A Century Tree sounded like a cool, island alternative to a regular imported fir tree. I had read somewhere that locals search for one in the wild, cut it down and decorate it – old school and exotic all at once. Evidently it was more of a St. Johnian tradition than a St. Thomian one, but how difficult could it be to get a tree over on a ferry? Not knowing really any more than that, I wandered into a little organic plant nursery the week after Thanksgiving. Having vaguely bonded with the owner – bizarrely we are both originally from the same tiny town – I figured if anyone could help, it would be him. “So do you know where I can find a Century Tree? And I know usually you have to chop it down yourself, but I was wondering if there was a way to get one without having to go over to St. John with a machete.”
The look of absolute shock on the face framed by long grey braids was immediate. “But Century Trees are endangered!” he spluttered. A short lecture followed on how they self-propagated, and why cutting down the few remaining trees would bring a speedy extinction. Whoops! Backpedal, backpedal… “Oh my, I didn’t know that!” I tried to explain how I only heard they were part of local Christmas tradition, and I truly wasn’t asking him how to circumnavigate the law and kill off a plant. He looked at me funny after that (as though if he had indeed known anything, I most certainly would have grabbed my machete and the next ferry, or made a shady parking lot transaction in the dead of night). He said regular trees were imported to the island, and he also had trees in pots if I wanted to be environmentally friendly and plant it after Christmas or re-use the tree next year. (They were very pretty, but I didn’t).
Century Trees, or Agave missionum, used to be everywhere, especially on St. John with all its protected National Park Land. Then quite recently, the Mexican Snout Beetle, or perhaps it was the Agave Snout Weevil (found blame on both), pillaged the species. And, contrary to the name, it doesn’t take them 100 years to bloom. The tree, which looks like a primeval aloe, grows for 20-30 years, sends up a tall ‘flower’ with pollen pods (resembling a mammoth asparagus stalk gone to seed), and promptly dies. The ‘flower’ dries out while staying upright and this is the part that people cut down, maybe paint, and decorate year after year. Indeed very cool, but unfortunately not meant to be our Christmas tree. The search continues.