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St. John Virgin Islands Flora: Bay Rum

St John Flora: Bay Rum in Flower

Bay Rum Tree - (Pimenta recemosa) Myrtle Family - also called wild cinnamon

st john bay rum
Bay Rum Stand

From about 1900 to 1950, there was an extremely popular man's cologne and aftershave called Bay Rum. In England, the application of bay rum after a haircut and shave was a matter of routine in almost all of the best barbershops, and in United States high schools, the delightful fragrance of bay rum cologne would often permeate the classroom where young men treated shaving as a matter of coming of age.

Bay rum is made using oil extracted from the leaves of the West Indian bay tree, Pinenta racemosa. Here on St. John the tree itself is called bay rum and it grows all over the island except on the East End and the in dry southwest corner. Especially prolific stands can be found on Bordeaux Mountain andin the Cinnamon Bay Valley. It is also known as bay, cinnamon and cinnamon bay and in the Patois spoken down island, it is called Bois d'Inde, or Tree from India.

st john national park bay rum sign
National Park Information Sign

Bay rum trees are fairly easy to identify. They can be very tall, growing to be as much as 80 feet high, but as the seeds propagate easily under favorable conditions, most established stands contain trees and seedlings of all sizes. As the tree matures, the outer layer of bark peels off leaving the trunk smooth and shiny and with a beautiful blend of brown and tan colors. The trunk is similar in appearance to the guavaberry and guava tree, but the leaves of the bay rum are distinctive. They're larger (about six inches long and two inches wide) than either the small-leafed guavaberry or the light-green-colored guava and are shiny and blue-green in color. The bay rum leaves are also so deliciously aromatic that their fragrance can dominate whole sections of forest and walking through these areas can be a heady experience.

St. John is reputed to have the finest bay rum trees in the world. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, "the word 'St. John' on Bay Rum is like 'Sterling' on Silverware. It stands for the best in the world. This superiority is due to a special quality of the leaves of the Bay Trees, which grow on the island of St. John, and in no other part of the world."

The first long-term European settlers of St. John were so impressed by the magnificence of the bay rum trees they encountered while exploring the north shore that they named two beautiful valleys after the tree, Cinnamon Bay, which was originally called Caneel Bay, Caneel being the Dutch word for cinnamon, and Caneel Bay, which was originally called Klein Caneel or Little Cinnamon.

As beautiful as these trees were, they had little economic importance during the years of sugar production. They were often perceived to be in the way and were cut down to make room for planting more lucrative crops such as sugarcane and cotton. In the later part of the nineteenth century, the sugar industry on St. John took a nose dive and the island reverted to a subsistence economy of provision farming, fishing, animal raising and charcoal production. The Danes all but abandoned St. John, and there was hardly any economic investment in the island until the Plantation Company Danish West India became interested in St. John in the 1890s. In 1903, the company purchased Cinnamon Bay and began growing fruit for export and bay rum trees for the production of the bay leaf oil. Fruit cultivation was not economically rewarding because of the difficulty in transporting the fruit to the European market. The fruits would often spoil before they could be sold. Bay rum oil, on the other hand, showed some promise. It did not deteriorate rapidly and had the potential to be a profitable commodity. The success of this venture at Cinnamon Bay motivated other landowners on St. John to begin bay rum production and this industry became one of the few sources of cash money coming into the island from abroad.

Harvesting the bay rum leaves was an extremely labor-intensive process. Workers, who were often young children, would climb the trees and snap off twigs containing about ten to fifteen leaves each. They would then throw down the leaves to women who put them in bags. The bags were tied off when they reached 75 pounds. The bags would be loaded onto the backs of donkeys and brought to distillery for processing into bay rum oil.

The bay rum industry on St. John enjoyed some limited success for a while. Many of the new owners of the sugar estates converted their unused rum stills to accommodate the distillation of bay rum, an excellent example of which can be seen along the Loop Trail at Cinnamon Bay.

The bay rum industry on St. John did not last. Prohibition, extended to the Virgin Islands in 1921, not only ended the rum industry on the islands, but also negatively effected the bay rum industry, when government regulations mandated that alicylic acid be added to the bay rum so that it couldn’t be consumed as an alcoholic beverage.

The industry began a slow but steady decline until the 1940s when it died out altogether. The last producers bay rum on St. John were members of the Marsh family who had a bay rum still in Coral Bay. Later on Captain Beverhoudt from Coral Bay began selling "Hurricane Hole Bay Rum," using bay oil imported from Grenada.

Today bay rum oil is still produced on St. Thomas and on the island of Dominica, but the top-of-the-line, honest-to-goodness bay rum made from the undisputed best bay rum leaves in the world, the leaves from St. John bay rum trees is no more...

Bay Rum: A Niche of Distinction in VI History By Gail Schulterbrandt, L.D.N