A VI Christmas Tree
- November 30th, 2011
- in Yachting
A Virgin Islands Christmas Tree
This seasonal habit of decorating a tree at Christmas time was started in Germany and quickly spread throughout Europe. It’s safe to say the concept must have been brought to the West Indies by the colonists. Except for a few Norfolk pines, no suitable Christmas trees grew here, so spiky limeberry bushes and then the dead flowering stalk of the century plant were used to bring in the festive cheer before commercially grown spruces were imported.
The century plant is an agave—a large, succulent shrub that survives dry weather and is particularly predominant in West End, Tortola. The century plant, properly known as Agave Americana, flowers once and then dies after eight or more years, sending up a tall, 10- to 20-foot stalk or spear that bursts into bright, two-inch yellow blossoms in large clusters at the end of short stalks. These provide essential sustenance to bees, hummingbirds, thrushes and bananaquits in the usually dry season and so hum with noisy activity for a week in early summer. The stalk and its seed pods then dry and form a lightweight “tree” that is easily cut and can be brought inside to be spray painted in silver and decorated with tinsel, silver balls and homemade decorations. But a note of caution: beware of large black bumblebees that may have made a home in the stalk—they probably will object to having their house moved.
It wasn’t until 1994 that the larva of a weevil, which was probably introduced with ornamental plants imported from Florida, started devastating the century plants in St Thomas, spreading in 2000 to St John and Tortola; by 2002 no century plants had survived. No flower meant no trees, and for some, no Christmas tree. But the old seeds did sprout and new plants can now be seen; the first one flowered at West End this summer. (No, I will not tell you where!)
So I did the right—if not lazy—thing to save me the annual trek into the bush to cut a new tree. Some years back I decided to store my century tree in my carport roof, where it has survived two hurricanes and comes out every Christmas for the ritual of being decorated with ornaments from all over the world: a soldier nutcracker from former East Germany, a teddy bear from UK, the hula girls came from Hawaii, the sailboat from Boston, the sea urchin snowman from Barbados, the sand dollars from Christmas on Main Street and many more. Each one tells a little story as to where it was bought or who sent it or made it. Some are old fashioned wooden clothes pegs that my daughters painted and decorated with little pieces of felt to represent Santa and Mrs Claus some thirty years ago. No star sits on top but an old paper angel made by a friend. I am sure each family has its own favoured decorations to hang on their century plant. It is all part of the ritual of Christmas for many in the Virgin Islands.
Best Christmas wishes to all and a happy New Year.