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St. John Flora: Stinking Toe Fruit

West Indian Locust

st john flora: west indian locust
West Indian Locust

When was the last time you ate a stinking toe?

Despite the unappealing name, and an equally unappealing odor, many Virgin Islanders, especially children, have been known to enjoy the sweet taste of the stinking toe fruit. In El Salvador the stinking toe is actually sold in food markets, but is known by a more appetizing name, copinol.

The term stinking toe refers to the large seedpod of the West Indian locust, Hymenaea courbaril, commonly called the stinking toe or old man's toe tree, one of the largest trees in the Caribbean. The seedpods look like big fat toes and the mealy pulp around the seeds, although foul smelling, is edible and good tasting. Curtney Chinnery, a native of Jost Van Dyke and aficionado of Virgin Island culture, gives this description of the stinking toe fruit.

"We here in the Virgin Islands call the fruit of the West Indian locust stinking toe. The fruit is brown with the shape of a large toe. The shell is hard and not easy to break. The inside substance is dry, hairy, powdery and yellow. The seed is the same shape as the fruit itself only smaller. Once the shell is open an odor is released that can be said to be just about unbearable. This is a strange thing because the locust fruit tastes so good once one engages in the eating of it. Then it's not easy to be satisfied by eating just one. Unfortunately the odor from the locust is a lingering one and this may cause you problems. For example it is not easy to get someone to kiss you after eating a stinking toe fruit."

The West Indian locust can be found throughout the Caribbean, Mexico, and Central and South America. On St. John it thrives in moist forest regions such as Reef Bay and Bordeaux Mountain.

Hikers on the Reef Bay Trail will pass by an excellent specimen of the stinking toe tree, which is identified by a National Park Service information sign. Stinking toes also line one section of the Bordeaux Mountain Road. These trees can be identified by the large scars on they bear, low on their trunks. According to Hermon Smith, a Bordeaux Mountain naturalist and sculptor, the scarred trunks are a legacy of the creation of the road by Public Works when the large stinking toes were used to change the angle of the bulldozer blades. Hermon also told me that the scars have been embellished with original carvings made by another Bordeaux Mountain resident, Albert Christian. Over the years many of the carvings have fallen victim to termites, but one remains practically unscathed.

st john flora: west indian locust
Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker Holes

The stinking toe tree serves itself up as a sumptuous meal for a medium sized woodpecker commonly known as the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Every so often yellowbellied sapsuckers visit St. John. One of their favorite activities is to drill a band of small holes in the trunk of the stinking toe tree. (The stinking toe is the only tree on St. John marked in this way thus offering those who are interested an easy method of identification.) To repair these wounds the tree secretes a sweet sap, which the yellowbellied sapsucker licks up with its long bushy tongue. If the yellowbellied sapsucker is lucky, the sap will attract ants and other juicy insects, which are happily consumed along with the delicious sweet goo. (The National Park information sign says that the yellowbellied sapsucker makes the holes in the locust tree only to attract insects and not to suck the sap. Many experts, however, do not agree with this theory.)

More about the stinking toe.
So, you say that you're hesitant to sample the fruit of the stinking toe tree. But is it possible that you have a product of the stinking toe in your mouth right now? It's not only possible; it's quite probable!

Have you ever gone to the dentist and needed to have a large cavity filled? According to Virgin Island's dentist the late Dr. Howard Haynes, after drilling, most cavities are treated with a sealant before they are filled. The sealant prevents discoloration, absorption of the filling material and possible infection. It also desensitizes the tooth and "makes people feel better when the cavity is close to the nerve," Dr. Haynes said. The sealant most often used is called copalite and comes from, you guessed it, copal, the hardened sap produced by the stinking toe tree.

Stinking toe, scientifically named, Hymenaea courbaril, is also used extensively in traditional folk medicine. According to the Weed Women of the St. George Village Botanical Gardens on St. Croix, the smoke from copal resin helps alleviate headaches and rheumatism.

In the Brazilian rainforest the tree is called Jatobá. Dr. J. Monteiro Silva, an expert on Brazilian traditional medicine, wrote that drinking Jatobá tea can make you feel strong and vigorous and promote a good appetite. In the 1930's an extract of the bark, Vinho de Jatobá (Jatobá wine) was popular throughout Brazil and used as an energizer and fortifier. Lumberjacks working in the Brazilian rainforest have long used Jatobá tea to give them added energy, vigor and strength. Even today they are seen carrying large jugs of homemade Jatobá tea with them as they head off to work.

If you would like to sample stinking toe tea, you can buy Jatobá tea drops, a concentrated extract, for about twenty dollars an ounce.

Hymenaea based herbs are said to aid in the treatment of a wide variety of health disorders such as diarrhea, dysentery, general fatigue, constipation, prostate problems, asthma, laryngitis and bronchitis as well as athlete's foot and nail fungus. In fact, it would be difficult to name an ailment that wouldn't be alleviated by some form of the stinking toe.

Although the fruit of the locust smells like a stinking toe, the hardened sap has a beautifully fragrant aroma and has been used for many centuries to make incense. The ancient Mayans and Aztecs used copal incense in rituals of purification and sanctification and large amounts were burned on the tops of their pyramids.

In Mexico today copal is still associated with magic and religion. Los Dias de los Muertos, the Days of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday honoring the dead. It is celebrated from the evening of October 31 until November 2, the same time as Halloween and the Christian holidays of All Saints and All Souls Days. Copal incense is burned on these days to help guide the dead back to their earthly homes.

The flat, round, reddish-brown seeds of the stinking toe fruit are often used by Caribbean craftspeople in making various types of jewelry. The seeds are polished to a rich hardwood-like finish, then strung together to make beautiful necklaces. Artisans in Central America slice the seeds in half or alternatively sand off the seed coat on one of the sides and then paint miniature pictures on the ivory-like inner surface. The paintings are so small that the artists often have to use a magnifying glass in order to draw the pictures.

Little and Wadsworth in their book, Common Trees of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, mention that the bark of old locust trees could be removed in long thick sheets. This attribute of the locust led it to be used by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon region to make large canoes capable of holding twenty-five to thirty people. The sheets of bark were sewn together in the form of a canoe. The seams were waterproofed with resin and wooden crosspieces were fitted to provide strength and hold the shape.

The stinking toe is also harvested to produce an extremely durable high quality lumber that has a natural resistance to termites and fungus. The traditional carretas or oxcarts of El Salvador are fabricated using this lumber, which is also popular for use in construction, boat building, furniture making and for a myriad of other uses.

In short this aromatic tree gives us not only stinky fruits and sweet smelling incense, but also medicines, jewelry and lumber. The stinking toe, despite its odd and rather unappealing local name is definitely one of the most important trees of our region.