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 si.cgie 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 pe.cgie 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.cgiace 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.cgiantation 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, pe.cgie 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.
Wire may then be strung up from one new tree to the next. These "living
fence posts" have no attractions 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 1990's, the Smithsonian
Institution established two permanent forest monitoring.cgiots within the
VI National Park on St. John. These 2 ½ acre.cgiots 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.cgiots 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.