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HomeNewsArchivesHISTORICAL OBSERVATIONS OF ST. CROIX'S NATIVE TREES

HISTORICAL OBSERVATIONS OF ST. CROIX'S NATIVE TREES

A native plant is one which has evolved over a very long period of time as part of a localized community of plants subject to similar environmental conditions. Our knowledge of what constitutes native plants in any area is derived in part from written records, in part from long-standing cultural or ethnobotanical associations of the original inhabitants, and in part from what survives of the original forest. All these need to be considered in relation to the history of the area itself and of the surrounding regions. For example, the very common local tree called genip (Melicoccus bijugatus) has probably been in the Virgin Islands since it was brought here by traveling Amer-Indians a thousand or more years ago.
It is probably native to Guiana and Venezuela and was transported by the Indians both as seed and as food. Though not native to St. Croix, it is very likely that it escaped from cultivation and is among our earliest naturalized trees.
The oldest generally known written record of the West Indies flora is that of Oviedo in 1535. It contains a natural history of the region and is based largely on the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola. Many of the plants described, e.g., kapok and lignum vitae, are clearly native to St.Croix as well. During the following two hundred years, the floristic
descriptions, such as those of Labat in 1703, are somewhat limited today by their use of vernacular, rather than Latin names. It must be remembered, however, that many of these writers had only limited botanical knowledge of the area, and that many West Indian trees
such as mahogany (Swietenia mahogani), satinwood (Zanthoxylum flavum), and fustic (Chlorophora tinctoria) were unknown in Europe until well into the seventeenth century. Once it was realized that these trees were a source of valuable lumber, their decline in numbers, particularly in the larger islands of Jamaica, Hispaniola, and the Bahamas, was guaranteed.
Indeed, many St. Croix estates were paid for not by sugar, but by the timber cleared from the land. On St. Croix this clearing probably approached ninety percent of the original forest and it is highly likely that some of the indigenous species were lost altogether.
During the eighteenth century several botanical gardens were established in the West Indies and written records began to emerge. This, however, did not happen in the Virgin Islands. Although several floristic collections were assembled on St. Croix and sent to various herbaria for study, they were generally not accompanied by published works.
After 1790 the record becomes clearer and more accessible. In 1793, Hans West published Bidrag til Beskrivelse over Ste. Croix which contains a list of 542 cultivated and native species on St. Croix and the other Virgin Islands. This was followed by Ledru in 1810, who described the plants of St. Thomas in his Voyage aux Iles de Tenerife, etc.; and by Schlectendal in 1828, listing some 400 plants collected by C.A. Ehrenberg on the same island. Then Krebs in 1852 lists approximately 1200 species, including algae, also found on St. Thomas.
Perhaps the most complete early work dealing exclusively with the plants of St. Croix is Eggers' 1876 study entitled St. Croix's Flora in which he records 738 plant species. He followed this three years later with his better known Flora of St. Croix and the Virgin Islands where 881 native and naturalized species are presented. In 1902, Milspaugh expanded on Eggers' work in Flora of the Island of St. Croix where he lists 1029 species of plants.
During the years between 1923 and 1930, Britton and Wilson produced the most comprehensive regional floristic survey to date in their Botany of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. This highly informative and descriptive work remains as the most commonly used flora of the islands. Also during this period, Record and Mell produced Timbers of Tropical America which surveyed the trees and timber products of the West Indies islands.
More recent publications include Little and Wadsworth's 1964 Common Trees of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and their 1974 Trees of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The first work surveys and describes some 250 trees of the area, while the second details 500 more of the less common species. In 1985, H.A. Liogier of the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, published the first volume of his ongoing series Descriptive Flora of Puerto Rico and Adjacent Islands. To date, three volumes of this work have appeared with the forth to be published shortly.
Although there now exist a number of easily available, scholarly articles in journals devoted to various aspects of the West Indies flora, the fact remains that the number of native species continues to decline. It is, of course, possible that more native plants may be found and identified, but as population grows and development continues with little attempt to save the original forested areas of the island, that possibility fades. Far greater efforts must be made to conserve the native trees that have evolved over centuries and have made this island distinctly and uniquely St. Croix.

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A native plant is one which has evolved over a very long period of time as part of a localized community of plants subject to similar environmental conditions. Our knowledge of what constitutes native plants in any area is derived in part from written records, in part from long-standing cultural or ethnobotanical associations of the original inhabitants, and in part from what survives of the original forest. All these need to be considered in relation to the history of the area itself and of the surrounding regions. For example, the very common local tree called genip (Melicoccus bijugatus) has probably been in the Virgin Islands since it was brought here by traveling Amer-Indians a thousand or more years ago.
It is probably native to Guiana and Venezuela and was transported by the Indians both as seed and as food. Though not native to St. Croix, it is very likely that it escaped from cultivation and is among our earliest naturalized trees.
The oldest generally known written record of the West Indies flora is that of Oviedo in 1535. It contains a natural history of the region and is based largely on the islands of Cuba and Hispaniola. Many of the plants described, e.g., kapok and lignum vitae, are clearly native to St.Croix as well. During the following two hundred years, the floristic
descriptions, such as those of Labat in 1703, are somewhat limited today by their use of vernacular, rather than Latin names. It must be remembered, however, that many of these writers had only limited botanical knowledge of the area, and that many West Indian trees
such as mahogany (Swietenia mahogani), satinwood (Zanthoxylum flavum), and fustic (Chlorophora tinctoria) were unknown in Europe until well into the seventeenth century. Once it was realized that these trees were a source of valuable lumber, their decline in numbers, particularly in the larger islands of Jamaica, Hispaniola, and the Bahamas, was guaranteed.
Indeed, many St. Croix estates were paid for not by sugar, but by the timber cleared from the land. On St. Croix this clearing probably approached ninety percent of the original forest and it is highly likely that some of the indigenous species were lost altogether.
During the eighteenth century several botanical gardens were established in the West Indies and written records began to emerge. This, however, did not happen in the Virgin Islands. Although several floristic collections were assembled on St. Croix and sent to various herbaria for study, they were generally not accompanied by published works.
After 1790 the record becomes clearer and more accessible. In 1793, Hans West published Bidrag til Beskrivelse over Ste. Croix which contains a list of 542 cultivated and native species on St. Croix and the other Virgin Islands. This was followed by Ledru in 1810, who described the plants of St. Thomas in his Voyage aux Iles de Tenerife, etc.; and by Schlectendal in 1828, listing some 400 plants collected by C.A. Ehrenberg on the same island. Then Krebs in 1852 lists approximately 1200 species, including algae, also found on St. Thomas.
Perhaps the most complete early work dealing exclusively with the plants of St. Croix is Eggers' 1876 study entitled St. Croix's Flora in which he records 738 plant species. He followed this three years later with his better known Flora of St. Croix and the Virgin Islands where 881 native and naturalized species are presented. In 1902, Milspaugh expanded on Eggers' work in Flora of the Island of St. Croix where he lists 1029 species of plants.
During the years between 1923 and 1930, Britton and Wilson produced the most comprehensive regional floristic survey to date in their Botany of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. This highly informative and descriptive work remains as the most commonly used flora of the islands. Also during this period, Record and Mell produced Timbers of Tropical America which surveyed the trees and timber products of the West Indies islands.
More recent publications include Little and Wadsworth's 1964 Common Trees of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands and their 1974 Trees of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The first work surveys and describes some 250 trees of the area, while the second details 500 more of the less common species. In 1985, H.A. Liogier of the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, published the first volume of his ongoing series Descriptive Flora of Puerto Rico and Adjacent Islands. To date, three volumes of this work have appeared with the forth to be published shortly.
Although there now exist a number of easily available, scholarly articles in journals devoted to various aspects of the West Indies flora, the fact remains that the number of native species continues to decline. It is, of course, possible that more native plants may be found and identified, but as population grows and development continues with little attempt to save the original forested areas of the island, that possibility fades. Far greater efforts must be made to conserve the native trees that have evolved over centuries and have made this island distinctly and uniquely St. Croix.