From gardens to wild forests, the Virgin Islands are host to a rich diversity of plantlife, much of it remarkable for its adaptation to the dry, inhospitable climate of the islands.
At the Seaside
The tree most associated with the beach is the coconut, a member of the palm family. Coconut trees are hardy and useful. Their fronds, or leaves, can be used to make thatch roofs and mats. The coconut seed, when green, contains coconut milk, a sweet and somewhat viscous drink. When dried, the nut contains coconut meat, which can be used in cooking, baking, or even industry. Coconut trunks can be used for lumber, and the oil is used in cooking and beauty preparations.
Coconuts are not native to the Caribbean. They originated in the western Pacific and eastern Indian Ocean and were brought to the region by early Portuguese voyagers. Coconut trees are adaptable and can withstand significant periods of drought.
Another common seaside plant is the sea grape, or Coccoloba uvifera, a member of the buckwheat family. These adaptable trees grow along both protected and windswept shores. Many bathers find shade and shelter tucked beneath sea grape branches at the beach. The sea grape has round leaves, reaching up to about six inches wide. They produce strings of edible grapelike fruits in cluster, turning from green to purple in fall. The fruits have large pits and range from sour to sweet. They are quite tasty.
Don’t try to eat the fruit of the manchineel (Hippomane mancinella) tree, a plant so toxic that its sap can take the paint off a car. The fruit of these trees can kill, and even brushing against one can lead to uncomfortable rashes. Manchineels have shiny, dark, elliptical leaves that droop on long, yellowish stalks. Look closely at the junction of the leaf and leaf stalk and you will see a tiny raised dot about the size of a pinhead. Manchineels are the only beach trees with this feature.
Manchineels produce shiny, green fruits that look like apples. Don’t eat them! Also avoid touching the leaves, scratching yourself on the bark, or using the wood for a fire. It is even a bad idea to take shelter under a manchineel during rain, since the rainwater can wash tiny bits of the sap onto your skin. There is a popular legend on Tortola about an early woman settler on Beef Island who eliminated a nearby settlement of pirates by inviting them to dinner and serving rum punch laced with juice from the manchineel tree.
Around the House
Virgin Islanders love to plant colorful gardens around their homes. With the palette of colors and plant types available to these tropical gardeners, it is easy to see why.
One of the favorite decorative trees is the flamboyant, or flame tree, which produces a bright red crown of blossoms every June. When it is not in bloom, the flamboyant’s wide canopy makes it a great shade tree. At the end of the summer flamboyant trees drop magnificent seedpods locally called shock-shocks and used to make art and music. Another favorite for color is the bougainvillea, a hardy bush that can grow to great heights if allowed. Bougainvillea comes in a dazzling array of colors including red, pink, orange, and white. The “blooms” are actually modified leaves, called bracts, which the bushes produce to attract pollinators to their small, white flowers.
Hibiscus blooms are also bound to catch your eye. These bushes produce brightly colored flowers that can grow as large as seven inches across. Practiced gardeners compete annually at flower shows for the best hibiscus bloom. Locals also use the petals to make a sweet, red drink.
Often used as a natural fence, oleander is a plant worth identifying, if only because of its capacity to poison. Oleander puts out five-petaled blossoms of pink, purple, and white. Do not ingest any part of the plant—it is deadly.
One of the most beautiful decorative shrubs in the islands is the poinsettia. Once you see one of these growing over your head with dense red bracts brilliant in the sun, you will never think the same about the pitiful potted ones you see every Christmas. Yellow allamanda is another favorite among Caribbean gardeners, for its bright yellow flowers and neat, shiny leaves. Some of the most common shrubs seen around Virgin Islands homes are crotons, amazing in their hardiness and colorful variety.
In the Forest
Wet tropical forests can be found at Sage Mountain on Tortola and in Caldonia, the hilly, damp forest on St. Croix’s northwestern tip. Plant species here thrive in low light and moisture. Instead of building defenses against grazing cattle and drought, plants here have developed bitter-tasting and toxic leaves to defend against insects that thrive in the damp forest.
Bromeliads are members of the epiphyte family that nest among the branches of larger trees, gathering nutrients from the air and storing rainwater in their leaves. Bromeliads look like the leafy top of a pineapple; some produce beautiful flowers.
One especially beautiful forest plant is the tree fern, or Cyathea arborea. A straight, single stem rises leafless, topped off by delicate fern leaves. These trees look like normal ferns at first; they reach their full diameter on the ground before starting to grow upward.
Dry tropical forests are common; in fact, most of the wooded areas you see around you will fall into this category. In these ecosystems, trees and plants are adapted for long periods of drought.
One of the telltale signs that you are in a dry forest is the presence of the turpentine tree, or Bursera simaruba. This beautiful tree has dozens of familiar nicknames, including gumbo limbo, West Indian birch, gommier, and tourist tree. It is easily identified by its peeling, red bark and its graceful limbs.
The Virgin Islands have an abundance of cactus. Turk’s head cacti are almost perfectly round balls that sit right on the ground, with a reddish “cap” atop. The fuchsia fruits are edible, and a particular favorite of birds. These cacti are said to tilt toward the equator, which earned them the nickname “compass plant.”
The prickly pear cactus is characterized by flattened oval pads that pile on top and around one another to form a single plant. The deep, dark red fruits are edible, but be sure to peel them first to get rid of the prickles.
Some of the largest and most majestic trees you will see in the Virgin Islands are kapok trees, also called silk cotton trees (Ceiba pentandra). These trees can grow to magnificent heights—up to 75 feet—with trunks as wide as a car. Kapok trees produce large pods full of short, lustrous fibers. This fiber has been used to stuff pillows, life jackets, and furniture. Don’t try to climb the sandbox tree, easily identified by its thorny trunk. Its fruit, when dry, was in the past used as sand for drying ink after writing, which is how it got its name.
One of the most beautiful tropical flowering trees is the frangipani, often seen in gardens as well as in the wild. At first glance you may wonder if the tree is even alive—there are very few leaves. Look again, though, and you will see the lovely white flowers and long, dimpled leaves. In the spring, at the beginning of the dry season, colorful frangipani caterpillars come to munch on the leaves.
Other important features of the dry forest are the aloe and century plants. Aloe grows wild throughout the dry forest and is a useful plant: The gooey substance that oozes out when you crack a leaf can be useful in treating burns and cuts. Look for aloe’s yellow blooms in the spring. Century plants are the flowering stalk of the agave, whose yellow blossoms stand as high as 12 feet. One of the great botanic tragedies of recent years has been the virtual elimination of native century plants from the Virgin Islands due to an invasive insect.
On the Farm
Fruit trees are hardly limited to the farm; many households plant them around the house for their obvious utilitarian purpose. Sugarcane makes a good natural fence, since it grows tall and straight. A member of the grass family, sugarcane takes about a year to mature. Most gardens around the Virgin Islands have a small patch, not for sugar production, but for juicing or eating on its own. Other fixtures in many backyard gardens are banana and plantain “trees.” These fast-growing plants are distinguishable by their long, slatted leaves. After the plant has produced, it is cut down, and a new one will sprout in its place. The whole process takes about 18 months.
Magnificent fruit trees are abundant in the Virgin Islands. Avocado pear trees are handsome, especially when they droop with the weight of ripe avocados every summer. These tropical avocados are large and bright green but just as tasty as the small, dark fruits familiar in the supermarkets of North America. Another fruit tree sure to catch your eye is the breadfruit, which grows to towering heights and has large, lobed, handsome leaves. The fruit grows to be as large as a basketball and ripens during the summer. It tastes like potato and can be seasoned and roasted, boiled, or fried.
Other common fruit trees are the guava, mango, and papaya. Guava trees are bushy and produce small, lemon-size fruits used to make guava candy and preserves. The mango is probably the most popular tropical fruit; its sweet, juicy flesh is the perfect finish to any meal. The trees themselves are handsome, with long, droopy leaves that produce dense shade. Few household yards are without a mango tree of their own. Papayas, the other favorite tropical fruit, ripen just below the leaves on the fast-growing papaya tree. Pick these out by their tall, slender stalks and round, intricately lobed leaves.