The Secret Service of Bats

Danielle Fibikar holding a greater bulldog fishing bat at VIERS

This summer, students attending the Eco-Camp at the VI Environmental Resource Station (VIERS) will be initiated into the mysteries of the bat world by Danielle Fibikar, a researcher from the College of Staten Island in New York City. Although bats are the only mammals that are native to St. John, most people don’t really know much about the intriguing work they do. 

For example, bees get most of the credit for helping immobile plants engage in sexual reproduction. During the day we can see bees busily going from one flower to another. They drink the sweet nectar and at the same time carry pollen on their hairy legs from male stamens to female pistils.

But many flowers on St. John only open at night. This is because they have evolved to attract bats instead of bees – especially Jamaican fruit bats and Antillean cave bats. Unlike bees, the bats accomplish their match-making missions under the cover of darkness.   

Night-blooming flowers attract bats by offering them nectar that smells deliciously like fermented fruit. These flowers also have to be large enough for bats to squeeze into and pick up pollen while lapping up the tasty nectar. Just like the bees, bats carry pollen on their bodies and deliver the precious powder from flower to flower. However, they can cover longer distances on their night missions and make contact with female flowers far away. This provides widely scattered trees with greater access to genetic diversity and helps them enjoy enhanced reproductive success.

In the Virgin Islands, mangoes, bananas, guavas, cashews, calabash, century plants and kapok trees all depend on bats for pollination.

Fruit-eating bats also help the trees and plants expand their territory by dropping their seeds in different parts of the island. Besides the Jamaican fruit bats and Antillean cave bats, there are also more specialized red fig-eating bats. These are quite elusive, but one night Danielle observed five of them near the Reef Bay petroglyphs, apparently lured by a fruiting fig tree.

Other bats – including the velvety free-tailed bat – prefer to hunt down insects, especially the mosquitoes that come out at dusk. Like a miniature air force they protect us from bugs that bite. According to a study by the Island Resources Foundation, a single bat can consume as many as 500 insects in just one hour or nearly 3,000 insects every night.

Unfortunately, these bats aren’t a big help in getting rid of the Aedes mosquitoes that carry the Zika virus (as well as dengue and chikungunya), because those mosquitoes are mostly active during the day.  

Danielle’s favorites are the greater bulldog bats (Noctilio leporinus), which zoom along the Lameshur Bay road just after dark, using it as a corridor from their daytime roost (a hollow tree or cave) to their offshore fishing areas. With a wingspan of up to almost two feet, these are the biggest bats found on St. John. Like James Bond, the famous fictional member of the British secret service, the males attract not one but a whole harem of available females, exuding a musky perfume that enhances their sexual allure.  

Measuring a bat's wing
Danielle has been studying St. John bats for several years as a graduate student under the guidance of Dr. Richard Veit from the College of Staten Island. She first came to VIERS for a short college course on Tropical Ecology, and fell in love with the bats. She has just received her Master’s Degree in Biology, and has written a thesis on the Ecology and Epidemiology of Bats in Temperate and Tropical Islands, which presents some of her work at VIERS on documenting bat population numbers during different seasons.

With the assistance of her colleague Pearl Cates, Danielle will conduct additional research at VIERS this summer – while also teaching campers about bats and sharing her enthusiasm for them. Recognizing that not everyone loves bats (yet), she hopes to counter some of the spooky ideas about them by emphasizing their intelligence and ecological services, as well as their musky magnetism.

Her main research activity involves setting up lightweight ‘mist’ nets across the Lameshur road to trap bats as they swoop by. One night in January 2015, Danielle caught members of all five of the types of bats commonly found on St. John. When she gets one in the net, she disentangles it (wearing thick yellow gloves) and weighs and photographs it. Then she puts a small band on it – unless it already has one. She has recaptured a number of previously banded bats, which indicates that there is a relatively small community of bats near VIERS, and that they tend to stay in the neighborhood.

The VIERS Eco-Camp is supported by the Friends of the National Park and other generous sponsors. It offers an opportunity for more than 100 local students to learn about the wildlife of the Virgin Islands (not just bats), as well as training for some not-so-secret eco-protection missions of their own.     

Danielle weighing a bat


Missing Century Plants

The three thriving Agaves or century plants now in bloom at Concordia are a bittersweet reminder of the years when hundreds of tall green stalks like huge spears of asparagus shot up all over St. John.

The century plants usually started up around Easter time. (They mostly bloomed after about ten years, not one hundred.) Soon afterwards the stalks were covered with massive clusters of yellow flowers that lit up the landscape, bringing joy to birds and bees as well as the eyes of beholders.

By the end of the year, the yellow flowers would be long gone and the thick dried stalks held clumps of dark empty seed pods. These dry stalks came to be used by settlers from the States as alternative Christmas trees.

When my sons were young, they set out with my husband like frontiersmen, taking the axe and climbing through thorny bushes to triumphantly bring home the tree. It was sometimes so tall it touched the rafters, and we needed the ladder to put the decorations on the top.

Then about fifteen years ago there started to be fewer and fewer century plants. One year we couldn’t find any at Christmas time and bought a fir tree from St. Thomas instead. It smelled nice but didn’t feel very tropical.
The next year there was one small, crooked century plant stalk on our land, and that turned out to be our last one. After Christmas I sprayed it to keep the termites from eating it and saved it in the storage area. For years I dragged it out in December and gave it a coat of gold paint before decorating it. Then I just left it up as a permanent art installation, but without the Santa Claus ornaments. It looks a bit sad, even when it is covered with festive lights and treasured ornaments, but I still treasure it.
So what happened to all those century plants?
It was an insect invasion. Agave snout weevils ate them. The female weevil uses its pointy proboscis to make holes in the plant, and puts its eggs in there. (This weevil’s scientific name is Scyphophorus acupunctatus, which refers to this hole punching activity.) Micro-organisms get into the holes and damage the plant, and then when the larvae or grubs develop, they consume the heart of the plant and kill it.
When I did some research on these weevils, I learned that they have decimated the commercial agave crops in Mexico, which are used to make mescal and tequila. The ‘worm’ that the producers put in the bottom of the bottle is sometimes actually the grub of the agave snout weevil. Payback?
And how did these weevils get to St. John from Mexico, other than in liquor bottles?
 Actually they are world travelers. Ornamental agave plants have been sold almost everywhere, so pots and soil infested with the weevils have spread these pests internationally.
It seems strange, though, that these specialized weevils would completely destroy their agave hosts. Shouldn’t they be considering the needs of future generations and the long-term survival of their species?
Well, yes, it is true that parasites shouldn’t really kill their hosts, but sometimes it is just too easy. The local Agave missionum plants did not co-evolve with these weevils, so didn’t develop any resistance, as some of the Mexican ones have. They just fall over and die.    
Theoretically, once all the agave plants on St. John died off, the weevils themselves should have starved to death and not left any survivors. So any new century plants should be safe – unless new weevils come in, or some of the old weevils survived by eating other plants and are now hungry for agaves, or there is now some other threat?
In March I saw a small century plant blooming along the South Shore Road, but it didn’t seem to last very long. Then in April I saw the large ones at Concordia and got excited about how tall and healthy they looked, covered with birds and bees. Like old times. I do hope they are able to survive and spread their seeds. It would be great to have a new generation of weevil-free century plants on St. John.

The Loneliness of Stinking Toes

Stinking Toe seed pods
Imagine losing your best friends and then living for the next eleven thousand years with only agoutis for company - if you’re lucky.

That’s the sad story of the West Indian Locust (Hymenaea courbaril), more commonly known as the Stinking Toe tree. Why the silly name? Well, it has a big, hard seed pod that looks like it might be an ogre’s toe, and smells like one inside. You have to whack it hard to get it open, and then the seeds inside are surrounded with a sweet but very pungent pulp (which is nevertheless said to be very nutritious).

It is the size and hardness of the seed pod that lie at the heart of this tree’s loneliness, not its smelliness. Millions of years ago in South America, the Stinking Toe had some really good friends that didn’t make it through the last Ice Age – including a giant ground sloth weighing up to four tons, and herds of other large now-extinct mammals.  

Big herbivores need lots of food, and the Stinking Toe trees offered them sugary, well-packaged grab-and-go meals. Its reward was that the seeds inside were widely dispersed, helping the tree to reproduce and spread. Like many plants, these trees evolved in relationship to the wildlife around them. Animals big enough to chew up the hard pods later deposited the seeds on the ground in their dung as they moved across the landscape.
Stinking Toe tree up high in Catherineberg
Then, about eleven thousand years ago, towards the end of the Pleistocene epoch, the large animals disappeared. None were left to eat those big pods. Maybe climate change was to blame, or the influx of human hunters, or a combination of the two. Certainly no one gave any thought to the plight of the Stinking Toe.

Sweet, smelly Stinking Toe seed pod pulp
It doesn’t work very well for a tree to just drop its pods on the ground below, especially if they are tightly sealed and the seeds can’t get out. The Stinking Toe had to make new friends. Large rodents called agoutis noticed the pods, and used their chisel-like teeth to gnaw away at the shells and get to the sugary pulp inside. Agoutis are known as ‘scatter hoarders’ because they bury uneaten food for later. So sometimes they moved the seeds and buried them, though usually not very far from the tree.

The seed pods can float, but they were probably brought to St. John around 500 BC when the Tainos and Caribs came north in canoes from South America, moving up the island chain. The pods would keep the fruit fresh and dry, and the seeds could be then be planted at the new place. There were probably also some agoutis brought along in the canoes as another type of food source, so the Stinking Toe would have arrived along with its substitute seed disperser.

Sadly, the agoutis did not last and are long gone from St. John. The Stinking Toe trees are on their own here, with only a few humans to appreciate them. Not so long ago, children used to pick the pods and break them open for a sweet snack. Now few people even know what they are, much less plant their seeds, and they are not so easy to find.

There are a few Stinking Toe trees in Catherineberg that you can see driving as you drive along Centerline road. Even if there are no pods, you can identify the tree by its leaves, which are unusual because they grow in pairs turned in towards each other. The Latin name Hymenaea refers to this fact – Hymenaeus was the Roman god of marriage, inspiring feasts and songs about happy couples.
I first saw a Stinking Toe when I was getting fruits and vegetables from St. Croix through the Ridge to Reef Farm program. I tasted one after breaking it open with a hammer, and saved some seeds but didn’t get around to planting them. Now I am thinking it would be good for me to evolve into a new role as a seed disperser so the Stinky Toes on St. John won’t be so lonely.
Photos Gail Karlsson

Sympathy for a Thrasher?

Even St. John bird lovers generally scorn the pearly-eyed thrashers or ‘thrashies’. When Laurel Brannick leads the National Park’s Friday morning bird walks at Francis Bay, she refers to them as ‘thieves’.

Visiting birders are eager to add these thrashers to their Life Lists because the pearly-eyes are found only in the Caribbean. However, people who stay around for a while tend to quickly adopt the local prejudice against them. 

Why do people hate these birds, which are smart, successful, native to the Virgin Islands, and talented vocalists, like the much-loved mockingbirds? Experience, I guess.

The first time I became aware of a problem with thrashers was at a Trunk Bay picnic table while eating burgers and fries with my two young sons and some friends. We were sitting under a tree and enjoying the shade, oblivious to the dangers lurking above us. Suddenly a large reddish blob fell right on top of the plate of fries. A more experienced island mom quickly realized what had happened and whisked away the fries, while wailing children insisted that it was just ketchup or that they didn’t care if it wasn’t. In the meantime the snack bar had closed and the kids began shouting angrily at the bird responsible for their loss. Later when they had reached the resignation stage, they began throwing the contaminated fries to a group of happy thrashers.

When we were more settled and had planted some fruit trees, my own resentment of the thrashers mounted as they circumvented all my efforts to protect the ripening papayas.

The thrashers eat large insects, fruits and berries, as well as an occasional lizard or frog – or another bird’s eggs and nestlings.

The distinguished and usually tolerant Cornell Lab of Ornithology shares the general dim view of pearly-eyed thrashers, referring to them as avian ‘supertramps’ – aggressive colonizers, nest predators, and poachers that are partly to blame for the depletion of coexisting island species.

So I was surprised recently to find myself filled with compassion for a neighborhood thrasher. She was sitting on a nest high up in a Christmas palm, which I noticed when I was out hiking. Of course I took a picture of it, though it was difficult to get a good angle on what was in the nest. When I looked at the pictures at home on my computer I realized that there were at least a couple of hatched babies in the nest, plus a blue egg hanging precariously on the outside.

A few days later I walked back that way – and was shocked to see that the nest was gone. There were just a few twigs tossed around and a broken egg shell on the ground.
A bird I took to be the mother sang plaintively in a nearby tree, and my heart went out to her – even if she was a ‘supertramp’.

Later I had some dark doubts. What if that bird was actually a predatory thrasher that had come and eaten some other bird’s nestlings and then was singing to celebrate the feast? I had to quickly reject that thought because I didn’t want to recognize the possibility that I could have been taken in so easily. Instead I congratulated myself on my depth of compassion for other living creatures, even pearly-eyed thrashers.

Preserving the Cultural Heritage of St. John’s Plants

Ital talking to UU Tree Project participants at VIERS
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.   

   Petiveria alliacea or congo root
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.  
Ital Delroy Anthony discussing plants and culture with ecologist Kevel Lindsay    
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) 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
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. 

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.
Deer snacking on the black mangroves by Fish Bay
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?

A Manly Scent from the St. John Forest

Bay rum trees in a shady grove
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. 
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.
At the March 2016 St. John Historical Society event, Eleanor Gibney provided a
display of bay tree leaves and old time bay rum bottles.
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 trees, easily recognizable by their distinctive bark that looks like a cinnamon stick.    
Photo of a bay rum distillery on the St. John Historical Society website 
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. 
Jim Wilcox with his baby bay rum tree
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.

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.
Jim's homemade bay rum lotion 
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. 

Can Stress Lead to Greater Productivity?

You might think this sort of question is more appropriate for the advice column: “Are you feeling a bit overwhelmed by the busy season on St. John, with too many pickups at the dock, cars in town, visitors on the beaches, fundraiser events, margaritas after work, and dead iguanas on the road? Here are five scientifically-proven tips for raising your mood and energy level…”

But no, bear with me – I am still talking about trees.

 A few weeks ago I was invited to an Audubon Society slide show, and while we were chatting I mentioned my work on the Unitarians’ Tree Appreciation project. Our hostess, Cassie Ellis, said she had something interesting to show me, so I followed her out the back and down some steps towards the base of an impressive mango tree. The interesting thing was a large rock wedged in between the trunk and one of the thick lower branches.

Cassie explained that the mango had grown very large but never had any fruit until a gardener stuck this rock into the crotch of the tree. Then the next year it produced lots of mangos. Had I ever heard of this?
No, I said, but promised to look into it.

For years my husband and I nurtured our own small mango tree. It flowered many times, but its tiny fruits never grew to maturity. The largest one we got was about the size of a marble. We were told it was too young, too dry, too shaded. Or it needed better soil, fertilizer, or spray to kill the white flies.
We tried everything we were told, but never got one mango to eat. Then, we came back last fall and were sad to find it had died in the drought.

I asked around about the rock thing, and several people said they didn’t know about that, but they had heard of banging a rusty nail into a tree to make it fruit. One rationale offered was that the tree needs iron from the soil and is not getting enough, so the nail delivers it more directly into its system. Others said this was just superstition, wouldn’t work, and would harm the tree.

On the Internet I read that “mature mango trees need to be stressed to become fruitful”. Maybe that’s what the rock was for? The trees have to make a switch from growing new leaves to producing flowers and fruits. That switch can be triggered by a period of dryness or cool weather, followed by rain. Commercial growers often manipulate irrigation schedules and fertilizer applications to prompt regular fruiting times, alternating with periods of rest and nutrient restoration.

However, I also read about some much wilder ideas for getting a tree to flower and fruit – like hitting it with a chain or a baseball bat, partially girdling it, stretching the branches, and making a smoky fire underneath it. This seemed like some pretty dark stuff. Not the sort of thing the Unitarian Tree Appreciation Project would endorse.

I imagined that most of the mature mango trees on St. John were managing to produce fruit without any major intervention. But what did I know. Once I started looking more carefully I noticed a number of other trees with strategically placed rocks or nails in them.
Clearly some people believed these measures would help, and the trees weren’t obviously damaged as a result. I started thinking that maybe instead if coddling our mango tree we should have given it a beating to make it produce. Or at least put a rock in it to help it hold the fruit.

Photos by Gail Karlsson. For more information on the Unitarian Tree Appreciation Project, go to or the Facebook page ‘UUF Tree Appreciation Project St John VI’.




Monkey No Climb

People like to say ‘monkey-no-climb’ because it’s such a fun name. All trees on St. John with big thorns on their trunks tend to get thrown into that category, even though there are no monkeys here.

Iguana-no-climb would make more sense as a name, since those guys seem to be climbing around everywhere. There must be some types of thorns that will deter even an iguana, despite its leathery skin and sharp claws.

I have been walking around in the woods recently to learn more about the different types of local trees - as part of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship’s Tree Appreciation Project. I can tell you it’s really creepy when you are peering up at the top of the tree trying to see what the leaves look like and a dark blob of iguana gets nervous and drops down almost of top of you.

Thorns, like claws, are a sign of power, warning you to keep your distance. They likely evolved over millions of years to provide immobile trees with defenses against large grazing animals, as well as smaller ones that might want to eat their leaves and flowers. Animals that eat the fruits, like monkeys, can actually help a tree propagate by spreading its seeds widely, though maybe the tree would prefer to have them wait until the fruit falls onto the ground.

While being careful not to get impaled during my excursions, I have identified a few different types of large trees with thorns that people might call ‘monkey-no-climb’:

Kapok (Ceiba pentrandra, or silk-cotton tree)

This tree is distinctive because in addition to its thorns it has impressive (sometimes huge) buttress roots as it grows older. When it flowers, it produces a soft fluffy fiber in its seed pods, which was once used as the stuffing for mattresses, and later life jackets. The flowers are smelly and open at night to attract bats as pollinators. (For the pre-Columbian Taino people, bats were associated with the spirits of the dead, so these trees were treated with great respect.) This is the most easily visible of the thorny trees - you can see examples by the road at the entrance to Caneel Bay, by the water sports shack at Cinnamon Bay, and on the Reef Bay trail. 


 Sandbox (Hura crepitans)

This tree is native to tropical areas of North and South America as well as the Caribbean. The ‘sandbox’ name refers to its tangerine-shaped seed capsules, which were valued in colonial times as exotic boxes for holding the sand that people used to blot the ink when they wrote letters. Despite this ‘civilized’ Victorian image, these trees tend to be hidden in forested areas on St. John and are generally not very friendly. The capsules explode loudly when they are ripe and shoot out the seeds like shrapnel – reportedly up to 300 feet at 150 miles per hour. Besides having a thick layer of sharp thorns, they also have toxic sap that was used in pre-colonial times for poisoning arrows – and later for making tear gas.      


White prickle (Zanthoxylum martinicense)

Native to the Caribbean and northern South America, this tree seems to thrive in higher elevations, and quickly grows very tall when it gets enough light. The thorns are largest at the base of the tree, where a grazing animal would make contact, and become smaller and sparser further up. But interestingly, it also has small thorns on the backs of its leaves that could deter upper level browsers. You can see one along the John Head Road past the Catherineberg ruins, on the right in a small turnout as you drive towards Cinnamon Bay.  

 Yellow prickle (Zanthoxylum monophyllum)

I only recently noticed a few of these trees, in the low-lying Fish Bay conservation land. They do not seem to have thrived there, maybe because they have gotten flooded with salty water. They are generally smaller than the related white prickles. According to Eleanor Gibney, the wood is a very attractive yellow, and the roots were formerly used to make a yellow dye. She also noted that researchers have isolated antibiotic compounds from the thorny wood. Trees protect themselves with chemicals as well as thorns, and in earlier times this one’s bark was used to treat people with colds, and as an aesthetic. 
For more information on the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship’s Tree Appreciation Project, you can go to the website or the Facebook page ‘UUF Tree Appreciation Project St John VI’.

Photos by Gail Karlsson

Fish Bay Fashion Shoot

Little Blue Heron

The Academy Awards red carpet certainly showcased many glamorous gowns, but some St. John celebrities have their own stunning outfits – and I’m not referring to the tie-dye display at the recent Hippie Love Fest in Coral Bay (though that was truly awesome).  

Here in Fish Bay I have been stalking some reclusive style-setters that hang out around the mangroves, and recently enlisted my husband to help me search for them. We set out in our neighbor’s two-seater kayak, like seagoing paparazzi. I sat in the bow with my telephoto lens while he paddled slowly along the red mangroves at the edge of the bay.

My main goal was to get some close-ups of a group of Ruddy Turnstones I had glimpsed on the shoreline when I was kayaking alone, without my camera. We searched unsuccessfully for a while until we were distracted by a Little Blue Heron wading in the shallow water. It was more than willing to pose for us and we quietly drifted closer and closer.

During breeding season, the feathers on the necks of Little Blue Herons are a lovely shade of purple, and long ribbon-like plumes extend from their heads and necks. Our model turned for us so its plumes fluttered prettily in the breeze, though its yellow eyes were hard and cold, and its black-tipped bill turned downward.     

Soon an even flashier beauty strolled out into the bay – a Great Egret in breeding plumage. Its bright white feathers were overlaid with long delicate back plumes, called aigrettes. These plumes used to be popular for adorning fancy women’s hats, and the birds were hunted until hardly any were left alive. This one  proudly showed off its healthy vitality, with its plumes and dramatic green eye shadow highlighting its breeding status.  

Great Egret with breeding plumage
We finally caught up with the Ruddy Turnstones on a sandy strip of shoreline. A few weeks ago their feathers were mostly grayish, not ruddy - though their orange legs were quite flashy. Now their feathers seem to have gotten a bit redder, and their faces are beginning to develop their special breeding markings. By the time they fly off to their breeding grounds in the Arctic this summer their faces will be darkly patterned, like harlequins.

Ruddy Turnstone
Back on shore by the black mangrove pond, I found an old friend and neighbor who seemed to want to be included in the show. Yellow-Crowned Night Herons are always dressed for success – but rarely display the spiky crests on top of their crowns. This one gave me a high-five as well, or maybe was just showing off its smooth greenish-yellow legs and dark-tipped toes. 


I am very grateful to have such glamorous neighbors, especially when they are so willing to pose for my amateur photo shoots.

Got genips?

I was first introduced to genips one summer when my sons and I started helping Ken Wild with the archeological excavations at Cinnamon Bay. My older son, Kevin, was intrigued by the Taino pottery and shells revealed when the soil was carefully scraped and brushed away, and was eager to help sift the loose dirt to see if there were any beads or other treasures to be found. (The artifacts from the Cinnamon Bay site are now displayed in the museum building there.)

Meanwhile, my younger son had no patience for the work and tended to jump around too close to the pit. Ken graciously diverted him and put his abundant energy to use by asking him to climb a tall tree over near the building and bring him back some of the fruit. Always an enthusiastic climber, Brian quickly disappeared up in the tree. After a while there was some shaking in the high branches and clusters of green fruits that looked a bit like limes began dropping on the path.
Genip fruit     
Ken showed us how to split the leathery skin, pop the whole fruit in our mouths and suck on the fleshy pink pulp (which doesn’t easily come off the seed). The seed is so big it takes up most of the space inside. The pulp is pretty tart, but sort of sweet too.
Genip fruit, pulp and seed              
It is likely that genip fruits, which are native to South America, were brought to the islands by pre-Columbian settlers. Besides sucking the pulp, they roasted the seeds to eat like nuts, and also used the juice as a dye.

Mature genip trees can grow up to 100 feet tall, though most of the ones here are not that big. They have smooth, grayish bark which is often blotchy-looking because it is mottled with lichen.
Genip tree by Catherineberg ruins with distinctive markings 
Eleanor Gibney noted that genip trees tend to live a long time. Some on St. John may even be 500 years old, dating back to Taino times. Many of the ones she climbed as a child are still around and remain relatively unchanged.

The overall number of genip trees on St. John has been increasing though. They have spread widely because their seeds are dispersed by birds and bats, as well as people spitting out seeds, and because they can survive in droughts and a variety of salty, windy ecological conditions. In parts of the island these trees have invaded the remaining areas of diverse native forest, crowding out other growth with their abundant saplings.

Cheryl Magdaleno, who has been participating in the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship’s Tree Appreciation Project, recently showed me how to identify a genip by its leaf structure. It has four leaflets arranged in two pairs on a stalk that attaches to the tree. Along the stalk she pointed out distinctive thin leaf-like structures – like wings. I was very excited to learn about the leaves, since the method of trying to identify genip trees by looking for mottled bark was not working very well for me.
Young genip leaf showing 'wings' on the leaf stalk 
I recently mentioned this information about genip leaves to Jessa Buchalter, including the part about the wings. She promptly went to a tree by her family’s house and came back with a bunch of genip fruits, along with some of the leaves from that tree. They were definitely not winged.  Maybe the leaf wings help young trees get started, while the older fruiting trees don’t need them anymore.

Like papayas, genips have male and female trees. Male flowers producing pollen and female flowers producing seeds generally grow on different genip trees. This is somewhat unusual - most types of trees with sexual reproduction either have both male and female flowers on the same tree, or flowers containing both male and female parts.

One advantage of having male and female flowers on different trees is that it ensures cross-pollination and increases genetic diversity. But what if there aren’t enough trees of the opposite sex in the neighborhood? I worry about that when I look at my lonely young papaya tree, but the genips don’t seem to be suffering from social isolation. Also bees are attracted to their flowers and can travel pretty far as they search for sweet nectar.

Ordinarily genip trees flower between April and June, and produce fruit in the summer. Some trees are fruiting now though. Most likely that they were affected by last year’s drought and delayed their flowering until after the November rains. So we got genips this winter.