St. John US Virgin Islands Flora
St. John’s location in the Caribbean, a meeting place between North and South America, has blessed it with thousands of species of flowers, trees, bushes and plants.
Allamanda is a genus of flowering plants in the dogbane family, Apocynaceae. They are native to the Americas, where they are distributed from Mexico to Argentina. Some species are familiar as ornamental plants cultivated for their large, colorful flowers. Most species produce yellow flowers. Read more from Wikipedia
Anthuriums, like bromeliads, orchids and pinguins, are epiphytes, a nonparasitic plant that grows on another plant, but gets its nourishment from the air – thus, the name “air plant.”
Anthuriums can grow on the ground, on rocks, or up in trees. The local varieties are Anthurium cordatum (heartleaf) and Anthurium crenatum (scrub brush).
The heartleaf is more common in moist forest areas. It produces beautiful foliage that sometimes is home for tree snails and nests of wasps called Jack Spaniards. The heartleaf anthurium produces a long pointy reddish-green stalk-like flower.
The scrub brush anthurium has long green leaves with seasonal red fruit. The dried dead leaves have been used in the past to scrub pots and pans. They are just as effective as the commercial pot scrubbing products used today, plus they have the advantage of being easily disposable, non-rusting and biodegradable.
The heartleaf anthurium is common in the Lesser Antilles. The scrub brush anthurium is found in the Greater Antilles. They seem to have met on the islands of St. John and Tortola to produce a hybrid variety (anthurium selloum) which is only found on these two islands. It is sterile and cannot reproduce. The hybrid is said to look just like what you would expect a mixture of the two parent varieties to look like. I’ve never seen one, see if you can identify one.
Bamboo is technically a grass, it grows rapidly and is extremely strong and durable. On St. John there is a bamboo forest located just off Centerline Road in the vicinity of Cathrineberg.
Click here for interesting information about bamboo from Wikipedia.
|Bananas – a psychedelic drug?|
|Uses of the Banana|
|Bananas – the Dark Side|
Once upon a time, bananas were wild plants that grew only in Asia. Then, like now, bananas were a tasty fruit. The problem with them was that they were difficult to eat, because the wild bananas were full of extremely hard seeds about the size of small peas. The seeds could make up about eighty percent of the banana fruit, leaving only twenty percent as edible flesh. To eat a banana in those days one needed to be either very hungry or have a lot of patience.
Every once in a while, however, a wild banana plant would undergo a genetic mutation causing it to produce a seedless fruit. (The tiny dark particles that you see in the commonly seen bananas of today are actually undeveloped seeds that are so small and so soft that you may not even notice them.)
Without fertile seeds the mutated bananas could not reproduce and spread in the normal fashion. The only way the seedless banana can reproduce is parthenocarpically, which means without seeds. It does this by means of suckers, which grow off the main stem forming new plants that have exactly the same genetic makeup and attributes as the parent.
In all probability, these mutated seedless bananas were eventually found and sampled by human beings foraging for food. Needless to say, the seedless variety was much more desirable than the difficult-to-eat seeded ones and once they were discovered, people decided to bring back some slips for home cultivation. This is a relatively easy process. All that needs to be done is to severe the suckers from the main stem with a sharp object. The small, light and easily carried slips can then be transported and replanted in more convenient locations.
The seedless banana undoubtedly became a popular and sought after crop and gradually was spread throughout Asia and the Pacific.
About 300 AD people from Indonesia came to Madagascar, a large island off the eastern coast of Africa. These settlers brought slips of their favorite varieties of bananas with them and from Madagascar, the seedless banana was then spread throughout the continent of Africa.
Today Africa produces about half of the world’s bananas, almost all of which are for local consumption. Although sometimes allowed to ripen and turn yellow and eaten as a sweet fruit, Africans usually harvest bananas while they are still green and are cooked and eaten as a starch. (The people living in the East African highland countries such as Rwanda and Uganda are the world record holders for banana consumption, eating almost 500 pounds of bananas per person per year.)
Bananas came to the Hispaniola from Africa in the late fifteenth century, brought there by slave traders and captured Africans. From there they were carried to the other Caribbean Islands and to mainland Central and South America.
In the late nineteenth century a sea captain named Lorenzo Baker brought bunches of bananas that he received as a gift from a Jamaican planter to Boston. They proved to be extremely popular and have since become the world’s fourth most valuable food crop.
Today in the United States and Western Europe, bananas can be found in almost any grocery store or market. These store-bought bananas are almost exclusively one variety called Cavendish.
Although wild seeded bananas still exist in Asia, where their hard dark-colored seeds are used to make necklaces and other jewelry, they are becoming increasingly rare due to deforestation and their replacement, even in remote village areas, by the more economically viable seedless varieties.
Due to the fact that bananas were so new to North Americans when it first arrived, they had to be instructed in the proper manner of eating bananas. A Domestic Cyclopaedia of Practical Information of the 1870s gave these banana eating instructions: “Bananas are eaten raw, either alone or cut in slices with sugar and cream, or wine and orange juice. They are also roasted, fried or boiled, and are made into fritters, preserves, and marmalades.”
One of the reasons for the popularity of bananas early in the 20th century was that it was the only fruit, along with oranges, which could be found in the smaller markets during the winter months. By the 1920s the consumption of bananas had grown to the point that it could be found in almost every worker’s dinner pail or school child’s lunch box. Since that time bananas have sustained its popularity as the most popular fruit eaten, at over 24 pounds per capita, in North America.
Fig Banana Video
The Only Baobob on St. John
The only baobob tree on St. John can be found at Estate Sieban, which can be accessed via the L’Esperance Trail.
In many parts of Africa, the baobob tree is thought to be sacred and magical. The first seeds from these trees were brought to the Caribbean by enslaved Africans. Although there is only one baobob on St. John, St. Croix has more baobob trees than any other island in the Caribbean.
The seed pods which are edible. They are filled with a dry powder tasting something like a sweet tamarind. They develop between February and June
The Baobob has also been called Guinea Almond on St. Croix and Guinea Tamarind on St. Thomas
The large white flowers open at night and are fertilized by bats.
Bay Rum Tree – (Pimenta recemosa) Myrtle Family – also called wild cinnamon
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.
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 bayrum, an excellent example of which can be seen along the.
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…
Breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis) trees are some of the largest trees found in the Virgin Islands and can reach heights of more than 80 feet.
The fruit can be roasted baked, fried or boiled and tastes a lot like fresh-baked bread.
Breadfruit first arrived in the Caribbean in1791, brought to Jamaica by Captain William Bligh of “Mutiny on the Bounty” fame.
Pipe Organ Cactus (Cephalocereus)
This tall light green cactus branches at the base and has vertical stems. The spines grow in long rows and are extremely formidable. They can pierce clothing and light footwear such as sneakers or sandals. It is also known a didildo or dildo cactus.
Also called Turk’s Head,, Pope’s Head or Compass Plant (because they tend to tilt toward the south). They are round or barrel-shaped and can grow in hard, rocky, windswept, and sun-drenched environments where little else can survive. The small pink fruit is edible.
Opuntia ficus-indica, locally called paddle cactus, prickly pear and nopal can be found on St. John cactus scrub lands. The fleshy paddles are edible once the spines are removed and are used in salads, soups and desserts.
Catch ‘n’ Keep
Riparia is a good name for the thorny vine that tends to rip your clothes when you walk past it. Catch-and-keep has sharp barbed hooked spines on its stem and leaves that can readily catch onto clothing or skin and be reluctant to let go, catching you and keeping you caught.
Although many Virgin Islanders now purchase imported pine trees from North America to use as Christmas trees, the traditional Virgin Island Christmas tree is made from the stalk of the mature century plant.
Here on St. John, the main use of the century plant stalk is for the traditional Christmas tree of the Virgin Islands. In December islanders search the bush for the mature century plant. The stalk is cut down with a machete and brought home where it is painted and supported in a bucket filled with rocks. Ornaments and lights may then be hung from the branches, and the end result is a wonderful and less expensive alternativeto the imported North American pine.
After about ten or twenty years of life, the century plant sends out a green stalk from the center of the plant, which looks like a giant asparagus.
Until recently, the century plant has seemed to be indestructible, withstanding such hardships as salt spray, steep hills, strong winds, poor soil, low rainfall and full intense tropical sun. Now, however, many century plants in the Virgin Islands have died or are dying, the result of a disease that scientists have yet to conquer.
Christopher Columbus, on his first voyage to the West Indies, was fooled by the similarity. He had read the accounts of Marco Polo’s journey to Asia, in which there was mention of the aloe, a valuable medicinal plant and worth a lot of money in Europe at that time. Consequently, Columbus had his men gather a significant quantity of century plants and load them in the ships’ holds.
Cutting down, transporting and storing a large quantity of century plants was an unpleasant task as the century plant is quite unfriendly to deal with. There are sharp hooked thorns all along the sides of the succulent leaves while the tips of the leaves end with long, straight and particularly sharp spines. The leaves are caustic and irritating to the skin when you (inevitably) get stuck with the spines or get sprayed with the sap when you cut the leaves.
The name century plant comes from a similar species found in the American desserts, Agave americana, which blooms its first and only time when it reaches the advanced age of one hundred years.
The century stalk grows rapidly, up to eight inches a day, and can reach a height of over twenty feet. When the stalk reaches its full height it begins to produce branches with brilliant yellow flowers and pollen filled cups at the ends. This usually occurs around Easter time.
The cacao or chocolate tree, Theobroma cacao, is a native of the Americas.It is an evergreen tree that can grow to about twenty five feet in height and six inches in trunk diameter. It is usually cultivated under larger shade trees. In the large five celled fruits are many large chocolate-colored bitter tasting seeds about one inch in length. These seeds are ground and roasted to produce chocolate. The chocolate tree is one of the best known cultivated plants originating in the New World. The Cacao trees found growing alongside theare some of the only ones on the island.
The Christmas Bush (Comocladia dodonaea) is also known as Poison Ash and is a relative of Poison Ivy. It has small, overlapping, spiny leaves that turn red with age. This mix of small red and green leaves, has probably led to its local name, Christmas Bush.
The active chemical irritant is called urushiol, which is also found in poison Ivy, poison oak, poison sumac, cashew nut shells and in extremely small amounts in mangoes.
The coconut palm is the symbol of the tropics. Their natural habitat is the area at the top of sand beaches where few other species can grow. In this area a layer of fresh water floats above another layer of salt water that seeps through the sand from the sea. The coconut palm roots seek out this fresh water layer. Although the coconut palm also grows well in good soil, it is more prevalent in sandy environments where there is less competition.
In St. John, the coconut is usually enjoyed while still green and slightly immature, when the nut meat is still soft. In this form they are called jelly nuts. After drinking the coconut water, the soft meat or jelly is eaten with a spoon made from the husk of the coconut. Coconut water mixed with gin is a popular drink around carnival time and is said to have aphrodisiac qualities.
Although the coconut palm is found all over the Caribbean, it is not native to the area. Their exact origin is not known for sure, but they probably originated somewhere in the Pacific Basin.
The coconut is one of the largest seeds in the world. It can float and withstand many days at sea. When it finds a beach, the leaves will sprout before the roots emerge. The coconut can move around with surf and tide until it finds an ideal spot on the beach to grow.
The leaves, or fronds, can be used to thatch roofs or to make mats, baskets and hats.
St. John Coffee
Coffee was one of the first agricultural products to be grown in St. John. Some plants still exist today. The fruits of the St. John coffee bush can make a nice cup of coffee. Learn more about how it’s done in the “St. John Coffee” section on the culture page.
Coral Vine is a fast-growing climbing vine that holds via tendrils, and is able to reach 25 ft or more in length. It is listed as a category II invasive exotic by the Florida’s pest plant council. Read more from Wikipedia
Before the “discovery” of the New World, the only cotton available to Europe came from Africa. Since the fibers of this variety of cotton were too short for it to be woven, clothing was usually made from wool.
The Tainos, the people that the European explorers encountered on their voyages to the “New World,” grew a variety of cotton with long fibers, from which they wove fabrics and made hammocks. This discovery must have been a great improvement in the European’s quality of life, and now, thanks to the Tainos, people worldwide can enjoy soft, comfortable cotton clothing.
There are several varieties of the Daura plant on St. John.They are plantst that contains the potent and deadly psychoactive alkaloids known as belladonna, henbane and mandrake. These plants have been used for centuries as medicines, poisons and intoxicants, and are often associated with witchcraft, sorcery, obeah, voodoo and shamanism.
The pulp of the yellow-skinned egg fruit has the consistency of a hard boiled egg yolk, but with a sweet taste. The shiny brown seed is used in Caribbean crafts
The egg fruit is a good source of carotene, protein and vitamin C.
The flower, which comes out in the spring, has a beautiful sweet aroma that can be quite pronounced during the early morning hours.
The native or wild frangipani has a smooth bark and long slender leaves. It produces a pleasant aromatic flower that is always white.
Its imported relative, Plumeria rubra, may have pink or white flowers.
Both varieties have soft fat twigs that serve to hold water during dry periods.
Every year their leaves are eaten by a beautiful, large, black and yellow caterpillar with a red head.
The tree survives and grows new leaves.
“The Mamoncillo, Melicoccus bijugatus, also known as the Mamón (although the word is considered obscene in some Spanish speaking countries), Chenet, Gnep, Ginep, Genip, Guinep, Kinnip, Quenepa, or Spanish Lime or Limoncillo, is a fruit-bearing tree in the soapberry family Sapindaceae, native to a wide area of the American tropics including Central America, Colombia, Venezuela, Suriname and the Caribbean.
It is a large tree growing up to 30 m high. The leaves are alternate, 8-15 cm long, pinnate with 4 or 6 opposite leaflets (no terminal leaflet), each leaflet 5-10 cm long.
It is grown and cultivated for its ovoid, green fruit, which grow in bunches. The fruit ripen during the summer. The fruit, similar to that of the related Lychee, is classified as a drupe.
A mamoncillo fruit has a tight and thin but rigid layer of skin, traditionally cracked by the teeth. Inside the skin is the tart, tangy, yellow pulp of the fruit, which is sucked by putting the whole fruit inside the mouth (the seed takes most of the volume of what is inside the skin). The stains on clothing from the pulp take a brownish color and cannot be removed; the stains are permanent.
Each mamoncillo fruit has a large seedinside, the same ovoid shape as the fruit itself. Mamoncillo seeds can be roasted and eaten just like sunflower seeds or chestnuts.
The mamoncillo has small, greenish-white, fragrant flowers in panicles. They begin to blossom from the branch tips when the rainy season begins. The mamoncillo is an example of a polygamous plant, producing bisexual flowers as well as flowers that are exclusively male or exclusively female. Occasionally, a bisexual flower will have a “dud” (sterile) anther, which limits the number of fruits produced from self-pollination when cross-pollination is possible.
Being tropical, the mamoncillo prefers warmer temperatures. Its leaves can be damaged if the temperature hits freezing point, with serious damage occurring below -4°C. Gardeners of mamoncillos should occasionally give their plantsheavy watering during the summer and propagate via seeds; grafting is also used to propagate cultivars.
The Mamoncillo is also commonly planted along roadsides as an ornamental tree.
There are 10 species in this genus, some of which also have edible fruits such as Melicoccus lepidopetala, native to Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina, and Melicoccus oliviformis native to northern South America, Central America, and the Caribbean.
According to Caribbean folk wisdom, girls learn the art of kissing by eating the sweet flesh of this fruit.” (Wikopedia)
The Malay Gooseberry, Phyllanthus acidus, also called West India Gooseberry and grosella in Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo, is thought to have first grown in Madagascar and then spread through the east Indies. It was brought to Jamaica in 1793 and now can be found throughout the Caribbean and the Bahamas.
Here on St. John it is mostly used to make jam. When the gooseberries are cooked up with sugar they turn a ruby-red.
See Gooseberry article on the St John Life Blog
It’s morning, It’s morning,
Bring me some guavaberry
It’s morning, It’s morning,
We wish you a very merry
Song sung by carolers on Christmas morning
Guavaberries can be purple or orange depending on the tree. Some people prefer one color over the other, but if I close my eyes I cannot tell the difference between the two. I doubt if anyone can.
Guavaberry trees can be identified by their smooth, shiny bark that looks much like the bay rum tree, but with smaller leaves. They usually bear their small purple or orange berries in the late fall or early winter. The berries are prized for their use in guavaberry wine and guavaberry pastries, traditional Virgin Islands Christmas treats.
“The hog plum or mombin (Spondias mombin) is a delicious fruit produced by a tall tree indigenous to tropical America. In fact, the tree is commonly grown throughout the Caribbean region for its sweet, juicy fruits. Like the mango, the fibrous, seed-bearing mesocarp becomes a common drift fruit in Caribbean currents. Dried hog plums commonly wash ashore on beaches of Caribbean islands, the Gulf of Mexico and the southeastern United States. The hog plum is also growm in India. In Calcutta (now Kolkata) it is called “amra.” A common misconception is that “amra” is raw mango.” (waynesworld)
THIS GARDEN EARTH by Charles Deyalsingh, © 1999
As far back as I can remember, pepper was “the” spice. From kitchen to kitchen and garden to garden, peppers were always in abundance, especially in the marketplaces.
Pepper sauce went on just about everything. I remember, so well, me and the boys in our early teens sharing a mango salad called “chow.” Using a couple of banana leaves, one upon the other as a bowl, we put together 6 half-ripe mangoes, one orange and a cucumber. Most of the time it would be just mangoes. We used a special variety of mango called Long or Veer for this dish. On St. John it is known as the kidney mango. The fruits were all peeled and washed and cut into small slices. We then added to the chow, or salad: salt, black pepper, peppers (chiltepin) well crushed. These ingredients were added to the dish. A lime was then squeezed over it as a grand finale. This dish created a rush of heat beyond belief, and left us walking around in circles when finished, as if in a trance, mouth watering and eyes burning, looking and smiling in approval of the heat.
Much later I found out that pepper causes the brain to trigger the release of endorphins, a natural painkiller that also stimulates the body and releases a sense of euphoria. The source of this physiological reaction is capsaicine (pronounced cap-say-i-sin.)
Arriving on St. John in 1968, I carried with me an assortment of pepper sauces prepared by my Gran. I distinctly remember lime pepper sauce (my favorite), also mango kutchela, mango amchar, and tamarind chutney. I was not sure I would be getting any of these condiments on St. John. I was right.
Wild bird peppers were scattered around the island, and Miss Alma had a couple of yellow habanero trees behind her grocery, where La Tapa is now, that I would help myself to. St. Johniansreally never saw anyone eat a hot raw pepper the way I did. Ialso recall a lot of funny stories about turning on Statesiders to my pepper sauce and watching with delight the expressions and reactions, for they had never had anything that hot.
Hot sauce is a dramatic culinary gesture, blissful, soulful and jazzy, and could be addictive. It will definitely bring out some creativity and loosen your cooking style. It will also add zip and flavour to a wide range of foods. When used mildly it is difficult to discover the source of the magical fruity flavor brought to the dish. Hot sauce can also be used as a cross-dresser, as a condiment – like I said, on anything, almost – sandwich spreads, pizza toppings, barbecuesauces, marinades, or even used straight as dips.
Most hot sauces consist of chiles in a liquid base of vinegar or water. They can also differ and include a wide range of ingredients from tropical fruits and vegetables to Indian curries. Sometimes hot sauces are cooked, but not always.
There are many differences between hot sauces. Definitions tend to become vague as salsas (Spanish for “sauce”) get thinner and hot sauces thicker. Salsas are uncooked condiments with chopped tomatoes or fruit, other ingredients and chiles. Picante sauces are smooth blends that have tomatoes as the main ingredient in a smooth, pourable sauce. Hot sauces, unlike other sauces, have peppers as the main ingredient, pureed with other ingredients into a pourable sauce.
Chiles provide the piquancy of hot sauce and are essential for texture, colour and flavour. The brown habanero from Jamaica is the hottest I have tasted, along with the congo pepper from Trinidad. The West Indies has a vast variety of these peppers.
“Habanero” refers to a specific pod type from the Yucatan, with its origin in central Bolivia along the Rio Grande. The wild chiles and their family, the Chiltepin, my favorite for my own hot sauce, are very pungent. The red, erect fruits are attractive to certain birds that eat the whole pod; the seeds pass through their digestive tracts and then are deposited in the ground, encased in a perfect fertilizer.
In 1492 Columbus mistook chiles for black peppercorns and called them peppers, thus beginning a naming confusion that continues today.
The pepper was used for seasoning in pre-Columbian times; the Mexicans have used it in their diets for centuries. Columbus, along with Spanish and Portuguese colonizers, in the 1500’s introduced the chile plant to the Old World and it spread along trade routes to West Africa, India and the Far East.
Chiles are good for intensifying the flavour of food and as Gran said, they also have an added advantage because they aid digestion and circulation, reduce heart problems, and are also a great source of potassium and vitamins.
These days it seems like everyone is into hot sauces, “De Hotta De Betta.
The kapok tree has long been considered sacred by the indigenous peoples of America. The Mayans believe that the kapok, which they call ceiba, (pronounced say-bah) is the tree of life whose roots extend to the underworld and whose branches hold up the heavens. It is often planted in the center of their plazas and villages and is rarely cut down even if it happens to be in an inconvenient location.
The Taino, who were the inhabitants of the Caribbean at the time of Columbus’ arrival, had a spiritual relationship with the kapok. Because of its great size, its tendency to grow straight, and because the wood is soft and more easily worked using primitive stone tools, the kapok or ceiba was chosen to make the great canoes used by the Taino to travel from island to island. Before cutting down a ceiba, the Tainos needed a sign that the tree spirit was amenable to being transformed. According to Taino myth, the tree would talk to the woodsmen and tell them if it was all right to cut it down. The tree spirit would also specify how it would like to be carved and painted. Those who were involved in chopping down these trees would then have a life-long responsibility to care for the transformed spirits and to make offerings to them.
The kapok is known by different names in different parts of the Caribbean. In the BVI it is called the silk cotton tree. Some down islanders call it the jumbie tree. In Mexico, Central and South America it is called the ceiba. The scientific name, Ceiba pentandra, comes from the Taino word for the tree pronounced tsayee-baa.
The kapok can reach heights of over 150 feet and in hot, wet and sunny environments can grow as much as ten feet in a year.
On the Caribbean island of Antigua an immense 300-year-old kapok tree has become a tourist attraction. There is a large hollow area at the base of the trunk where as many as twenty people can stand completely inside the ancient tree.
On the island of Vieques, there is also a ceiba that has become a tourist attraction as well as time honored gathering place.
A buttressed root system effectively supports the kapok. The buttresses, which can extend out over 30 feet from the main trunk, allow the tree to resist all but the most forceful hurricanes. They also serve to store moisture, providing a reserve water supply for the kapok during periods of extended drought, common on many Caribbean islands.
The complex of tall oddly shaped buttresses can also serve other purposes depending on one’s imagination. For example children use them to play games, such as “house” or “hide and seek” and others use them for overnight shelter by placing a tarp or canvas between two buttresses.
On the dark side, a Mayan legend warns of the evil Xtabay woman who hides in the buttresses at night and emerges to seduce and kill young men who are bewitched by her beauty.
When the kapok is young, the trunk develops pointy, conical spines about an inch to an inch and a half long, which earn the young kapok the name “monkey no climb”. (Three other local trees, the Yellow Prickle, the White Prickle and the Sandbox tree have spiny trunks and are also referred to by the same nickname.) The spines serve to protect the young trees against animals. When the kapok gets large enough it stops producing the spines and the original ones gradually wear away.
Once a year all the leaves of the kapok fall off the tree and about every five to ten years large, white to pinkish, bell-shaped flowers are produced after the tree is leafless. The flowers open up in the early evening about fifteen minutes after sunset. Although human beings usually find the flower to have a foul odor, bats are attracted to the fragrance and arrive during the night to suck the nectar and in the morning bees finish off any of the nectar not already consumed by the bats.
The flower then develops into a fruit or seedpod about six inches long. The pod is filled with brown seeds and cotton-like, woolly floss. Before being replaced by cheaper synthetics, the kapok fiber, which is eight times lighter than cotton and five times more buoyant than cork was used as the flotation for life preservers. In addition to these attributes the kapok fiber is totally water repellent and resistant to rot.
Indigenous peoples of the Amazon Basin used to wrap the kapok floss around the back of their poison darts so that they could be blown forcefully out of long blowguns.
The kapok fiber is still used in many parts of the world to stuff furniture and mattresses. In Indonesia, for example, most people sleep on kapok mattresses.
The kapok is often associated with the supernatural. In Africa, the kapok is also considered sacred. It is said that sleeping on pillows made of kapok cotton will bring good luck, purify and empower your material and spiritual energy and bring good dreams and saintly vibrations. Slaves brought to the Caribbean often slept on mattresses and pillows stuffed with kapok. Interestingly enough, this custom was often shunned by white planters and plantation overseers who believed that sleeping on kapok pillows brought about nightmares.
If you want to see a beautiful kapok tree on St. John, one can be found on the Reef Bay Trail. It is well marked by the National Park Service sign quoted above. Remember to avoid the evil Xtabay woman, however, if for some reason you find yourself there after sunset.
Lignum vitae means “long life” in Latin, from which comes one of its common names, Tree of Life.
Lignum Vitae is the heaviest and densest wood in the world and will rapidly sink to the bottom when placed in water. It resists rot caused by insects and moisture so effectively that remains of Lignum vitae wood used as posts for dwellings by Taino Indians discovered in Tutu, St. Thomas were dated by carbon dating and found to be over 800 years old. In colonial days this hard, strong, and long-lasting wood was an invaluable construction material.
In backtime Virgin Islands when someone’s problems were especially severe or when someone was carrying an extremely heavy emotional burden it was said that their troubles were “heavier than a Lingy Vitae cross.”
Before the European colonization, which led to the deforestation of St. John, there were many stands of Lignum vitae on the island. They helped to produce a jungle-like canopy over large portions of the island, providing shade for tropical undergrowth.
On St. John, Virgin Islands, most large native trees were cut down to prepare for sugarcane cultivation or were harvested for their valuable wood. Once plentiful on the island, the Lignum vitae is now relatively rare. Notwithstanding, beautiful mature lignum vitae trees can be seen near the Post Office, on the corner near the roundabout, by the sugar mill at Caneel Bay and along the Ram Head Trail.
Lignum vitae is a great medium for carvings like the ones shown above.
Lignum vitae wood was used in the past to make ball bearings because its extremely high resin content makes it self-lubricating. Another place that Lignum vitae were used was in United States courtrooms, where the judge’s gavel was traditionally made from this fine wood.
The bark of the Lignum vitae, especially on the lower part of the trunk, is smooth in texture and purple and green in color.
The tree tends to branch out early and may have multiple trunks, which form a large and relatively low canopy. The leaves are bright green. When the tree blooms, usually in the late spring or early summer, it produces small blue flowers, which later develop into bright orange fruits.
Lignum Vitae bark mixed with Maubi bark has been used in traditional Virgin Islands bush medicine as an aid in relieving the symptoms of fish poisoning and a tea made from the flowers and leaves is reputed to be an excellent energy restorative.
Elsewhere, there is abundant anecdotal evidence that the resins of the lignum vitae are effective anti inflammatory agents and have been used to treat arthritis, gout, and sciatica.
Most lime trees found on St. John are the key lime variety, probably best known as the main ingredient of key lime pie
Originally introduced in the Florida Keys, from which the name was derived, the tree was brought to the Caribbean by Spanish colonists, and then spread to the warmer areas of North, South and Central America.
Key limes trees can survive the harsh conditions on St. John, but they do particularly well when given water during prolonged dry spells. The limes are picked when green commercially, but left to their own devices they’ll turn yellow and fall off the tree, which gives them added flavor.
Key limes have their own special taste, stronger and more aromatic than the more commonly found Persian lime.
Many citrus trees were once planted lower Reef Bay Valley, and some lime trees still remain and one in particular can be found growing right alongside the Reef Bay Trail.
In her book, Some True Tales and Legends About Caneel Bay, Trunk Bay and a Hundred and One Other Places on St. John, Charlotte Dean Stark remembers collecting fruit in Reef Bay:
“There are cultivated orange trees there (at Estate Reef Bay), and once, to our joy, in 1948 or 1949, there was enough rain to produce a crop of five hundred oranges. They were exceptionally sweet and of fine flavor.”
Pisonia subcordata (water mampoo, loblolly tree)
The mampoo is relative of the common bougainvillea. It can be found on shorelines but is more commonly found as elevation increases and coastal scrub lands give way to dry forests. It is often the largest species in the dry forest environment
The trunk of the mampoo holds water enabling the tree enables it to resist prolonged periods of droughts.
Disgusting Tree? My friend, King, says that the Mampoo is dis-GUSTING messy tree – and he has a point.
On the end of each seed is a ball of sticky hooked spikes that stick on to skin or clothing like sticky velcro. If you have a mampoo on the way to your house you will surely find the little seeds everywhere during April and May, the time that they fall from the tree.
Disgusting it may be, but I still find the mampoo to be a beautiful shade tree and I’m happy to have them near my house, except in April and May, that is.
Only the female mampoo produces the sticky, messy seed. The male produces a flower, that when it falls, doesn’t stick to everything it touches and can be easily swept up.
Croton flavens var. rigidus
The leaves have been used as pot scrubbing agents. They do a great job! They are organic, biodegradable and leave a fresh sage-like aroma
Night Blooming Cerius
There is a delicious fruit that grows wild on St. John that not many people know about. Old time St. Johnians call it a chickenette; others with roots in the British Virgin Islands and down island call it a strawberry or sometimes a strawberry pear. Latinos call it a pitaya and another common name is dragon fruit.
The pitaya is a red oval-shaped fruit about six inches long, tasting something like a kiwi, but sweeter and juicier. The fruit is produced by the night blooming cereus, the thorny vine-like cactus that you see growing along the ground and over bushes in dense tangled clumps or climbing up tree trunks or dangling down from branches.
The night blooming cereus is also called sweet-scented cactus, vanilla cactus, large-flowered cactus and reina de la noche (queen of the night) in Spanish. It blooms once a year, usually in late summer, and bears the largest flower found on St. John. The flower, which is white with yellow stamens, smells like vanilla and can reach as much as one foot in diameter. It opens up so quickly that you can literally watch it unfold right before your very eyes.
The giant flower stays open just for that one night and wilts by the dawn. The fruit develops from where the flower falls. It is green at first and turns red when it ripens.
Getting your hands on the night blooming cereus fruit is not so easy. Although the fruit itself is not thorny, the cactus vine that it grows on has many clusters of small spines, and to get at the fruit you usually have to get your hand past thorny tangles of the parent vine. Not only is the cereus itself uninviting and formidable, but it also seems to grow in the most unfriendly of St. John environments. Its neighbors are invariably the worst denizens of the St. John plant world, villains such as, catch and keep, Christmas bush, which causes severe skin irritation on contact and pinguin, or false pineapple, a plant so thorny and hard to get past that it is sometimes planted as a natural fence. Moreover, the night blooming cereus’s neighborhood is often the home of our local wasp, the hard-stinging Jack Spaniard, whose nests often hang at face level hidden underneath leaves and branches.
If you’re not entirely put off by all these thorns and stings and barbs, you’ll still need to have good timing. You’ll have to wait until the fruit begins to ripen before you can pick it, and this must be done before someone else beats you to it. That someone, by the way, may well be a thrushie bird that can get in to such places a lot easier than you can. But even the thrushie bird seems to be deterred by the extremely difficult locales preferred by the night blooming cereus.
Once you pick the fruit, the rest is easy. Peel off the thick red skin and slice up the white fruit with its many tiny black seeds or cut the fruit in half and eat the inside with a spoon. This latter method is usually how the fruit is presented in hotels and restaurants in South and Central America. It’s really a tasty treat, so don’t miss the chance to try one if the opportunity presents itself.
Pitaya Cut up and ready to eat
The night blooming cereus may very well seem scraggly, unfriendly and unruly, but it is certainly not without redeeming value. Not only does it produce a magnificent flower and delicious fruit, but it also has important medicinal qualities. It can be a potent heart medicine and serves as a partial substitute for the plant-based drug, digitalis. The Native American Shoshone tribe calls the night blooming cereus, “pain in the heart”, and use it to treat the severe pains caused by angina pectoris. Homeopathists prescribe it to treat a variety of heart problems such as tachycardia, palpitations, arrhythmia and anxiety or panic attacks.
Like other commonly found and often ignored items on St. John, the night blooming cereus fetches a hefty price stateside. The young tender stems and the flowers can be pounded out to make a milky white juice. This is mixed with alcohol to produce the tincture that is used as the heart medicine. Vitality Works Inc. in Albuquerque, New Mexico sells a tiny one-ounce bottle of night blooming cereus tincture for $10.00.
“One of the latest foods to satisfy the United States’ appetite for the exotic [is] the dragon fruit (pitaya)….recently U.S. manufacturers of bottled juices began importing a frozen puree of the fruit to use as a flavoring. But concerns about fruit-fly infestations keep the fruit itself from being imported. So with savvy consumers and trendy chefs willing to pay up to ten dollars for just one piece of fruit, boutique farmers and backyard gardeners in the U.S. are planting as fast as they can.” From National Geographic August 2003, “Enter the Dragon Fruit” by A.R. Williams
If you would like to have a night blooming cereus of your very own, it’s easy to do. Just cut off a segment or two of a wild plant and stick it in the ground. It will root easily and within a year or two, you may have the pleasure of observing one of nature’s most beautiful and grandiose flowers, of feasting on the sweet and juicy chickenette and, possibly, of getting rich in the burgeoning medicinal plant industry, all right in your own backyard.
The individual plants grow close together and have numerous barbed spines that stick out every which way. This makes pinguin extremely difficult to pass through. Early European settlers took advantage of this characteristic and used the pinguin as a living fence.
The pinguin is also called false pineapple because of its great resemblance to the true pineapple. It produces a large attractive flower that is followed by a cluster of edible yellow fruits, which have a pleasant and mildly tart taste.
The pistarckle, also known as broom bush, is a relative of the more commonly found maran bush. Like maran and other crotons, the pistarckle is poisonous to livestock and thus remains where grazing has wiped out other species. Because of the nature of the leaves, it has been used to make brooms.
The word, “pistarckle,” was used in the former language of St. John, Dutch Creole, to signify a commotion.
The poui tree is the national tree of Brazil.
Some species form a symbiotic relation with ants. Attracted to a sugary secretion produced by the tree, the ants serve to protect the tree from other insects and animals that would otherwise eat the leaves, bark or flowers. The genus name, Tabebuia, comes from the indigenous Brazilian Tupian Indians words for “ants” and “wood.”
The fallen flowers make a beautiful yellow carpet on the ground beneath the tree.
Listen to sound of rain as the wind blows
The sandbox tree is recognized by its many dark pointed spines and smooth brown bark. The sharp spines along the trunk have caused it to be called monkey no climb. The white prickle, yellow prickle and kapok have also been called monkey no climb for the same reason.
Another name for this tree is monkey pistol. The tree has beautiful seed pods that look like tangerines made out of wood. When the seed pods are perfectly ripe, the individual segments, which are the separate seeds, burst apart making a sharp cracking sound like a pistol being fired.
The origin of the name sandbox tree was once explained to me by St. John horticulturist, Eleanor Gibney:
“During the Victorian era a necessary desk accessory was something called the sandbox. People kept sand in it to blot ink with. Some enterprising person, upon finding these pods in the West Indies, must have decided that if you got them right before they split open and put a little glue in them, they would stay intact, and they would make perfect little sand holders.”
“There are probably hundreds of them sitting around in the attics of Europe,” she added.
Seagrapes can also be found on windy exposed beaches and low hillsides. They adapt to these windy conditions by taking the shape of squat a low lying bushes.
The female sea grape grows grape-like clusters of fruit, which turn purple when they are ripe. They can be eaten plain or made into preserves or wine. You can write on the leaves with a sharp stick or pointed object, a characteristic that led them to be used as playing cards by early setters to the islands.
The Sensitive plant is a creeping annual or perennial herb often grown for its curiosity value: the compound leaves fold inward and droop when touched, re-opening within minutes. Mimosa pudica is native to Brazil, but is now a pantropical weed. Other names given to this curious plant are Humble plant, Shame plant, Sleeping grass, Prayer Plant, Touch-me-not, Makahiya (Philippines), and Mori Vivi (West Indies). The Chinese name for this plant translates to “shyness grass”. The species epithet, pudica, is Latin for “bashful” or “shrinking”.
The stem is erect in young plants, but becomes creeping or trailing with age. The stem is slender, branching, and sparsely to densely prickly, growing to a length of 1.5 m (5 ft). The leaves are bipinnately compound, with one or two pinnae pairs, and 10-26 leaflets per pinna. The petioles are also prickly. Pedunculate (stalked) pale pink or purpleflower heads arise from the leaf axils. The globose to ovoid heads are 8-10 mm in diameter (excluding the stamens). On close examination, it is seen that the floret petals are red in their upper part and the filaments are pink to lavender. The fruit consists of clusters of 2-8 pods from 1-2 cm long each, these prickly on the margins. The pods break into 2-5 segments and contain pale brown seeds some 2.5 mm long.
Mimosa pudica is well known for its rapid plant movement. In the evening the leaflets will fold together and the whole leaf droops downward. It then re-opens at sunrise. This type of motion has been termed nyctinastic movement. The leaves also close up under various other stimuli, such as touching, warming, or shaking. The stimulus can also be transmitted to neighbouring leaves. These types of movements have been termed seismonastic movements. The cause is a loss of turgor pressure. The movement is caused by “a rapid loss of pressure in strategically situated cells that cause the leaves to droop right before one’s eyes”
Starfruit trees can be found on St. John as well as in the rest of the Caribbean. It also grows in Asia, Central and South America, Florida and Hawaii.
Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)
While pulling out some weeds on my ground, I noticed a stingy itchy sensation, which I quickly attributed to a low-lying plant that I thought was a more benign kind of vine, which was, in fact, stinging nettle.
Over to the digital microscope it went and here’s what I saw:
Notice the needle-like fibers. They act like hypodermic needles injecting histamine into the skin, which itches and burns. It effects some worse than others.
Treatments include ointments containing antihistamine and hydro cortisone as well as a host of natural remedies. Me, I just left it alone and it soon stopped hurting.
Stinging nettle has been used for food, teas, medicines and fiber.
In World War I, a shortage of cotton led to German uniforms being made of stinging nettle fiber – no wonder they lost the war!
Want to know more about stinging nettle; you know what to do – Google it!
St. John USVI Stories: The Sucker
Exceprted from Tales of St. John and the Caribbean by Gerald Singer ©2001
On St. John, everyone seems to know one another – if not directly, at least peripherally. This is a mixed blessing. It offers a network of community support and a warm feeling of belonging, but you give up anonymity and a certain degree of privacy. So if you screw up, everyone knows about it.
One day, two individuals, both well known on St. John, wanted to smoke an herb that, although not particularly dangerous or addictive, is illegal. For this reason, the two island residents decided to conduct the forbidden activity where they wouldn’t readily be seen.
As the two friends happened to be in Cruz Bay at the time, they walked up one of the National Park trails that begins in the vicinity of town. About five minutes up the trail, they came upon what appeared to be an ideal location. A large flat rock in the shade of a mampo tree lay partly hidden just off the main trail and would provide a comfortable and private place to sit down and have an illegal smoke.
The first man sat down and immediately jumped up. The rock was already occupied by a small cactus commonly called a sucker. The barbed spines went through his pants and became lodged in his buttocks. The man cried out in pain and surprise and followed it up with a colorful string of profanities.
Sucker spines are difficult to remove once they pierce the skin. This is due to the barbed point and the segmented construction of the spine, which causes it to break off when a person tries to pull it out. A chemical irritant on the spine causes puncture wounds to be painful, and if the spine is allowed to remain imbedded in the skin, it can be annoying at least and cause an infection at worst. The spines usually work themselves out, but the best thing is to remove them, which is just what the man tried to do.
This job was obviously difficult. He couldn’t see what he was doing, nor could he get a good grip on pulling the things out.
He needed help and this task fell to his friend.
He pulled down his pants and leaned against the trunk of the tree. His buddy then put on his glasses, and with the intense concentration of a surgeon, struggled to remove the imbedded spines.
The two men were suddenly aware of another presence. They looked up to see a thoroughly shocked National Park Ranger standing on the trail staring at them. To make matters worse, it was one of the rangers whom they recognized as having been around St. John for a long time.
The man with the sucker spines in his behind got the picture right away. A locally famous ladies’ man, his immediate thought was that this story would not tell well around St. John. But although he was usually cool-headed and a smooth talker, he could not pull up his pants quickly enough and he began to stumble over his words.
With his pants halfway pulled up, he shouted to the ranger, “Officer, I know what you’re thinking, but I can explain – it’s not what it looks like! You see, I sat on a cactus and….”
He didn’t get a chance to finish. The ranger backed up and mumbled something to himself.
“Officer, I can explain, please listen!” But it was to no avail. The ranger didn’t say another word. He just hurriedly continued down the trail, never looking back.
Sugar Production at Annaberg
Harvesting Sugar Cane
For a good source of information about the sugar apple click here
The Sweet Lime or Limeberry is a plant with thorns that can be unfriendly to hikers when left to grow out over the trail. The limeberry produces a fragrant flower and bears an edible, red, berry-like fruit, with an acidic, lime flavored flesh. The limeberry is used locally in making jams and jellies
Tamarind trees can usually be found along roadsides in dry forest areas. These large trees produce a tart, yet pleasant tasting, fruit that is about three inches long and looks like a brown seed pod.
They can be eaten raw or made into drinks or preserves; tamarind drink being a local favorite. Tamarinds are often used in Indian cooking and are an important ingredient in the popular Lea and Perrins Worcestershire Sauce.
Leucaena leucocephala, Leucaena, tantan
I hate wild tamarind. They’re ugly, untidy and unruly. They spread rampantly and take over the place. They’re prejudiced and intolerant. They grow close together and won’t let any other plants live in their neighborhood.
They’re resilient and tenacious. Their sturdy taproot goes straight down into the earth and holds on tight. They can withstand drought, flood and even come back after a fire. There are no insects, predators or diseases that can do them any significant harm.
They’re hard to get rid of. If you cut them down, they’ll grow right back. If you try and pull out the small one, you’d better have a lot of time and a lot of patience. If you try and dig out the big ones, you’d better have a good hoe-pick and a strong back.
Wild tamarinds are prolific. They can flower several times a year, bearing a tree full of seedpods. Each seedpod contains about 20 to 30 seeds that will germinate easily and remain viable for many years. The seeds may sprout where they fall or may be spread far and wide by the wind and by the droppings of birds, rats, mongoose, sheep, cows and goats.
On St. John, wild tamarinds thrive wherever land is disturbed. You’ll see them on roadsides, along trails, on land cleared for construction or wherever hurricanes or severe storms have blown down trees in the forest.
Wild tamarind or tantan, the botanical name for which is Leucaena, is native to the West Indies, but now can be found in tropical areas around the globe. It is the fastest growing tree in the world, reaching its full height of 15-20 feet in about three to four years. Some can even grow as high as 30 feet.
Even though I hate them, and other St. John gardeners will probably share my feelings, they are not without redeeming value. They control erosion, covering bare land rapidly and effectively.
They are also nitrogen fixing. This means that, unlike most plants that use up organic nitrogen compounds from the soil, eventually depleting it, wild tamarinds actually add nitrogen compounds to the soil by taking nitrogen from the air and changing it into organic nitrogen compounds that enrich the earth.
The immature green seedpods and leaves of wild tamarind are rich in protein and can serve as food for goats, sheep and cows. The foliage and seedpods, however, also contain large amounts of the amino acid mimosine, which can make animals that have manes, like horses, pigs, mules and donkeys, go bald. They are also supposed to be edible and nutritious for human beings, at least for those unconcerned about hair loss.
On many poorer West Indian islands, wood is the primary source of cooking fuel. This practice can lead to severe deforestation. Wild tamarind can help. Because it grows so fast and so easily, it is now being used to make charcoal. On some islands there are actually wild tamarind plantations dedicated to charcoal making.
And here’s one further use of the ubiquitous and often unpopular wild tamarind. The mature brown seeds are shiny and actually quite attractive and are sought after by many jewelry makers for use as beads. A pack of 20 wild tamarind seeds, about the amount found in one single seedpod, can be purchased from seedman.com in Gautier, MS for the hefty price of $9.95.
West Indian Locust
Hikers on thewill pass by an excellent specimen of the stinking toe tree, which is identified by a National Park Service information sign.
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 West Indian Locust 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.)
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.”
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 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.
The white cedar, also called pink cedar and pink poui, produces a beautiful flower that carpets the ground below when they fall. The hard wood of this tree has been used on St. John as well as througout the US and British Virgin Islands for the constructon of native boats and sloops.
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