The Gumbo Limbo Tree

A Tree Peels at Zoo Miami – the Gumbo Limbo Tree, aka “The Tourist Tree”

By Susana Cortázar

We’ve all been tourists at some point.  We’ve overdone it in the sun, turned red, peeled.  That’s just how the gumbo limbo (Bursera simaruba) tree looks – bright red bark which peels in thin layers, displaying another color underneath.  No wonder it’s also known as “the tourist tree.”
Photo by Susana Cortázar
This common tree is native to southern Florida (including the Florida Keys), the West Indies, tropical Mexico, Guatemala, and northern South America.  Growing up to 60 feet in height and with a canopy just as big, this tree is mainly planted for the shade provided by its massive branches and for ornamental use.  It is fairly easy to take care of, with minimal pruning needed, and grows well in full sun or partial shade, so it would be a good tree for novices to plant.  But the most important feature for those of us who live in South Florida is that it is considered one of the most wind-tolerant trees.  So when hurricane season arrives, the gumbo limbo should not be a concern if you have one at home.
Photo by Susana Cortázar
According to tree expert Bob Beck, “Zoo Miami has several gumbo limbo trees, from fairly young to full grown ones throughout our walkways.  The tree can be easily propagated from a seed or by sticking a branch into the ground and with little care, it will survive and grow into the impressive tree it is.”  It grows so readily that it is sometimes planted to make a living fence!

The gumbo limbo produces a deep red fruit with a seed inside.  Mockingbirds, vireos and many other birds are attracted to this fruit, which they crack open to eat.  March and April are the main fruiting seasons.

“Back in the day” the resin from the gumbo limbo tree was used to make varnish and turpentine.  The tree’s sap was used for medicinal purposes such as sprained ankles and pulled muscles because of its anti-inflammatory components, as well as for the treatment of gout.  Its leaves are used as air fresheners in cars.  But most interesting, the gumbo limbo tree was used to make carousel animals before plastics came along!

So during your next visit to Zoo Miami, look for a peeling tree and you will have come across the gumbo limbo tree.  But make sure to wear your sunscreen so you don’t end up looking like one!