At the beginning of the Archaic period, which marks the end of the last ice age, approximately 10.000 years ago, cultures of Native Americans began to change due to adaptations to a changing global climate. Temperatures increased, swamps and marshes became dry prairies, and most cold-adapted megaherbivores of the Pleistocene epoch went extinct which made it necessary for the Paleo-peoples to adapt hunting traditions from a focus on large mammals like mammoths to a more diversified died with a mix of vegetable foods and smaller animals. The Archaic traditions were more complex with a use of a wide range of vegetation, including their toxic contents like rotenone to catch fish.
In North Florida and the southern part of the Atlantic Coastal Plain, Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) was the most common plant used for its rotenone to poison fish. The plant was pounded up and placed in creeks and ponds where the toxin inhibits the oxygen transfer and cellular respiration in fish gills. In South Florida some of the most common plants used for the same purpose were Coinvine (Dalbergia ecastaphyllum) and Jamaican Dogwood a.k.a. Fishpoison tree, hence its botanical name Piscidia piscipula, meaning “fish killer.” Rotenone has been used by EPA-licensed (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) fisheries managers since the late 1930s to control fish populations like exotic species in streams and lakes.
Despite their long cultural history in North America many of these plants remain unknown to most people, in part presumably because they have never made it into the regular nursery trade. However, Jamaican Dogwood can be an excellent specimen tree in the landscape due to its rapid growth and attractive white to lavender flowers in the spring. As a member of the pea family, it can also be used to improve soil quality by fixing atmospheric nitrogen in the soil with its symbiotic root bacteria. While the foliage is the host for the Cassius Blue (Leptotes cassius) and Hammock Skipper (Polygonus leo) butterflies, the flowers are primarily pollinated by a wide range of bee species. From early summer to fall at the Environmental Learning Center campus the tree is covered with numerous showy, bright yellow seed pods, or samaras, which are often confused with the actual flowers, making it attractive far beyond its blooming season.
Jamaican Dogwood, along with a wide variety of other native plants, is offered at the ELC’s native plant nursery.
If you would like to learn more about Florida’s natural history, join us on our edible plant field trip on October 26th 2022 on the beautiful campus of the Environmental Learning Center in Vero Beach. To sign up call 772-589-5050, or online: https://elc.donorshops.com/product/EdibleAndMedicinalPlantWalk/guided-edible-plant-walk-oct-26th-800am-1000am