New Guidebook Teaches about St. John Trees

We walk among them daily, sometimes conscious of their presence, sometimes not.  Although they’ve been here longer than most of us have, we often don’t know their names.

I’m speaking of the trees of St. John.

But all this is changing now, thanks to the publication of a new book by Gail Karlsson and others called Learning about Trees and Plants.

This handy little spiral-bound book is something the island has needed for decades—a book with a multitude of color photographs that make it easy to identify the trees and shrubs commonly found throughout the islands.

The book’s user-friendliness has to do with its two-part organization.  The first part guides readers on a walking tour of Cruz Bay, directing them to observe individual trees in specific locations.  The second part is an identification guide based on characteristics of trees and shrubs, listing, for example, all of those featuring white flowers, or thorns, or berries.

The book began about a year-and-a-half ago when Karlsson, an environmental lawyer by profession and naturalist by inclination, started looking at trees as a new subject matter for her photography.  She realized she didn’t know much about what she was looking at, so she started following around St. John plant specialist Eleanor Gibney, taking notes as Gibney reeled off scientific names, local names, and medicinal uses.

As Karlsson shot more photos, she asked Kevel Lindsay, who had written extensively on local flora, for help identifying the trees in her photos, and he steered her to applying for a grant from the Urban and Community Forestry Division of the US Department of Agriculture to produce a book.

Knowing that such a project would be demanding, Karlsson enlisted the folks at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship (UU) on St. John to take it on as a community service project.  The group had already encouraged people to learn about and appreciate trees by organizing tree walks and sponsoring Earth Day activities. Suki Buchalter, a member of the UU community, took on many of the administrative tasks, and Mary Zehngut assisted with graphic design.

White Cedar Tree in Cruz Bay Park.
White Cedar Tree in Cruz Bay Park.

“Learning about trees served as a lens through which to consider the meaning of the Unitarian Universalist principle of respect for the interconnected web of existence—deepening our recognition of the degree to which people’s lives have been shaped by dependence on trees and plants, as well as the impacts we have on the landscapes we inhabit,” Karlsson wrote in the explanatory notes.

It’s easy to feel the importance of trees in shaping our community as you take the self-guiding walking tour of Cruz Bay.  The tour begins at the ferry dock with those iconic symbols of Tropical Paradise – the Coconut Palms that line the beach.  Karlsson explains that most of these palms did not begin simply as seeds washed up upon the shore but were planted.

As you walk down the beach, you can use the guidebook to pick out a tropical Almond Tree, with its shiny leaves that turn red; the Woman’s Tongue, which has seed pods that rattle in the wind like voices; the Flamboyant Tree, skeletal during dry season but crowned with orange- red flowers during rainy season; and the Genip, with its juicy tart fruits prized by locals.

The photos of the trees often include details of location, like their position in relation to a wall or a building, that make the trees easy to identify.  Once you recognize one example of a particular species, you’ll find you can recognize others.  (To add a twist to a common cliché, “You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”)

It’s absolutely worth taking the time to walk around the Cruz Bay Battery to find the trees, orchids, cacti and shrubs identified on this site that was once a fort but now serves primarily as a base for government officials.   Without the book in hand, you might feel shy about poking around government property.  But with the book, you have a reason to be there, to sit in the shade and gaze out over the waters of Cruz Bay.  (You might even find yourself asking, why don’t I come here all the time?)

You can carry Learning about Trees and Shrubs to study the trees in Cruz Bay’s Park, and on the routes to the tennis courts, Frank Bay, and Mongoose Junction. The grant that funded the project also paid for labels for 25 trees at Mongoose Junction where the book is on sale at several locations, including Island Fancy and the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park Store.

Eleanor Gibney, Radha Speer, and Gail Karlsson pause for a photo as they put up tags to identify trees in Mongoose Junction.
Eleanor Gibney, Radha Speer, and Gail Karlsson pause for a photo as they put up tags to identify trees in Mongoose Junction.

If you don’t want to carry the book, you can download it onto your phone or iPad as a free PDF file from the UU’s website at (Scroll down the Home Page towards the bottom and click on the link to the Tree Book, or follow this link: The grant that funded the project mandates that the Fellowship cannot profit from the sale of the book.

The UU Fellowship will be celebrating the book’s launch at its weekly Sunday service on November 13.  The public is invited to attend the 10:00 am meeting held at the Great Room of the Gifft Hill School’s Lower Campus.  Copies of the book will be available.