650 Bursera simarubaCommon Names: gumbo-limbo, West Indian birch, tourist tree Family: Burseraceae (torchwood or gumbo-limbo Family)
Gumbo-limbo is a medium sized fast-growing tree, that can attain height of 20-50 ft (6.1-15.2 m). It has pinnately compound (featherlike) leaves and attractive reddish bark that peels away in thin flakes to reveal a smooth and sinuous gray underbark. The tree's massive trunk is 2-3 ft (0.6-0.9 m) in diameter and supports huge irregular branches and a spreading, rounded crown. The leaves are 4-8 in (10.2-20.3 cm) long and have 3-7 oval or elliptic leaflets, each 1-2 in (2.5-5.1 cm) long. Semi-deciduous gumbo-limbo loses all its leaves in early spring just before the new leaves appear. The tree blooms in winter, producing small inconspicuous flowers composed of 3-5 greenish petals arranged in elongate racemes (spikelike clusters with each flower on its own stem). Staminate (male), pistillate (female), and perfect (both) flowers usually occur on a single tree. The dark red elliptic fruits are about a 0.5 in (1.3 cm) long and take a year to mature. Fallen gumbo-limbo trees resprout with suckers and sometimes form thickets. The wood is light-weight, light in color, soft and brittle.
In Florida gumbo-limbo, Bursera simaruba, occurs naturally in coastal hammocks, above the mangrove zone, from Brevard and Pinellas Counties southward. Bursera simaruba also occurs in the West Indies, Mexico, Central America and northern South America.
CultureLight: Full sun or partial shade. Moisture: Water when dry. Gumbo-limbo does not tolerate constantly wet soils. Hardiness: USDA Zones 10B - 12. Propagation: A green gumbo-limbo branch simply stuck into the moist ground will take root and grow rapidly. It also is easy to propagate from seed.
Very fast growing, tolerant of salt and calcareous soils, the gumbo-limbo, with its attractive shiny red exfoliating bark, makes a beautiful specimen tree in a mild coastal location. It thrives with little or no care. Gumbo-limbo makes a handsome summertime shade tree, and is used as a street tree in coastal cities.
Gumbo-limbo is used as a living fencepost wherever it occurs. Haitians make drums from the trunk of gumbo-limbo. A resin obtained from the trunk and bark is called chibou, cachibou or gomart in the West Indies, and is used to make glue, varnish, water repellent coatings and incense. The resin smells a little like turpentine. The fruits are eaten by several kinds of birds. The soft wood is easily carved.
In South Florida, gumbo-limbo has been called the tourist tree because of its red, flaking skin. The two largest gumbo-limbos in the US are at the St. Mary's Star of the Sea Church in Key West and on Captiva Island.
The torchwood family, with some 600 species in 15 genera, includes the Old World trees that yield the important incenses, myrrh and frankincense (Commiphora erythraea and Boswellia carterii, respectively).
Steve Christman 3/23/00; updated 5/16/04