In any contest to name the most typical trees of the Caribbean dry forest, the distinctive turpentine tree would have to be one of the front-runners.
Native from the southern tip of Florida through the West Indies and around the mainland Caribbean coast from Mexico to Venezuela, this very common tree has dozens of different common names in several different languages. Most of these names refer in some way to one or the other of the tree’s most prominent features: the coppery-red bark, thin and peeling, or the heavy, richly aromatic resin found in that bark.
The most popular Virgin Islands name, turpentine, comes from the resin, which was historically used for some of the same purposes as true turpentines, the resins of various pines. Gumbo-limbo, the most popular name in Florida, is derived from the Spanish “goma-elemi” meaning “gum resin.” Two names that reflect the appearance of the bark are also heard in Florida: Naked Indian, from the smooth richly-toned surface, and, more facetiously, tourist tree, for the simple reason that they are always red and peeling.
Two close relatives of turpentine are native to North Africa and the Middle East. Frankincense and myrrh are desert shrubs that produce a similar gummy resin. Lumps of resin contain volatile oils and may be burned “as is” for incense. Two thousand years ago, when frankincense and myrrh were apparently highly valued in the Middle East, the Taino Indian people of the eastern Caribbean were burning fragrant turpentine resin. Although it is believed that this had the totally practical effect of repelling biting insects, there may well have been religious associations as well. Tainos also used the resin to varnish the exteriors of their large dugout canoes, a treatment that apparently protects against marine borers, a constant concern in our warm waters. In more recent times, other uses have evolved. Resin has been used as a glue for everything from envelope flaps to broken china. Lumps of resin, or handfuls of the leaves, go into traditional island bush baths and into a medicinal tea recommended for back pain.
More and more the beauty of the turpentine tree, along with its tremendous drought tolerance, wins it a prominent place among native ornamentals. One of the most interesting uses for turpentine evolved out of harsh necessity. Termites are ever present in the region, with even very small islands supporting ten or so species of these efficient consumers of dead wood. These days almost all wood used in the islands is pressure-treated with chemicals poisonous to insects but during the plantation era, constant vigilance was required to maintain all cut wood, except the ever rarer and more valuable hardwoods. Fence posts were a major problem, especially if several hundred acres needed to be fenced. At some point, people discovered a major innovation: if large cut branches of turpentine trees are set upright in the ground in moist weather, they tend to take root and grow. The wire may then be strung up from one new tree to the next. These “living fence posts” have no attraction for the termites and are really maintenance-free. This use is now rare in the Virgin Islands, but land surveyors still use the straight lines of large old turpentine trees to locate the old estate boundaries.
An interesting footnote is this: in the early 1990s, the Smithsonian Institution established two permanent forest monitoring plots within the VI National Park on St. John. These 2 ½ acre plots have each tree measured, numbered, and mapped. After Hurricane Marilyn in late 1995, damage to all the trees was assessed. One young turpentine tree, about 5 inches in trunk diameter and 17 feet tall, was snapped off about 5 ft. from the ground. The base resprouted quickly, and the top was resting down the slope, on exceedingly stony ground, held more-or-less upright by a large rock. A few green leaves remained on the stem through the winter of 95-96, the heavy resin sealing the break from dehydration. Periodic checks revealed no roots sprouting from the base. After a dry spell in the late spring, the stem lost all of its remaining leaves. Then, following heavy rain in July 1996, a return visit to the hill found new long green shoots and roots! This was 10 ½ months after the tree had broken. Smithsonian researchers are baffled. In dozens of forest plots around the world, there is no precedent on record for one mature, single-stemmed tree becoming two separate individuals from one year to the next.