In a Lather Over Sudsy Snakewood

13 Sep

Asiatic Snakewood

Colubrina asiatica


As John and George go about our Friday botany biz, sometimes near the sea—especially in the Hobe Sound Wildlife Refuge—we trip over an odd and different-looking woody plant known as Asiatic Snakewood.  Although a small number of native species of Colubrina live in southern-most Florida, our local Colubrina is Asiatic Snakewood, an invasive exotic stinker, but an interesting stinker.  It thrives in some coastal strand habitats, crowding rudely into hammocks and mangrove areas.   Every invasive has its tricks, and one of those earns Snakewood its name; the stems reportedly grow over 30 feet per year, snaking around, rooting where they touch the soil.  It’s really no fun ranting about the invasion,  so for now let’s try to know thy Snakewood.

Snakewood at Hobe Sound.  Today's photos by John Bradford.

Snakewood at Hobe Sound. Today’s photos by John Bradford.

Inquiring minds might ask how it got from its presumed origins around Tropical Asia to the Hobe Sound Wildlife Refuge nature trail.  Two main possibilities stand out (a combo of the two seems likely).

  1. Maybe humans brung it, at least to the Caribbean in the 9th Century or before.
  2. Maybe the seeds floated or came by bird delivery.

Colubrina Close JB

To look at possibility # 2 first, this species gets around!  Let’s say it originated in Tropical Asia, yet it is regarded as native in Hawaii, and decorates the tropical world from Africa to Australia and beyond.  The seed journey begins when the fruit explodes.  Pop.  The seeds like to float in saltwater.  A skeptic might now wonder, “well, if it migrates aggressively, perhaps it managed to get around all the way to the Caribbean and Florida on its own.  Wouldn’t it then be native, technically speaking?”   (And of course Global Warming could lend a hand.)  We’re unlikely to see anyone make that case.  I think we can all agree human activity probably had something to do with it. (Or then again, maybe you disagree.)

Which brings us to arrival scenario #1 (we’ll conveniently ignore many other human-mediated but inadvertent and boring possibilities).  To appreciate possibility #1, a little background is relevant.  Snakewood has a laundry list of traditional medicinal applications, and those long snake-sticks can be woven.  The species is chock-full of bioactive chemicals, the most famous being what are known as saponins.  Saponins are widespread in the plant world, and some plants make a lot.  Another name for Colubrina asiatica is “Latherleaf,” because saponins froth in water, and our species is sapono-tastic.  The sudsiness has served humankind, and there’s another benefit: saponins snuff fish.  A multi-use weed!  You can take a little Colubrina down to the river, launder your drawers and enjoy a seafood lunch.


Posted by on September 13, 2014 in Asiatic Snakewood


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6 responses to “In a Lather Over Sudsy Snakewood

  1. Uncle Tree

    September 13, 2014 at 3:26 pm

    LoL 🙂 Will I be the only one who knows what you mean by “drawers”?
    Way to keep those old terms alive, George! A smorgasbord of delights
    come from that sneaky Snakewood bastardless child of Asiatic origin.

    Always a fun lesson to be found here (nice shots, John!). Thanks you two! UT

  2. George Rogers

    September 13, 2014 at 3:30 pm

    Thanks UT—I’ll bet there not a word out there unknown to you. Wow—do your poems draw admiring commentary! For good reason…I too savor each visit to the tree.

    • Uncle Tree

      September 13, 2014 at 4:32 pm

      The compliments, yes.
      They’re almost enough to make a tree believe in himself. 😉
      Thank you, my friend!

  3. John Ericson

    September 13, 2014 at 8:24 pm

    Why launder your drawers when you can keep them in a twist? Hard not to with all these new and endless names being thrown our way…

  4. Mary Hart

    September 15, 2014 at 4:39 am

    Yes, I’m old enough to be familiar with the term!

  5. George Rogers

    September 15, 2014 at 9:41 am

    Hi Mary, But wouldn’t you be more likely to refer to knickers?


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