When was the last time you ate a stinking toe?
Despite the unappealing name, and an equally unappealing odor,
many Virgin Islanders, especially children, have been known to enjoy
the sweet taste of the stinking toe fruit. In El Salvador the stinking
toe is actually sold in food markets, but is known by a more appetizing
The term stinking toe refers to the large seedpod of the West Indian
Locust, Hymenaea courbaril, commonly called the stinking toe or
old man's toe tree, one of the largest trees in the Caribbean. The
seedpods look like big fat toes and the mealy pulp around the seeds,
although foul smelling, is edible and good tasting.
Curtney Chinnery, a native of Jost Van Dyke and aficionado of Virgin
Island culture, gives this description of the stinking toe fruit.
"We here in the Virgin Islands call the fruit of the West
Indian Locust stinking toe. The fruit is brown with the shape of
a large toe. The shell is hard and not easy to break. The inside
substance is dry, hairy, powdery and yellow. The seed is the same
shape as the fruit itself only smaller. Once the shell is open an
odor is released that can be said to be just about unbearable. This
is a strange thing because the locust fruit tastes so good once
one engages in the eating of it. Then it's not easy to be satisfied
by eating just one. Unfortunately the odor from the locust is a
lingering one and this may cause you problems. For example it is
not easy to get someone to kiss you after eating a stinking toe
The West Indian locust can be found throughout the Caribbean, Mexico,
and Central and South America. On St. John it thrives in moist forest
regions such as Reef Bay and Bordeaux Mountain.
Hikers on the Reef Bay Trail will pass by an excellent specimen
of the stinking toe tree, which is identified by a National Park
Service information sign. Stinking toes also line one section of
the Bordeaux Mountain Road. These trees can be identified by the
large scars on they bear, low on their trunks.
According to Hermon Smith, a Bordeaux Mountain naturalist and sculptor,
the scarred trunks are a legacy of the creation of the road by Public
Works when the large stinking toes were used to change the angle
of the bulldozer blades. Hermon also told me that the scars have
been embellished with original carvings made by another Bordeaux
Mountain resident, Albert Christian. Over the years many of the
carvings have fallen victim to termites, but one remains practically
The stinking toe tree serves itself up as a sumptuous meal for
a medium sized woodpecker commonly known as the yellowbellied sapsucker.
Every so often yellowbellied sapsuckers visit St. John. One of their
favorite activities is to drill a band of small holes in the trunk
of the stinking toe tree. (The stinking toe is the only tree on
St. John marked in this way thus offering those who are interested
an easy method of identification.) To repair these wounds the tree
secretes a sweet sap, which the yellowbellied sapsucker licks up
with its long bushy tongue. If the yellowbellied sapsucker is lucky,
the sap will attract ants and other juicy insects, which are happily
consumed along with the delicious sweet goo. (The National Park
information sign says that the yellowbellied sapsucker makes the
holes in the locust tree only to attract insects and not to suck
the sap. Many experts, however, do not agree with this theory.)
More About the Stinking Toe
So, you say that you're hesitant to sample the fruit of the stinking
toe tree. But is it possible that you have a product of the stinking
toe in your mouth right now? It's not only possible; it's quite
Have you ever gone to the dentist and needed to have a large cavity
filled? According to Virgin Island's dentist Dr. Howard Haynes,
after drilling, most cavities are treated with a sealant before
they are filled. The sealant prevents discoloration, absorption
of the filling material and possible infection. It also desensitizes
the tooth and "makes people feel better when the cavity is
close to the nerve," Dr. Haynes said. The sealant most often
used is called copalite and comes from, you guessed it, copal, the
hardened sap produced by the stinking toe tree.
Stinking toe, scientifically named, Hymenaea courbaril, is also
used extensively in traditional folk medicine. According to the
Weed Women of the St. George Village Botanical Gardens on St. Croix,
the smoke from copal resin helps alleviate headaches and rheumatism.
In the Brazilian rainforest the tree is called Jatobá. Dr.
J. Monteiro Silva, an expert on Brazilian traditional medicine,
wrote that drinking Jatobá tea can make you feel strong and
vigorous and promote a good appetite. In the 1930's an extract of
the bark, Vinho de Jatobá (Jatobá wine) was popular
throughout Brazil and used as an energizer and fortifier. Lumberjacks
working in the Brazilian rainforest have long used Jatobá
tea to give them added energy, vigor and strength. Even today they
are seen carrying large jugs of homemade Jatobá tea with
them as they head off to work.
If you would like to sample stinking toe tea, you can buy Jatobá
tea drops, a concentrated extract, for about twenty dollars an ounce.
Hymenaea based herbs are said to aid in the treatment of a wide
variety of health disorders such as diarrhea, dysentery, general
fatigue, constipation, prostate problems, asthma, laryngitis and
bronchitis as well as athlete's foot and nail fungus. In fact, it
would be difficult to name an ailment that wouldn't be alleviated
by some form of the stinking toe.
Although the fruit of the locust smells like a stinking toe, the
hardened sap has a beautifully fragrant aroma and has been used
for many centuries to make incense. The ancient Mayans and Aztecs
used copal incense in rituals of purification and sanctification
and large amounts were burned on the tops of their pyramids.
In Mexico today copal is still associated with magic and religion.
Los Dias de los Muertos, the Days of the Dead, is a Mexican holiday
honoring the dead. It is celebrated from the evening of October
31 until November 2, the same time as Halloween and the Christian
holidays of All Saints and All Souls Days. Copal incense is burned
on these days to help guide the dead back to their earthly homes.
The flat, round, reddish-brown seeds of the stinking toe fruit
are often used by Caribbean craftspeople in making various types
of jewelry. The seeds are polished to a rich hardwood-like finish,
then strung together to make beautiful necklaces. Artisans in Central
America slice the seeds in half or alternatively sand off the seed
coat on one of the sides and then paint miniature pictures on the
ivory-like inner surface. The paintings are so small that the artists
often have to use a magnifying glass in order to draw the pictures.
Little and Wadsworth in their book, Common Trees of Puerto Rico
and the Virgin Islands, mention that the bark of old locust trees
could be removed in long thick sheets. This attribute of the locust
led it to be used by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon region
to make large canoes capable of holding twenty-five to thirty people.
The sheets of bark were sewn together in the form of a canoe. The
seams were waterproofed with resin and wooden crosspieces were fitted
to provide strength and hold the shape.
The stinking toe is also harvested to produce an extremely durable
high quality lumber that has a natural resistance to termites and
fungus. The traditional carretas or oxcarts of El Salvador are fabricated
using this lumber, which is also popular for use in construction,
boat building, furniture making and for a myriad of other uses.
In short this aromatic tree gives us not only stinky fruits and
sweet smelling incense, but also medicines, jewelry and lumber.
The stinking toe, despite its odd and rather unappealing local name
is definitely one of the most important trees of our region.
Indian Locust - from NPS sign Reef Bay Trail
(Hymenaea courbaril) Bean Family
This tree is found throughout the West Indies and parts of Mexico
and South America. The durable wood of this handsome tree is used
for furniture, shipbuilding, crossties and posts. The tree exudes
a useful gum resin. It produces large, dark red seedpods containing
several seeds surrounded by a strong smelling yellow pulp that gives
this tree the local name of "stinkin'toe tree." The pulp
is edible and sweet tasting. The holes you see in the bark are made
by the yellow bellied sapsucker to set a sticky sap laden trap for
top of page