May 28, 2009 — With a small ceremony and a few words of dedication Thursday, a small park was dedicated at the Grove Place Baobab, an ancient, living testament to centuries of African presence on St. Croix.
At the base of the tree is a bronze plaque, and around it is a knee-fence of posts and rope. The area around the venerable giant is freshly cleaned, seeded with grass and strewn with straw.
Baobabs are native to West Africa and were transported to the Virgin Islands by slaves. Europeans did not cultivate them. The 50-foot circumference Grove Place Baobab is the oldest and largest in the Virgin Islands.
"We ran a cord around the tree to determine the age," said St. Croix herbalist and educator Veronica Gordon, who spearheaded the effort to preserve the tree. Because baobabs are hollow, you cannot determine the age by counting rings, so the circumference is used instead. On average, its size places it in the range of 300 years old, but as the method is not as precise as counting rings, they conservatively attributed an age of 250 years or so to the tree, she said.
"There are other baobabs but this is the only multi-stem tree in the Caribbean," she said. "There is one root system with four stems sprouting. This one wasn't here 60 years ago, when I was born. When I was a child it was just a bulge off the main trunk."
Darryle Cyrille and Jahkeil Hodge, Eulalie Rivera students from Glenda Benjamin's fifth grade class, gave a short talk on the history of the baobab.
"Its flowers are hibiscus-like and cream colored," Cyrille said. "The flowers come out only at night. It blooms from early May to early October," Hodge said.
Benjamin's class was in the audience for the dedication. Her class last year- now all sixth graders – helped with the park cleanup.
Story teller Donna Asheba Samuel recounted, in the style of the Anansi tales, how the baobab came to St. Croix, with a story about a wise man and a prince.
"The wise man told the prince, every night when you sleep, put a baobab seed in your mouth," Samuel said. Not long after, the prince was kidnapped and sold into slavery. He kept the seed with him through all the trials and hardships of the Middle Passage before landing on St. Croix. "When he arrived, to spend the rest of his life on St. Croix, he planted that seed and tended it carefully until it grew tall and strong. And that is how the baobab came to St. Croix," she said.
While told as though a fairy-tale or a fable from Aesop, the basic outlines of the story are true. More than 250 years ago, an African chose to carefully keep hold of a few baobab seeds through the transatlantic journey of a slave ship and chose to plant the tree where it is in Grove Place. Twelve or more generations later, the tree stands as a giant testament to that anonymous African's life. And centuries later, that person's descendents are very likely all over St. Croix, where some may have stood in the shade of the tree planted by their ancestor, gazing at its hoary girth.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, D. Hamilton Jackson gave speeches in the trees shade. Jackson was a labor leader and in 1915 the publisher of the Herald, the first V.I. newspaper independent of the Danish government. On October 15, 1915, to commemorate the maiden issue of the Herald, a bull was slaughtered for a feast on the land right by the tree. Later the park named for Jackson was established and every year the event is commemorated on the site with the Bull and Bread Day feast on Nov. 1. Bull and Bread Day is held across the street.
During the Danish period the tree was a rallying place for plantation laborers and union activity.
The baobab has religious significance in traditional West African religion as well as cultural, historical and spiritual significance here. Its seed pods are wholesome and tasty. Gordon says on St. Croix it is also called Guinea Almond, because of the nutty flavor the seeds impart when its eaten very fresh and because the tree comes from the country of Guinea in Africa. On St. Thomas it is also called Guinea Tamarind because of the tartness of the pods flesh. The inside of the pods are filled with a dry powder with a flavor like a sweet tamarind. It can be made into a juice drink similar to tamarind drink. The large white flowers open at night and are fertilized by bats. The peak season for the pods is from February through June.
Nearly the entire tree is edible. Besides the fruit and seeds, the young leaves can be eaten fresh in salads or cooked in soups and stews. The fresh bark can be dried, ground and mixed with water for a purgative. The Grove Place Baobab is listed in the National Register of Big Trees and highlighted in the book; Remarkable Big Trees in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Gordon says every baobab has unique, individual characteristics. She makes a variety of art and jewelry from a number of traditional plant seeds and pods, including baobab pods. The Grove Place Baobabs seed pods have a distinctive nipple poking from their lower end which none of the other Crucian baobabs have. Also the velvet exterior of the pod is thicker and more velvety. Whether these are genetic variations or the result of the trees great age are unknown.
Local legend has it that people have taken shelter within the tree's room-sized hollow spit during hurricanes. A less likely legend is that a woman gave birth within the trunk of the tree.
Gordon says during the 1878 Fireburn labor riots, twelve women rounded up as ringleaders were burned alive beneath the tree, an atrocity memorialized upon the bronze plaque at the base of the tree.
The park and efforts to preserve the tree came about as a result of a partnership among Gordon, the staff and children of Eulalie Rivera Elementary School, property owner Magdalene Edney, the State Historic Preservation Office, the St. Croix Historic Preservation Committee, the Water and Power Authority, and the Urban and Community Forestry Program of the Department of Agriculture.
Through a cost-sharing grant from the Urban and Community Forestry Program, the Eulalie Rivera Elementary school worked with Gordon to have the area around the Grove Place Baobab cleaned and maintained. The State Historic Preservation Office, with the assistance of the St. Croix Historic Preservation Committee, researched the history of the tree and prepared and erected a plaque in front of the tree. WAPA donated several telephone poles to be used as posts, which will provide protection for the tree.
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