Preserving the Cultural Heritage of St. John’s Plants

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Pictured above: Ital Delroy Anthony talking to UU Tree Project participants near the large raintree at VIERS. [hr gap=”1″]

During the recent Unitarian Fellowship retreat at VIERS (the VI Environmental Resource Station), Ital Delroy Anthony led our group on a nature walk around Lameshur Bay. When he was growing up on St. John, his mother taught him about the uses of different plants and now he shares that information with others, along with stories about traditional Virgin Islands culture.

Before there were pharmacies, local trees and plants provided all sorts of medicinal treatments, and there is renewed interest in them today as sources of alternative medicine. Many of the traditional remedies we heard about from Ital involved familiar plants, including using the leaves from the Ginger Thomas to make a tea to treat fevers, or acacia bark for diabetes.

Much of the information about day-to-day uses of plants was not written down. However, in 1997 the University of the Virgin Islands Cooperative Extension Service made an effort to document and preserve this aspect of the territory’s cultural heritage in a book called Traditional Medicinal Plants of St. Croix, St Thomas and St. John. Local elders from St. John who contributed to the book included Eulita Jacobs, then a nurse at the health clinic, Louise Sewer an expert on herbal medicine from the East End, and Felicia Cains Martin, whose granddaughter Donna Roberts worked on developing a medicinal plants resource center at VIERS.

congo-root-plant
‘Congo Root’ Plant.

One plant I was surprised to find in the book was ‘congo root’ (scientific name Petiveria alliacea), which I recognized as an annoying weed I had tried unsuccessfully to remove from my yard. This plant gets to be two or three feet high and has long thin stalks holding little seeds with barbs on them. If you have pants on, the seeds stick to you, so we call them hitchhikers. If you are wearing shorts, though, the barbs tear into your skin and leave you with tiny painful scratches. It has spread all over an area below our house, and put down tough, deep roots you can’t easily pull up.

The UVI book identified this native plant as useful for a wide variety of medicinal purposes. It also reported that congo root was cultivated by the Carib Indians around their houses – not only for healing uses but also to repel evil spirits. Maybe the scratches on my legs were meant to send me a message. On the Internet I read that its chemical compounds are currently being studied to examine their anti-inflammatory, antibiotic and cancer preventing properties.

Parts of local trees and plants were also traditionally used for household products, like hoop vine and basket wiss for weaving St. John’s distinctive baskets, tyre palm leaves for long-lasting brooms, and anthurium leaves for scrubbing pots. Ital makes beautiful bowls, cups and artwork from calabash gourds and coconuts.

earth-day-ital-and-kevel
Ital Delroy Anthony discussing plants and culture with visiting ecologist Kevel Lindsay at the Earth Day Fair in Cruz Bay.

Of course, many of the larger trees on St. John were used for timber to build houses, boats and furniture, and others were cultivated for their edible fruits and berries. The Taino reportedly used kapok trees to make the canoes that carried them to the islands from South America and brought along bunches of fruit from genip trees as seagoing snacks.

On our second day at VIERS, local plant expert and St. John historian Eleanor Gibney explained that the area around Lameshur Bay was cleared and used for cattle ranching from the late 1800s to the mid 1950s. Some big trees were probably left in place to provide shade for the cows, like the gre-gre trees (Bucida buceras) trees towards the shoreline and the old tamarinds. The towering raintree (Albizia saman) was probably planted for shade and because the cattle liked its sweet pods, which taste like licorice. (We tried them.)

Eleanor also told us that the tan-tans (Leucaena leucocephala), which many homeowners are always trying to get rid of, were introduced to provide fast-growing, drought-resilient fodder for the cattle. Other even less appealing plants were used as natural fencing, like catch-and-keep (Senegalia westiana) and wild pineapple (Bromelia pinguin) which can form impenetrable thickets of thorns.

Native plant known as dogwood or fish poison.
Native plant known as dogwood or fish poison.

Along the road to VIERS we saw lots of trees that had dropped their leaves but had bunches of small pinkish flowers and wide, flat, boxy-looking, light green seed pods. They are commonly called Caribbean dogwood (no relation to the northern ones), but their Latin name Piscidia carthagenensis refers to their use as a fish poison. Eleanor said the Tainos, and later settlers, used the bark and roots of this tree to stupefy fish so that they could be collected easily for eating.

Clearly the uses of the plants and trees on St. John have changed dramatically over different eras but there are certain elements of the landscape that have remained in place, and these help define the  experience of living or visiting here.

Deer snacking on the black mangroves in Fish Bay.
Deer snacking on the black mangroves in Fish Bay.

However, Eleanor emphasized that there is currently a pressing threat to the survival of many of St. John’s plants – deer! One of the landowners at Lameshur Bay brought them in because he enjoyed hunting them. Recently there has been a major increase in their population, and they are consuming large numbers of plants and young trees – including unique and endangered species. Although some of the deer died off during the drought, there are no predators around to control their numbers. Where is the famous St. John puma when we need it?

All 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’.