Florida Fiddlewood

Citharexylum spinosum

florida fiddlewood

Florida fiddlewood, photographed at Atlantic Dune Park, Delray Beach, Palm Beach County, in May 2021.

Odd thing about Florida Fiddlewood’s scientic name, Citharexylum spinosum. It accurately reflects one of the major uses of the shrub but gets wrong its physical features.

The scientific name comes from the work of the great physician/naturalist Carl Linnaeus, who described the plant in 1753. Linnaeus, knowing the wood was used in the Caribbean to make musical instrument, dubbed it Citharexylum — a mashup of two Greek words, kithara meaning lyre and xylum meaning wood. The species name he gave it, spinosum, meaning spiny, misses the mark. Fiddlewood isn’t spiny at all.

Some sources use Citharexylum fruticosum, fruticosum, meaning shrubby, but while that name more accurately describes fiddlewood, the taxonomic powers that be don’t “accept,” or recognize it, as official.

Fiddlewood is also an instance where the common name stems from the scientific rather than the other way around. There at least 100 members of Citharexylum, most of which are commonly called fiddlewoods or zitherwoods, but our guy, Florida fiddlewood, is the only one found in South Florida.

Fiddlewood is a Florida native found mainly in coastal counties along the Atlantic side of the state as far north as Brevard south into the Keys, skipping St. Lucie and Broward. On the Gulf side, fiddlewood is found in Lee and Sarasota counties.

Its native range extends through the Caribbean and parts of South America, including Venezuela and Guyana. Fiddlewood has been imported into Australia, Hawaii and Fiji for use in landscaping, but has established itself in the wild and become an invasive pest as it forms dense thickets that crowd out natives. Similarly, it’s been imported into India, but seems to be better behaved.

Favorite habitats include coastal and inland hammocks.

Fiddlewood is usually a shrub but can grow into a small tree usually between 15 and 35 feet tall but can hit 40. It has multiple stems, bark that is brown and gray in color, and furroughing as it ages. Branches are thin and arch over.

The leaves are simple, dark green above, lighter green underneath, alternately arranged along the stem. They are long and relatively narrow in shape, and cupped along the edges, which are smooth otherwise, no serrations or lobes.

Fiddlewood’s flowers are small, white, trumpet-shaped, usually with five lobes. They’re fragrant and form along a type of stem called a raceme. They can appear all year but peak spring into summer. Fiddlewood is dioecious, meaning male and female flowers are on separate plants.

The fruit is berry-like (technically called a drupe), orange turning red to brown to black as it matures. Each berry has two seeds surrounded by a sweet pulp. It’s edible but not the tastiest fruit in the woods.

All parts of fiddlewood are used in traditional medicines to treat a variety of conditions, including asthma and rheumatism. In the Caribbean, it’s used to treat sores and aid digestion.

And yes indeed, Fiddlewood is used to make fiddles in the Caribbean as well as guitars, particularly the string boards. It’s also used in cabinetry and for making posts.

In Florida and elsewhere, fiddlewood is used in landscaping. It can be trained to grow as a single-trunk tree. It’s a relatively fast grower and frequently used as an attractive street tree, which is why it’s been imported to places around the globe.

Because of its dense foliage, fiddlewood also can be used as a shrub to create a property screen, though the Institute for Regional Conservation in Delray Beach recommends mixing it with other shrubby species because it can be defoliated by the larvae of certain moths.

Other common names for Florida fiddlewood include spiny fiddlewood and guitar tree. It is a member of Verbenaceae, the verbena family.

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Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.