Fiddlewood a favourite for Catboats

Know your islands

Shipbuilding and its related activities of wood cutting and rope making were among the earliest forms of livelihood in Cayman.

Catboats are rarely seen today, but this small, unobtrusive vessel played an important part in the history of the Cayman Islands.

White Fiddlewood

White Fiddlewood (Citharexylum fruticosum)

The boats were largely built by fishermen for their own use, or by small, family owned shipyards and were made to suit the conditions in which they were to be used.

They were designed specifically for turtling, being extremely maneuverable and stable in rough waters (if you know how to handle them!).

Catboats were always painted bright blue to make them less visible to the turtles.

Although a variety of wood was used in construction of catboats, the Fiddlewood was used for timbers and sternposts.

The following is taken from Wild Trees in the Cayman Islands by Fred Burton, with illustrations by Penny Clifford; Photograph by Frank Roulstone.


Petitia domingensis

Fiddlewood has rather unusual bark, pale brown and very thin, with vertical cracks. It slowly sheds small papery flakes, sometimes appearing a little like White Fiddlewood, but the bark shedding is much less abundant in Fiddlewood. Moss and green algae sometimes establish on the trunk, and there may occasionally be a few Sapsucker drillings. The tree often grows tilted with oddly angled, spreading branches and dead wood which stays firmly attached to the tree and seems never to rot. The trunk is very broad: it is lumpy and irregularly fluted, with roots spreading from the swollen base. The canopy tends to be open and sparse, bearing large leaves with prominent veins beneath. Fiddlewood produces whitish flowers, and red berries.

Native to Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac, the Greater Antilles and the Bahamas, Fiddlewood grows in rocky woodlands. The wood is heavy and very hard: it makes good fence posts, and in Cayman was also used in traditional shipbuilding.

The tree grows rather slowly.

White Fiddlewood

Citharexylum fruticosum

White Fiddlewood is readily recognized by its distinctive bark, which is always shedding in long, narrow strips giving the whole trunk an appearance of being vertically striped. The tree typically grows with a long, straight trunk, slightly fluted, with rising branches. The bark is a brownish grey, shedding too fast to allow lichens to establish: it is thicker than the bark of the true Fiddlewood which is a spreading tree with quite different leaves.

The fragrant flowers are white, borne conspicuously on long dangling spikes. Long clusters of fruits ripen first to red, then black. White Fiddlewood is native to all three of the Cayman Islands, and through the West Indies and tropical America. In Cayman it is a tree of dry, rocky woodlands, where it is fairly common. It grows slowly.

Grow Cayman Plants and encourage Cayman Wildlife! For more information, to share your knowledge or if you would like to get involved with the many activities in the National Trust’s Know Your Islands Program, please visit, or call 949-0121.

Last week’s answer: Our 3 species of marine flowering plants include, Turtle Grass, Midrib Seagrass, and Manatee Seagrass.

Trivia question: List Cayman’s 5 endemic sub-species of butterflies; they are found nowhere else in the world.

Look for the answer in next week’s column.

The weekly column from the National Trust is submitted by Marnie Laing, Education Programs Manager at the Trust. The Trust can be contacted at 949-0121 or via email at [email protected]

Comments are closed.