Student Blog: History Through Plants at the St. George Botanical Garden

TU students taking the interdisciplinary class “The Roots of Hamilton: Relics of Resistance in the Black Atlantic World” had the chance to travel to St. Croix. They were able to visit Alexander Hamilton’s boyhood home and see different sites of enslavement and freedom in the Caribbean. Biochemistry freshman Brittney Willis shares her experience at the St. George Botanical Garden. 

On Saturday, we visited St. George Botanical Gardens located on what used to be Estate St. George, a large sugar plantation. The estate now houses plants native to St. Croix, and plants that would have been grown on the plantation while it was in use. While touring the grounds, botanist Dewey Hollister explained the importance and use of the different plants, or if they had a cultural or spiritual significance. For example, Cuban or Jamaican oregano is the main ingredient in jerk spicing and is an African herb. Nashia is used for tea. He also showed us the differences in commercial and dwarf pineapples. Fun fact: Bay rum tree leaves are the base ingredient for Old Spice deodorant, and cashews and pistachios are both in the poison ivy family.

A plant that has been used for medicinal purposes is the noni, or painkiller fruit. It is used in pastes or eaten to reduce pain and inflammation. The achiote plant (and its derivative, annatto) has been used as body paint and food coloring due to its bright orange color. It was the original dye used to make margarine yellow. The strangler fig, which is a cannibalistic tree, can fuse together with itself so that it does not choke itself. The strangler fig lives as an epiphyte, using another tree to reach the ground before rooting itself and taking over the other tree, killing it and using it as fertilizer.

Seeing the plants grow on these grounds, as a way to reconnect to the past, showed me how the past can be reconciled with the present, and we can connect to it through different ways. History does not always have to come from textbooks, narratives, and museums. Through these plants, I was able to reconstruct a better picture of what life was like on the island during the 18th and 19th centuries, what it looked like, and even what it smelled like. I was able to see what enslaved peoples cooked with and what they grew for healing and even just decoration. The gardens truly helped me build a bridge to the past. Sometimes all you need are plants.