain-lines," Mr. George said, gesturing to a grayish slab of six-by-six lumber with black streaks striating the ten-foot post. I don't touch that either. I wonder whether to hold my breath as the sound of a high-powered rip-saw, begins screaming through planks of some kind of (poison?) wood, just outside the shop door. "Are some burned by the sawdust," I ask, choking on held-breath. "Some," he replied. "Not everyone is bothered by Chechem," Mr. George says with a little Lumba Yaad bravado; "If you are allergic though ..." he continued, shaking his head in commiseration with those so afflicted; "Some must touch it to be stricken, while the most sensitive need only to stand in its shade to cause suffering," he said. "Best for these people to not go in the bush at all," he advised. "How then are these venomous trees harvested?" I asked, picturing guys with chainsaws wearing Haz-Mat suits and of poisonous wood-chips flying everywhere.

"Mennonites do it, they harvest, dry and rough-cut Chechem for lumber-use," he answered. A Mennonite "Haz-mat," suit as all in Belize know consists of straw hats, black coveralls, and ill fitting chintz-shirts. "Yeah, those boys are scarred up pretty bad," he chuckled; "just look and you'll see how their faces and arms are burned up by Chechem."

Some local woodcarvers I spoke to have a different take on taking Chechem. " We don't harvest the trees, we discover them," one said. "A poisonwood must be left to dry for several years before it can be worked, so we let the hurricanes knock them over then watch the felled wood age for a few birthdays," says another worker in poisonous wood. The challenges faced by those who harvest, dry and mill toxic Chechem lumber, is reflected in its costliness, rarity and the high price asked for the furniture and other items made from it. 

Bob Wright, a cheerful long-bearded guy, works in Poisonwood, making artful bowls and wood sculptures; he has arms and hands covered in old Chechem-burns. Bob, has been a wood-man, and a woodsman too his whole adult life, having brought his New England-honed logging skills to Belize some twenty-years ago. Selectively harvesting trees from Belize's vast forests has been Bob's work and obsession for decades. He developed a love of the exotic hardwoods he found there, including the poisonwood.

Bob held out a dark-colored wooden bowl he had recently turned-out on the lathe at his woodworking shop in Consejo Village, a near suburb (depending on road conditions) of my home-base in Corozal Town. "This is Chechem," he intoned, as he lifted the wood object-de-art from a workbench crowded with beautiful others — "drying," he said. I hesitated to touch the poisonwood bowl, claiming reluctance to mar its mirror-bright surface. "Oh, it's quite dry now," he reassured, pressing the Chechem bowl into my hands. Swirls of nearly black grain-lines march in exotic formation up the vessel's sides while a dramatic whirlpool of deep-jade to black swirls' mark the bottom, where salad dressing is later apt to pool, under crunchy lettuce in this poison chalice.  These grain-marks are properly referred to as a "Wood's Figure," Bob informs.  Chechem has a beautiful figure indeed; no wonder woodworkers and cabinetmakers crave it.

Piles of shavings and sawdust crowd around the shop's lathe, prompting me to ask about the dangers of working wood with toxic chips and dust flying around. A familiar story emerges - some people are more susceptible than others to the skin-burning effects of Chechem. "I've worked Poisonwood from harvest to lathe without any problem, for years; then one day," he paused to show me some wicked-looking scars on both arms; the result of once embracing a freshly-logged Poisonwood to load it into his pickup. "Do not hug this tree," Bob advises.

Furniture and cabinetmakers are equally timorous and tell how Poisonwood's seductive qualities lure them into costly projects. "The wood is dense, hard and cracks easily," says Tim at Carpenter's Woodwork's one commercial wood-shop owner in Orange Walk, Belize. We build quality furniture and anything that's wood from kitchen cabinets and doors to dining room sets and office furniture, but "We run from Poisonwood because we can loose up to fifty-percent of the product due to cracking and splitting. And, work is slow on Chechem," he maintains as pilot-holes must be drilled for every screw and nail.

The end results are stunning though. A just-finished luxury home on the banks of Four-Mile Lagoon, a few miles up a "good road," toward the Mexican border, features fancy-figured Poisonwood kitchen cabinets, while exposed Chechem beams shoulder vaulted ceilings, and the black-green swirled bathroom cabinets hold up fancy sinks.

Should the owner, a local home builder recently made homeless by the sale of his former self-built residence on the lagoon, decide to furnish it with Chechem tables, chairs, and a bedstead, he would find himself surrounded in Poisonwood all the while hoping fervently to be made homeless again. To be sure, nature extracts a high price for beauty, Chechem, like honey is made rare by its stinging defenses not by its scarcity. So, tread carefully in Belize bush lest you fall into its toxic embrace.



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