Anyone who has ever been stumped trying to identify a tree they spot during a hike will be thrilled with a T. Kent Kirk’s new field guide.
While Kirk has been visiting the Virgin Islands for 20 years, it was during a trip to St. Croix about six years ago, that he and his friend Tom Miller tried to identify several trees they came across.
When the two — who both have forestry backgrounds — were unable to identify the trees, they looked for a field guide, but couldn’t find one. So Kirk and Miller set out to create one of their own.
Although Miller eventually dropped out of the project due to health reasons, Kirk continued researching and photographing local trees and has since produced “Tropical Trees of Florida and the Virgin Islands,” published by Pineapple Press in Sarasota, Florida.
Kirk, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, has compiled an easy-to-use filed guide brimming with color photos and detailed information.
“We were trying to identify these trees we saw on St. Croix and we couldn’t find any books that were user friendly and informative,” said Kirk. “We talked about it for a while and, since we both have forestry backgrounds, we decided to write a book of our own.”
“We made a list of all the tree species we thought could be found down here and then came back to meet with experts,” he said.
Kirk and Miller met with St. George Village Botanical Garden herbarium curator Margaret Hayes and other flora experts on St. Croix in 2004. With their help, the two revised the tree list and ended up with abut 100 species to cover in the book.
Although Hayes was diagnosed with cancer and died before “Tropical Trees” was published in 2009, she edited the field guide and was a continuing inspiration for Kirk as he spent about four years making trips numerous to St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John to photograph trees.
“I made a lot of trips down here over the next three to four years,” said Kirk. “Most of the trees I photographed on St. John and St. Croix and just a few on St. Thomas. I spent a lot of money on the project between all the trips and everything, but it was a labor of love.”
With the help of St. Johnian botanist Eleanor Gibney and several University of the Virgin Islands officials, Kirk was able to include trees found in the British Virgin Islands in the field guide.
“Eleanor told me how common these trees are in Tortola and Virgin Gorda so I was able to include that information,” said the author.
The project expanded to include Florida at the urging of the publisher, Kirk explained.
“I originally intended for the book to just cover the Virgin Islands, but then I found a publisher, Pineapple Press,” he said. “The publishing house is in Sarasota, Florida and they specialize in books about Florida wildlife, shells, lighthouses and things like that. They thought they could sell more books if I included Florida in the title.”
“It was all a marketing thing,” said Kirk. “But many of the trees here can be found in southern Florida, so it wasn’t too difficult.”
What Kirk — who had published many scientific papers during his years in biochemistry at the University of Wisconsin — created is a user-friendly guide, designed to help anyone easily identify local trees.
The first step is to determine if the tree in question is cactus or palm, which have their own sections in “Tropical Trees.” If the tree has leaves, then the next step is to identify which type of leaf it is, from a series of clear photographs — and that is basically the last step.
The leaf type will lead one to a section of the book, which is easily found by the color-coded pages. Each description includes color photographs of the entire tree and close-up pictures of the bark, flowers, leaves and fruit.
In addition to the scientific name, common tree names appear in English, Spanish and French. The descriptions also include key identifying features of the species, whether it is native or introduced, how common the tree is, descriptions of the form, favored habitat and local uses.
“A lot of these trees are used for curing a variety of ailments,” said Kirk. “It makes you think how sick people must have gotten trying to figure out what works and what doesn’t. I got most of the information on medicinal uses from government and university organizations so it should be accurate.”
“But I do not advocate trying any of the folk uses,” Kirk said.
The whole point of the book is to make it easy for anyone to use, Kirk added.
“We wanted the average person be able to easily identify a tree in five to 10 minutes and I think we’ve done it,” he said. “The book definitely fills a void in the Virgin Islands. I don’t think there has ever been an attempt to compile this information in such an easy-to-use format.”
“The book is both technically accurate and entertaining to read,” said Kirk.
“Tropical Trees of Florida and the Virgin Islands,” will be available on St. John at Papaya Cafe soon, or check for it at any major online bookseller.