Nickernut

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Text And Photos Of Nickernuts

   Read About The Amazing Tropical Nickernut Shrub
   See Spiny Pods & Leaves Of Spiny Nickernut Shrub
   See Necklaces And Earrings Made From Nickernuts
   See Nickernuts For Sale By Street Vendor In Ecuador

The Fabulous Nickernuts

In order to make this article fit the natural history objectives of WAYNE'S WORD, the amazing "nickernuts" used in Island Wari will now be discussed. They are the marblelike seeds produced in a spiny pod (2 seeds per pod) on a spiny, sprawling shrub that grows along the shores of many Caribbean islands and throughout tropical beaches of the world. In the Caribbean region there are at least three common species: Gray nickernuts (Caesalpinia bonduc) with gray seeds, yellow nickernuts (probably C. ciliata) with yellowish-brown seeds, and C. major with brown or yellowish-brown seeds. They are members of the third largest family of flowering plants, the Pea Family (Fabaceae). The seeds are smooth and shiny at maturity, but continued handling as they are played with actually makes them shinier.

All three species are climbing or sprawling shrubs with stout branches armed with sharp, recurved thorns. The large, twice-compound leaves are also armed with prickles. Racemes of small yellow flowers are produced in the leaf axils, followed by clusters of spiny, two-seeded pods. In C. major the leaflets are slightly larger and the seeds are yellowish or chocolate brown rather than gray. Both species are common throughout the Caribbean and Florida Keys, although C. bonduc appears to be more widespread throughout the tropical Pacific region. The seeds of C. ciliata are not as buoyant as C. bonduc, so they are not commonly washed ashore along beaches. The smooth, marblelike seeds of nickernuts have a distinctive attachment scar and faint concentric striations.

See The Spiny Pods And Leaves Of A Nickernut Shrub

Caesalpinia is a large genus in the pea family (Fabaceae) containing over 200 species of tropical and subtropical trees and shrubs. It is named in honor of Andreas Caesalpini, Italian botanist and chief physician to Pope Clement VIII. In 1583 Caesalpini published De Plantis Libri, one of the first botany books of the Renaissance with a taxonomic system based solely on reproductive structures. Many staunch theologians of the time vigorously denounced sexuality in plants. According to Genesis 1, plants were created on the third day, and not until the sixth day were animals and people created, and the words "male and female."

Caesalpinia is also the type genus for the entire subfamily Caesalpinioideae, a group of closely-related legumes which have flower buds with their upper petal enveloped by the lateral petals. [In the flower buds of most legumes, the upper petal (banner) is on the outside.] At maturity the flowers generally have five spreading petals, unlike the typical pea-shaped (papilionaceous) blossoms of subfamily Papilionoideae, or the congested, stamen-clustered flowers of the subfamily Mimosoideae. The subfamily Caesalpinioideae includes many familiar trees including Bauhinia (orchid tree), Cassia (senna), Ceratonia (carob), Cercidium (palo verde), Cercis (redbud), Delonix (royal poinciana), Haematoxylum (logwood), Parkinsonia (Jerusalem thorn) and Tamarindus (tamarind). The genus Caesalpinia also includes some important ornamental shrubs. Caesalpinia gilliesii (bird-of-paradise bush), not to be confused with the bananalike Strelitzia, and C. pulcherrima (pride-of-Barbados) are often grown for their showy yellow, orange or red blossoms with brilliant red stamens. They are sometimes sold under the generic name Poinciana.

The pods of several South American species of Caesalpinia, including C. brevifolia (algarobilla), C. coriaria (divi-divi) and C. spinosa (tara) yield an important source of natural tannins. The tannins react with collagen protein in animal skin, converting the skin into leather. The heartwood from a thorny South American tree called brazilwood (C. echinata) contains a red dye used for cotton, wool and inks. During the Middle Ages the main commercial source of this dye came from an Indian species (C. sappan), called "bresil" or "brasil" by Portuguese traders, referring to the bright red heartwood. Early in the sixteenth century, Portuguese discovered the South American species and transferred the Old World name to it--eventually becoming known as brazilwood. In fact, brazilwood is the national tree and namesake of the country Brazil. Brazilwood is also highly prized for violin bows and is occasionally cultivated as an ornamental tree in southern California.

In the early 1900's the red dye of brazilwood, called brazilin, was highly acclaimed as a nuclear stain in histological preparations and as an indicator in acid-base titrations. The dye becomes yellowish in acid solutions and carmine-red in alkaline solutions. Brasilin is similar in its properties and uses to hematoxylin, another dye from a Central American tree called logwood (Haematoxylum campechianum). Because of the striking red heartwood, logwood is also called "brasil" or "palo de tinta" in Mexico. The exportation of logwood was an important factor in the early settlement of British Honduras, known today as Belize.

Although nickernuts are certainly not an economically important member of the Caesalpinia group, they are one of the most interesting. Along beaches of the British West Indies the spiny shrubs form impenetrable thickets and the ground is often littered with seeds resembling shiny gray bird eggs. The seeds are very buoyant with a hard, impervious seed coat and internal cavities between the cotyledons. After floating for months at sea, the durable seeds are fully capable of sprouting in the soft sand of the upper beach zone. Quite often the seeds are still viable and may be grown in potting soil, after first scoring the woody seed coats with a hacksaw blade and soaking them in water for several days.

Nickernuts from tropical islands of the West Indies often follow the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Current to beaches of northern Europe. Hebrides islanders off the coast of Scotland wore marblelike nickernut seeds as an amulet to ward off evil spirits. Known in the Hebrides as the white Indian nut, the seeds supposedly had other magical powers including a cure for dysentery when the powdered embryo was taken with boiled milk. The seeds contain bonducin, a white, bitter glycoside that is sometimes referred to as "poor man's quinine." Bonducin has been used as a substitute for quinine in the treatment of intermittent malarial fever. In the Caribbean, nickernuts were ground with roasted senna seeds (probably Cassia occidentalis) to make a medicinal coffee or tea. Numerous naturopathic remedies have been attributed to the soothing tea including colds and stomach disorders.

See Necklaces And Earrings Made From Nickernuts

Nickernuts grow wild on beaches of many Caribbean Islands and the seeds are commonly collected and strung into bracelets and necklaces. Gray and yellow nickernuts are often mixed with the distinctive red and black seeds of rosary beans (Abrus precatorius, Rhynchosia pyramidalis or R. precatoria). The beautiful seeds of Abrus and Rhynchosia are practically indistinguishable, except Rhynchosia seeds are smaller and the attachment scar (hilum) is in the red half. In the extremely toxic seeds of Abrus, the hilum is in the black--an important difference if you are in the habit of eating wild seeds. Other seeds commonly strung with nickernuts include the elongate seeds from the huge pods of royal poinciana (Delonix regia), shiny black seeds of soapberry (Sapindus saponaria), and the tiny brown seeds from a ubiquitous roadside shrub called wild tamarind (Leucaena leucocephala). Where they grow in abundance, the seeds of pride-of-Barbados (Caesalpinia pulcherrima) are also used in the necklaces. In Costa Rica, gray nickernuts are often strung with seeds from the distinctive pods of guanacaste (Enterolobium cyclocarpum). The guanacaste is a huge indigenous tree with a massive trunk and coiled pods that superficially resemble a human ear.

In Guayaquil, Ecuador, drilled nickernuts are sold by street vendors along with a variety of other seeds and herbs used for naturopathic and folk remedies. They are strung with the beautiful half-red, half-black seeds of the necklace tree (Ormosia) and worn as bracelets to ward off the devil. Polished nickernuts turn up in necklaces from as far away as India, Nepal, Indonesia and French Polynesia.

See Nickernuts For Sale By A Street Vendor In Ecuador

Nickernuts are also used as marbles by native islanders of the Caribbean and have been exported to Europe for buttons. In fact, "nicker" is an old English name for marble and a slang word for one pound sterling. The curious name "burning bean" comes from the fact that when the seed is rubbed vigorously on clothing it becomes quite hot. The heat from friction is apparently accentuated by the numerous concentric fracture lines on the seed coat. Touching a hot seed to the skin of an unsuspecting victim is a favorite game of children. Another bizarre use for nickernuts in the Virgin Islands involves the eviction of undesirable land crabs from their burrows in urbanized areas. A single nickernut placed in the crab burrow reportedly distresses the crab as it tries unsuccessfully to grab the smooth seed with its claws.

Spiny pods and large compound leaves of gray nickernut (Caesalpinia bonduc), a common, thorny shrub on tropical beaches of the Caribbean.

Gray nickernuts (Caesalpinia bonduc) and yellow nickernuts (probably C. ciliata) are commonly strung into necklaces and earrings in the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America. The marblelike seeds typically come in pairs in a spiny pod. The chocolate brown seeds were collected on the island of Antigua and may be C. ciliata or C. major. The small, flattened, shiny brown seeds adjacent to yellow nickernuts (middle left) are wild tamarind (Leucaena leucocephala).

Drilled gray nickernuts (Caesalpinia bonduc) for sale by a street vendor in Guayaquil, Ecuador. The red and black seeds are from an Amazonian tree called tento (Ormosia sp.) and are commonly used in necklaces.


Nickernuts & Other Drift Seeds Called "Sea Beans"

See this sea bean assortment on a T-shirt

Legume Family (Fabaceae):

A.  Entada species, probably the Old World E. phaseoloides.
C.  Entada rheedei. Drift seed from tropical Africa.
D.  Erythrina variegata. Coral tree from the island of Hawaii.
E.  Mucuna holtonii (cf. M. argyrophylla). Sea bean with velvety pods native to Belize.
F.  Oxyrhynchus trinervius. Drift seed from Costa Rica.
G.  Dioclea reflexa (cf. D. megacarpa). Drift seed from New River of Belize.
H.  Mucuna (cf. M. sloanei). Sea bean from the Monteverde Cloud Forest of Costa Rica.
 I.   Mucuna urens. Sea bean from Golfito, Costa Rica.
J.  Caesalpinia ciliata. Yellow nickernut, drift seed from the Caribbean.
K.  Canavalia rosea. Beach bean from the Caribbean (syn. C. maritima).
L.  Entada gigas. Sea heart from huge vine in Golfito, Costa Rica.
M.  Caesalpinia major. Brown nickernut, drift seed from the Caribbean.
N.  Mucuna sloanei. Drift seed from the Caribbean.
O.  Caesalpinia bonduc. Gray nickernut, prickly shrub from island of Antigua.
P.  Dioclea wilsonii. Sea purse from the island of Hawaii (syn. D. violacea).
Q.  Mucuna gigantea. Sea bean from Hawaiian Islands: Tan, unmottled bean from Maui.
R.  Gigasiphon macrosiphon. African tree planted on Hawaiian island of Oahu.
S.  Mucuna fawcettii. Caribbean drift seed. Hilum thicker than other Mucuna species.
T.  Canavalia nitida. Cathie's bean named in honor of author & naturalist Cathie Katz.

Morning-Glory Family (Convolvulaceae)

B.  Merremia discoidesperma. Mary's bean from mountains near Golfito, Costa Rica.

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