A Manly Scent from the St. John Forest

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Bay rum trees with cinnamon colored bark. [hr gap=”1″]

Crushed leaves from the native ‘bay rum’ tree (officially Pimenta racemosa) produce what is probably the most commonly recognized smell associated with St. John. A walk in the woods can be a bewildering blur of similar-looking green leaves, but once you have been introduced to the scent of bay rum you are pretty sure to remember that tree.

Your nose has direct links to two brain areas strongly associated with emotion and memory – the amygdala and hippocampus. As a result smells are processed very differently than information coming in from vision, touch and sound. When recalled, they are also much more likely to produce a feeling of being transported back to another time and place.

When I first smelled the bay rum leaves myself, I had a sudden image of my father in New York in the early 1960s, freshly shaved and dressed in his suit, leaning down to kiss me on his way off to work in the morning. Bay rum was used to make a very popular aftershave lotion.

At the March 2016 St. John Historical Society event, Eleanor Gibney provided a display of bay tree leaves and old time bay rum bottles.
At the March 2016 St. John Historical Society event, Eleanor Gibney provided a display of bay tree leaves and old time bay rum bottles.

As it turns out, leaves from trees cultivated on St. John were the source of almost all the bay oil used to make the aftershave lotion, which became an important export business. The soil and climate here supported large groves of bay rum trees that produced exceptionally fine oil. An article posted on the St. John Historical Society website reports that in the early 1900s about 4000 quarts of bay oil per year were produced on St. John.

You can see the remains of a commercial bay rum distillery across the road from the entrance to Cinnamon Bay beach. Along the nearby loop trail into the forest there are many of the fragrant bay rum trees, easily recognizable by their distinctive bark that looks like a cinnamon stick.

A company on St. Thomas still produces ‘St Johns Bay Rum’ in bottles covered with woven palm fronds, though most of the oil is now produced on Dominica.

As part of the Unitarians’ Tree Appreciation Project, my friend Jim Wilcox decided he would grow a bay rum tree at home in a pot. He recalled going on a guided hike at Cinnamon Bay and enjoying experiencing the smell of the crushed bay rum leaves there for the first time. He also decided to make his own aftershave lotion.

He found a simple recipe on a website called ‘The Art of Manliness’.

Bay Rum Aftershave
4 ounces vodka
2 tablespoons rum
2 dried bay leaves (Pimenta racemosa)
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1 stick of cinnamon, broken in pieces
Fresh zest from a small orange

Combine all ingredients in a bottle or jar with a tightly fitting lid. Put the closed container in a dark, cool place (not in the refrigerator) for two weeks. This allows the alcohol to extract the essential oils from the bay leaves. After two weeks, strain the mixture through several layers of coffee filters. Put in a nice bottle and splash on face after shaving.

jim-with-bay-rum-tree
Jim Wilcox with his baby bay rum tree.

The website states that “The history of bay rum is as manly as it smells.” Their story is that sailors in the 16th century used to rub themselves with West Indies bay leaves to mask the stink they acquired after months at sea. Then some sailor got the idea of steeping the bay leaves in rum to extract the essential oils and make an easy-to-apply fragrance. (I have to think the ladies in port were very grateful for that.) Later, the islanders supposedly began adding spices and orange zest to the mix.

Jim let me try a dab of his home-brewed bay rum lotion, which felt particularly fresh and cooling behind my ears on a hot afternoon. Maybe not just suitable for men, I thought.

A second batch he had in the works also included vodka as a main ingredient, plus the bay leaves and rum, but he had added more spices and orange zest. It was wrapped in athletic socks to keep out the light, and stored under the counter. This reminded me of the bottle of ‘glugg’ my Swedish father kept under his desk at home. Not surprising, since glugg is a mix of wine and aquavit (a Norse liquor which, like vodka, is distilled from grain or potatoes) plus cinnamon, cloves and orange peel. Probably the alcohol smell would mellow by the time it was ready to use, though if not, maybe that would add to its ‘manly’ allure.

Photos by Gail Karlsson.

Gail Karlsson HeadshotGail is an environmental lawyer and author of The Wild Life in an Island House. gkarlsson@att.net. For more information on the Unitarian Tree Appreciation Project, go to http://uufstjohn.com/treeproject/ or the Facebook page ‘UUF Tree Appreciation Project St John VI’.