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