At various times the palmetto, the oleander and the Easter lily have been attacked by, and recovered from, disease. Most serious of all, however, is the attack started by a scale in 1945 on the beloved and indigenous cedar tree (really a juniper). This hardy tree that clothed the Islands in green has been not just a tree but a "way of life" and almost a trademark of the Colony.
From the beginning, it has been the only important source of lumber. Bermuda babies have always been rocked in cedar cradles and everyone is buried in a cedar coffin. Cedar has been used for beams in houses and for telephone poles. It has been used to make almost all local furniture and to build the famed sailing ships. Used for heating, it is the most beautifully grained and aromatic firewood in the world.
The scale, probably brought in on some trees from the United States, spread and defied all known controls. Quantities of ladybug beetles were imported when it was discovered they had an appetite for it and could follow its burrowings in between the leaflets. But the scale developed faster than the beetles could eat and the first big hurricanes in some twenty years blew the pest throughout the Colony and the ladybugs into the sea. So many cedars have been killed that the authorities now fear the sturdy trees may be finished.
Everybody misses the familiar green tree and hates to see thousands of dead ones chopped down. However, efforts are still being made to check the blight, and at the same time, a large-scale reforestation program is under way.
The weather-beaten cedar has always been Bermuda's hallmark tree, but others are more dramatic. The royal poinciana, a tone poem in spring and summer when masses of scarlet flowers surmount its graceful, spreading branches, is best known in the West Indies, but first came here from Madagascar.
Second only to the cedar, Bermuda's favorite indigenous tree is the Bermuda palmetto, which has had its historical uses too. It was used for roof thatch and its berries eaten by the early settlers. Sir George Somers' men ground a meal from the berries which they took to Virginia in 1610. The heads of the little palm were sometimes boiled or roasted, and not the least desirable product of the tree was "bibbie," a sort of rum distilled from the sap. It became so popular that an early governor decreed that, to keep for thatch, no more trees could be cut down for bibbie. In the 1700's the palmetto had a commercial phase when a plait made from the leaves was used to make baskets, fans and hats, which were then fashionable in London. Today it is rarely eaten, drunk or woven, but it grows widely and is an attractive tree.
The calabash tree, a not very impressive evergreen, has its fruit enclosed in hard shells, about the shape and size of an eggplant. There are a number of old calabash trees in Bermuda, but much the most famous is at Walsingham, an old home now known as Tom Moore's Tavern. Tom Moore visited Walsingham a number of times, once carved his name on the tree and at another time wrote of it:
"'Twas thus by the shade of the calabash tree,
With a few who could feel and remember like me,
The charm that, to sweeten my goblet, I threw,
With a sigh to the past, and a blessing on you."
The Royal Bermuda Yacht Club was organized under this same calabash in 1844, but if you lunch or dine at Tom Moore's, prepare for quite a scramble through the woods if you want to find it.
The allspice tree is a favorite show-off, and your taxi or carriage driver will delight in bringing you one of the small glossy leaves to crumple, sniff and taste for its savory odor and flavor. Bermudians often use the leaves for seasoning.
The tamarisk, a tree brought from the Mediterranean a century ago, thrives in salt spray. It has a pretty white or pinkish bloom and doubles as an attractive tree and a windbreak.
Wandering around you will see many other trees, but perhaps the most famous is the hundred-year-old rubber tree in front of the Public Library. Another famous one is the huge mahogany tree at Palmetto Grove near the Aquarium, that Mark Twain liked.
Your taxi or carriage driver will point out coffee trees (near the Perfume Factory) or fig trees, but banana patches you can spot yourself. They came originally from China via the Canary Islands after it was found that the larger West Indian variety couldn't take Bermuda winds. Louisa Hutchings Smith has written that the first bananas ever seen in England were sent to London from Bermuda in the seventeenth century.
Bermudians deserve much credit for their initiative in bringing flowers, plants and trees back home, but now and then they outsmart themselves. In 1846 an enthusiastic gardener not only imported a Virginia creeper, but was delighted that it thrived!