Gumbo limbo (Bursera simaruba) is native in tropical regions of the Americas from south Florida through Mexico and the Caribbean to Brazil and Venezuela.
It is a small to medium-sized tree that grows to 98 feet in height with a diameter of 3 feet at 5 feet above ground. This tree is extremely wind resistant. The trunk is typically 10° cooler than the outside air temperature; the cause is unknown.
Leaves are spirally arranged and pinnate with 7-11 broad, ovate leaflets. Gumbo limbo loses its leaves for a brief period in February and March; then, new leaves appear.
The tree produces ripe fruit (shown below) year round, but the main fruiting season in Florida is in March and April. The fruit is a small three-valved capsule that encases a single seed, covered in a red fatty seed coat. Birds eat both the seeds and the seed coat.
Gumbo limbo trees are called tourist trees because the shiny, peeling, red bark resembles the skin of a tourist that has experienced a severe sunburn.
Gumbo limbo trees are extremely useful to people:
1) Branches stuck in the ground root and become new trees. Branches are used for making living fence posts.
2) Because the trees are wind resistent, they are recommended as hurricane-resistant trees to plant for wind protection for crops and roadways.
3) Because of the gumbo limbo's rapid growth, it is recommended as a "starter" tree in reforestation areas.
4) The wood is used in light construction and for firewood.
5) Because the wood is soft and easily carved, it is used to make carousel horses in the United States and voodoo drums (“tambours”) in Haiti.
6) The resin is used as glue, varnish, incense, salve for sunburn, and a treatment for gout.
7) Oils in the bark are used as ointment for irritations caused by some poisonous plants.
8) Young leaves are used as a dressing to take the pain out of wasp and bee stings, and brewed into a medicinal tea.
© Photographs and text by Susan Leach Snyder (Conservancy of Southwest Florida Volunteer).
Please report errors to Susan Snyder @ email@example.com