An Update on the Island’s Trees

trees at maho bay road
The remaining trees that line the road at Maho Bay.

Over the past two months, we have received numerous emails regarding the status of the trees, bushes, flowers and other flora around the island. The good news is that a large amount has come back; however there are still large swaths of the island where the foliage simply appears to be gone.

We came across the following article written by Amy Roberts for the St. John Tradewinds and Virgin Islands Source. It is a very well written article with a wealth of information on this subject. We thought we would share it with all of you…

Some St. John Trees Struggle to Recover by Amy Roberts

When the first trees started to grow leaves within a week or two of Hurricane Irma’s onslaught, residents were ecstatic. They passed around photos on cell phones of new mampoo tree buds and frangipani blossoms like proud grandparents showing off baby pictures.

But the damage inflicted by Hurricane Irma on the forests of St. John September 6 may be much worse than anyone suspected. The upper western-facing slopes, including Mamey Peak and the Cinnamon and Maho Bay watersheds, have been particularly affected. Seven weeks after the storm, there are still swaths of forest where the trees are lying flat, and little that is green can be seen.

“I’m afraid there’s been a great deal of tree death there,” said native species expert Eleanor Gibney. “The sheer force of the gusts, estimated at 250 mph, separated the bark from the wood. No tree can survive that.”

Seeing the trees recover in other areas, Gibney initially had been optimistic.

“I thought at first the trees were very delayed, but it’s worse,” she said. Some trees will recover, she acknowledged, but “there’s a huge loss on the western-facing slopes. What that means, we don’t know. Those were mostly native tree species. Will they re-seed, or will pioneer species, like tan-tan, take over? We don’t know.”

Recent heavy rains have been a source of misery for people who have lost roofs or windows and are trying to stay dry, but for the trees and other vegetation on St. John, the rain is exactly what’s needed.

“Rain is an incredibly mixed thing, but it’s the best thing for natural growth,” said Gibney. Although some areas still look like they’ve been blasted by a bomb, she said, “the vegetation is coming back. It’s a positive thing every day.”

“A lot of trees lost branches but didn’t blow over. If a tree has most of its roots in the ground, it can recover,” she said. “I’ve been watching the trees in my yard. It was a total mess. I said, ‘They’re not coming back.’”

Five weeks later, she was finding little leaves coming out of the trunks, she said.

Gibney has observed that some non-native species, such as genips from Venezuela and wild tamarind from Guatemala, have been the first to put out new leaves, “which is not necessarily a good thing when it’s early in the hurricane season.”

Some native tree species, such as pigeonberry and turpentine, “have been a lot more cautious, waiting two or three weeks to send out new growth,” Gibney said.

She doesn’t know yet how two rare species of plants that are common to St. John have fared because they’re located within the V.I. National Park in places that are not yet accessible.
The bay rum trees, source of the aromatic oil that was once a significant export product from St. John, are coming back.

“One of the bay rum trees in my yard was 30 feet back from the shoreline,” Gibney said. “The waves hit it – it was lying down – but after a month I saw tiny green leaves.”

What made Hurricane Irma so deadly to coastal vegetation, particularly on the north side of the island, was the storm surge. Gibney said past hurricanes, such as Hugo and Marilyn, never sent more than a trickle of sea water into her yard, which is located right behind the beach in Hawksnest Bay.

During Irma, however, “The water came 100 feet in from the shore, right up to my house,” Gibney said. “The surge took out the sea grapes; all the trees are lying flat, though some are still alive. Ninety percent of my coconuts are gone; they’re not coming back.”

The power of the sea’s surge is visible on Peace Hill, at the eastern tip of Hawksnest Bay, where waves have scoured the cactus off 20 to 30 feet of the lower hillside. The surge’s effect is visible along the north shore beaches, including Trunk, Cinnamon, and Maho Bays, where the shoreline trees lay uprooted in twisted, brown tangles.

Click here to read the rest of the story at St. John Tradewinds.

9 thoughts on “An Update on the Island’s Trees”

  1. I just read this on St John Tradewinds before seeing it posted here. An excellent, comprehensive update on this topic. So sad about about so many of the north shore beaches and their treelines (Maho, Gibney especially). Nature will just take more time in those spots…

  2. I think about the massive and beautiful old trees that were along the reef bay trail. I’m super curious how that area made out during the storm?
    (maybe this has been posted somewhere and I’ve missed this info?)

    • I am also curious about the Reef Bay trail trees. I was hoping since the south side of the island wasn’t hit as hard as the north side (if I have understood what I have read) that the big trees on the Reef Bay trail were more protected. Fingers crossed. 🙂

  3. WOW; you know after thousand of years ,hundreds of storms(if not more) your saying that the trees will not come back? I find this hard to believe? Mother nature has a way of repairing herself after every storm!
    So come on everyone trust that nature will once again rule the day.

  4. Mother Nature will for sure do her thing, but if a tree is dead its dead. It’s true that what will take the place of those trees won’t be known immediately. I hope that some of the palms grow back on the beach. I think they grow pretty quick once established so will be interesting to see how the immediate shore line takes shape over the next 10 years. Will still be beautiful whatever new look she goes for. 🙂

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