St. John’s Disappearing Century Plant

Century plant in full bloom high up on Great Thatch hillside

Ed Gibney took this photo from the top of Great Thatch’s highest mountaintop, Judging from the century plant in full bloom, it looks like Ed and his son Matthew arrived here before the first wave of Mexican Snout Beetles, culprits responsible for the decimation of century plants on St. John, the Virgin Islands and elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Not so long ago, I never would have thought that a photo of  a blooming century plant would be a rare find. The plant was everywhere on St. John and although they bloomed only after twenty years, there were enough of them that come Easter time, the tall flowering stalks could be seen on just about any hillside on St. John.

I used to manage a vacation rental and I found that the century plant was one of those things that visitors would often be curious about another one being a termite nest.

I would often be asked if they were aloes and I would tell them the story about how Christopher Columbus mistook these agaves for aloes, which at the time were used extensively in Europe as medicine and were valuable. And these were really big aloes, giant aloes actually, but unfortunately for Columbus not aloes at all.

Columbus had his men cut up the century plants and haul the heavy leaves back to the boat, I imagine with the sticky oozy, itchy, sap, getting all over the poor sailors, only to find out at some time that they weren’t worth anything in terms of European money was quite disconcering. Another interesting aside is that while Columbus was busy calculating his imaginary future profits in the aloe business, he passed by some Indians smoking an herb in a pipe, something that has brought entrepreneurs untold wealth up until this day, tobacco. Ignoring the tobacco, Columbus stood by and watched the presumably sweating sailors schlepping the “giant aloe” through the bush and back to the ship.

Other New World agaves, however, did prove to be of value.

The fibers from the Agave fourcroydes, known as Henequen were used to make rope and twine and set off an economic boom in Mexican state of Yucatán until they were replaced by synthetic fibers.

The popular alcoholic beverage, tequila, is made form Agave tequilana

Agave nectar a sweetener made from several different species of agave has recently become popular with food faddists due to it’s low glycemic index compared to other sweeteners such as cane sugar

Returning to St. John and my captive audience of curious visitors, there was another little piece of performance art I orchestrated for them using the century plant, the needle and thread shtick. Taking hold of the spine at the end of the century plant leaf, and pulling on it until it separated from the leaf, out would come the spine with a strong fiber still attached….

“Look,” I would say, “ready made needle and thread!”

"Needle and thread" from a St. John century plant

St. John Christmas Tree

digeriedo made from century plant
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3 thoughts on “St. John’s Disappearing Century Plant”

  1. A minor detail:
    The beetles arrived in Great Thatch early, since they apparently first appeared in Tortola, in landscaping plants. The islands near Tortola (ie, Great Thatch) got them next.
    This spring I only observed one bloom on Great Thatch, the one shown here. Twenty years ago there would have been dozens,

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