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Gumbo Limbo

One of our absolute favorite trees here at CHEC is the incomparable, inimitable, indomitable Gumbo Limbo (Bursera simaruba). These trees are found on both CHEC properties, and are incredible to see, and feel, in person. One of their most famous attributes is their peeling, flaky pieces of red bark, and it can be quite satisfying to rub the trunk and watch the flakes of bark float ever so softly down to the forest floor. This tree is also comically nicknamed the "Tourist Tree" since it resembles the skin of a sunburned tourist that didn't wear enough sunscreen.

This species is a mainstay of tropical South Florida's coastal hammocks, and is found throughout the Caribbean, all the way to northern South America. It is also associated with growing on and around the higher elevations provided by Calusa shell mounds. It produces small fruits that are favored by many small tropical and migratory birds, including state-listed species like the threatened white-crowned pigeon (Patagioenas leucocephala). Carl Linnaeus, the father of modern taxonomy that first described this species, thought the fruits looked similar to pistachios and originally grouped them into that family of trees.

The Gumbo Limbo has a fairly wide crown, a shallow root system, and extremely soft wood. Despite all these factors, they are still (somehow) remarkably resilient to damage from hurricanes. It was also frequently harvested for the soft wood that it produced, which was extremely easy to carve into a wide array of different products. The most famous of these were the trees' frequent use for carousel animals!

Probably the most important products derived from this tree are the aromatic oils and resin it produces. Burning of the wood produced a pleasant aroma, and was used in sacred ceremonies throughout the region, including the Aztecs' infamous human sacrifice rituals in modern day Mexico. The scent from burning the wood was also used practically as a very effective method in repelling mosquitoes; the resin could also be rubbed on the skin to repel the biting insects, and tea made from the resin and leaves was even used to treat malaria. Various parts of this tree were also used to treat just about every malady imaginable, varying from cancer to venereal infections to even pregnancy complications.

Let's dive into the etymology of this tree: To start, the scientific name isn't super exciting. "Bursera" was named to honor Danish botanist Joachim Burser, and "simaruba" likely stems from a Caribbean word and refers to Simarouba, a different genus of trees from the region that also produce aromatic oils. Simarouba were already being commonly used in Europe when Linnaeus named the species. With this being such a practically and culturally important tree, it's also important to include the indigenous name for this species. There are literally hundreds of names, since it influenced the lives of SO many different cultures, but since we're in Florida, let's stick with the Seminole name of "ahiciáhki," which means "peeling bark". Finally, that very fun common name, that rolls off the tongue has its origins in a dark past. It comes from the name given to the tree by African slaves, "ngombo ulimbo", which translates to "the slave's birdlime." It was likely utilized by enslaved Africans forced to work on plantations throughout the Caribbean in many of the same ways that the indigenous tribes had been using them."

For all it's history, and it's many uses, the Gumbo Limbo remains one of Florida's most iconic and most beloved trees. Next time you come across one in the wild, give it a rub and share what you know with a friend.

Gerald Thompson

Education Coordinator

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