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Garden Beautiful

Know Your Trees

Trees are one of the first things you will want to think about when planning your garden, particularly if you are starting with a clean slate or cleared land.

In this article you'll learn a bit about a few of the flowering trees that grow best in the Virgin Islands and the specific conditions under which they thrive.  All of the trees listed can endure full sun but you will want to monitor them for the first couple of weeks after planting out to make sure they are getting adequate water and are not suffering.
If you want to make a statement in your garden, there's no better tree than the sun-loving Delonix regia, AKA, "Flame Tree", "Poinciana" or "Flamboyant." This striking tree with its clusters of fiery red flowers is common on Tortola and can be seen in most of the sister islands as well.  A member of the Legume family and a native of Madagascar, it can burst into exuberant bloom when it is no more than about six or seven feet high, but its fern-like foliage is enough to recommend it.  The Flamboyant can grow anywhere from 30 feet to 50 feet, with a spread of as much as twice that.  If you're looking for a shade tree under which to place garden seating, then this is the tree for you.  The blooms (which are the national flower of Puerto Rico) are followed by long, chocolate-coloured seedpods but you might be able to prolong the bloom period by taking these off as quickly as they appear.

While you can probably obtain young Flamboyants from any of the commercial nurseries or from the National Parks Trust (a wonderful source of free plants), Flamboyants are fairly easy to grow from seed. Of the four Flamboyants growing on my property, three were grown from seed harvested from underneath roadside trees.  To assure germination, nick the seeds and soak them in warm water for 48 hours. before sowing them about an inch deep in any seed-starting mix.  You should have enough to give away if you nurture them carefully.
Another tree you may want to consider is the Cassia fistula (Golden Shower Tree) which, as its name suggests, bursts into arresting sprays of hanging yellow blossoms.  You may have seen one of these in the J. R. O'Neal Botanic Gardens. Seedlings were available free-of-charge during Arbour Day, 2003 from the National Parks' Trust.  The Golden Shower Tree, which originated in tropical Asia, grows to a height of about forty feet and the flowers usually appear between April and July.  Not a spreading tree, Golden Shower is a suitable alternative for someone who doesn't have a lot of space but craves a high-impact tree.  The young tree might be plagued by crickets and may thus need a bit more care than the Flamboyant which, as far as I can tell, doesn't resent occasional neglect in its early years.
Tabebuia serratifolia or "Yellow Poui" rivals the Golden Shower for spectacular yellow blooms. Originating in South America,this beautiful tree can reach a height of eighty-feet.  Used extensively in construction, the wood of the Yellow Poui is resistant to termites. Its thick, palmate leaves are a silvery-green colour which may be shed in the dry season.  More columnar than spreading, this tree makes a statement on its own or when planted in a row – as has been done along the Sir Frances Drake Highway, by the parking lot behind Sunny Caribbee.  Bees, humming-birds and banaquits love the abundant yellow flowers (the National Flower of Venezuela) so if you want to attract these creatures to your garden, then you won't want to leave this tree off your list of "must-haves."
Given the trees mentioned above, you may be a bit under-whelmed by your first sight of Guaiacum officinale – the Lignum Vitae, literally "wood of life," but you'd be underestimating this subtle charmer.  Like the Yellow Poui, the Lignum Vitae is also a native of South America and is the national tree of both the Bahamas and Jamaica.  A spreading, dome-shaped tree that grows to about 20 or 30 feet, its small pretty leaves are glossy and dark-green in colour, thus acting as the perfect foil for the five-petalled blue flowers which blanket the tree when in bloom. Lignum Vitae is among the heaviest of commercial woods and is used in the manufacture of industrial parts while gum guaiacum, extracted from the bark, is used medicinally in a variety of ways including as a treatment for arthritis.

In the easy-to-grow category one has to mention the Bauhinias or "Poor Man's Orchid." Great shade trees, bauhinias, which originated in Asia, rarely grow above twenty feet. Also known as the "Bull Hoof Tree" because of the cloven-hoof shape of the fairly big leaves, this is a good tree around which to place a bench. While the pink or lilac varieties (Bauhinia purpurea or Bauhinia monandra) are more common in the Territory, I've also seen a cream flowered version here and there (possibly B.forficata), the flowers being particularly fetching against the light green leaves.
Of course, when considering the kinds of trees you want and how many, you will have to consider the size of your plot and the other kinds of plants you may want to grow under or around them. The shade of the spreading flamboyant, for instance, might preclude the underplanting of sun-loving perennials which require sun for bloom.  On the other hand, plants such as the spider-lily and bromeliads will thrive under your shade trees.  Putting aside some gardeners, ahem!, who plant without any kind of colour scheme in mind, you may want to stick to a particular palette of say, predominantly pink and purple hues, so you will want to bear that in mind as well when selecting trees for your garden.
While the trees I've mentioned will grow almost anywhere in the Virgin Islands, you should also consider the micro-climates of your garden.  If you have an area that tends to be boggy after heavy rains, then you'll want to choose a tree that doesn't mind having its feet wet for a few days.  Similarly, consider cisterns, septic systems, walls and walkways when planting your trees – the Flamboyant's strong root system, for example, might interfere with all of these but those of the Bauhinia might not, so check with a landscaper or an experienced gardener before putting anything in the ground.  

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