A talk-show host on Saturday night posed a seasonal question the radio audience: “What is the name of the tree we traditionally used in the Virgin Islands as the Christmas tree?”
There were at least two correct answers, but the host discredited them. After running the chase of trees, he decided with one caller that the indigo tree was the correct answer.
However, the indigo tree was never used in the VI as the Christmas tree, traditional nor otherwise. Although indigo is listed as one of the crops that in 1740 accelerated economic progress in the VI, to the end of the century it cannot boast pride of place as being the traditional Christmas tree.
The radio show callers who said that it was the inkberry or fishing rod tree were correct.
The inkberry tree is well documented locally as the VI traditional Christmas tree. So we all need to do research diligently, lest we pass on the wrong information.
Before the advent of importing the North American Christmas tree, Virgin Islanders, up to the 1960s, turned to their own environment for Christmas decorations.
The inkberry tree, also known as the fishing rod tree, was popularly used as the Christmas tree in this territory and the USVI.
Cutting the tree was great fun. One or two members of the household would have eyed a particular tree in the nearby hillside several weeks before it was ready for cutting. It had to be the right height for the front room, and the number of branches on which to hang the decorations of tissue and crepe paper streamers and paper balls had to be sufficient.
However, because of the spines, great care had to be taken in cutting the tree, getting it into the house, and steadying it in a wooded tub or large tin that once held kerosene oil, lard or soda biscuits. The tree was grounded with rocks in its container, around which crepe paper or cloth was draped. The bluish shiny berries naturally highlighted the green branches, whose spines were ready holders for little candles.
The inkberry is a spiny deciduous shrub, usually five to 10 feet tall, but it could also grow into a 20-foot tree. It grows in dry areas and is characterised by its long, slender and stiff horizontal branches. It bears a berry with several rounded seeds in blue or black pulp, which was also used as ink — hence the name “inkberry.” Fishermen stripped the thorns from the strong and rigid but pliable stems and used them as fishing rods, from which the other local name was derived.
Still grows here
Although the inkberry has faded out of use as the Christmas tree, it still grows on the slopes of hillsides around the island, and select bastions of local culture still cherish its charm and place in our tradition by maintaining and displaying a decorated one.
The tree is celebrated at the Whim Great House and Museum in St. Croix; at the Old Government House Museum (before Irma); and at the Long Look Heritage Living Museum.
This writer also documented the inkberry as “the Virgin Islands traditional Christmas tree” in a series of Christmas cards published from 2005 to 2010 and in Funintun’s Christmas, a book published in 2015.
The Latin name of the inkberry tree, which is in the madder (rubiaceae) family, is Randia aculeata.