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 http://uufstjohn.com/treeproject/ or the Facebook page ‘UUF Tree Appreciation Project St John VI’.