The Virgin Islands National Park covers two-thirds of the tiny tropical island of St. John. The wooded hillsides within the Park are home to over 400 species of trees. Among them are the following four native trees rich in island ecology and St. John folklore.
St. John Trees Reflect Ecology and Folklore
Mangroves are trees that live in saltwater or brackish water in mudflats near shorelines. Their complex root systems, when submerged, support a diverse community of sponges, ascidians, algae, corals and crabs. Further, they provide crucial habitat for juvenile reef fish and lobsters. The mangrove roots trap sediment and associated pollutants to improve offshore water quality and slowly build more land. The trees also provide roosts, nesting habitats, and feeding areas for many bird species. For excellent examples of mangroves and the underwater life surrounding them, try snorkeling in Hurricane Hole.
Also known as gumbo-limbo, the turpentine tree is small to medium-sized growing to 90 feet tall. Well adapted to salty and calcareous soil it is also one of the most wind-tolerant trees. If simply stuck into good soil, small branches will readily root and grow into sizable trees in a few years. A variety of birds are fond of the small seeds covered in a red fatty aril. The gumbo-limbo is the traditional wood used for the manufacture of carousel horses in the United States. It is comically referred to as the tourist tree because the tree’s bark is red and peeling, like the skin of sunburnt tourists.
The kapok tree can reach heights of over 150 feet and in hot, wet and sunny environments can grow as much as ten feet in a year. A buttressed root system, which can extend out over 30 feet from the main trunk, effectively supports the kapok enabling it to resist all but the most forceful hurricanes. The root system serves to store moisture, providing a reserve water supply during periods of extended drought. Taino Indians, the inhabitants of the Caribbean at the time of Columbus’ arrival, had a spiritual relationship with the kapok. With soft wood easily worked using primitive stone tools, it was chosen to make the great canoes used to travel from island to island. According to myth, the tree would talk to the woodsmen, tell them if it was all right to cut it down, and how it would like to be carved and painted. A beautiful kapok tree can be found on the Reef Bay Trail, well-marked by a National Park sign.
Sandbox (Monkey No Climb) Trees
Known locally as Monkey No Climb, the sandbox tree has yellow-gray bark and hundreds of sharp, squat, fleshy spines! This tree can grow to 100 feet or more in height. The tree produces both male and female flowers that have no petals and contains a milky, caustic sap that that can be toxic. The fruit are spherical pods approximately 3 to 4 inches in diameter with a dry husk and shallow vertical valleys containing large crescent shaped seeds. As the fruit dries, it literally explodes as a method of seed disbursement, and can be dangerous if standing nearby as it catapults the seeds hundreds of feet. So, now you know why there are no monkeys on St. John!