Gumbo limbo (scientific name Bursera simaruba) is the most common species in the Bursera genus. This genus consists of over 100 different plants that grow in the tropical areas of the Americas.
Gumbo limbo can be found in the USA in the state of Florida, south of the east-west line from Pinellas County to Brevard County. It is common in all islands of the Caribbean, including the Bahamas. It can be found in Central America south of the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, all the way to the Northern part of Brazil, in countries like Panama, Columbia, Venezuela and the Guyana.
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It is a sizeable tree that can reach an impressive height of 30 m. Gumbo limbo has a distinctive red bark that easily comes off in flakes thin like paper. In Florida, it is even a tourist attraction because of the strange color of the bark. It can grow extremely large, gumbo limbo often has a diameter greater than 1 m even at 1.5 m above ground level. Leaves are grouped in the form of a spiral and have a pinnate arrangement consisting of up to 11 leaflets. Leaflets are ovate in shape, with a maximum length of 10 cm and a thickness of 5 cm.
The red bark of gumbo-limbo is frequently used in Belize, especially to treat skin conditions. It is applied on the skin against rashes, insect stings, measles, skin sores or excessive sunburn. A decoction prepared from the bark is ingested in order to cure a wide range of diseases like internal pain, cold, flu, fever and infections. It is also believed to detoxify the blood. The beverage is prepared by boiling a large piece of bark 5 x 30 cm in water for about 10 minutes, then consuming it like a tea.
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The gumbo limbo is used in various ways by the Maya tribes of Central America. The Zinacanteco use gumbo limbo to treat dysentery and to prevent loose teeth from falling off. Many Mayans burn it as incense, but not the Tzotzil tribesmen. It has a special significance to the Chortí, who plant a gumbo limbo before leaving on the ritual trip to Esquipulas, as some kind of symbolic cross. The tree is planted behind the altar, in the same position where a normal cross would be found. The Huastec Mayans use gumbo limbo to cure stomach pain, head pain, burns, fever and nose bleeding. They also believe that the gumbo limbo tree predicts rain by blossoming. They don't burn Bursera simaruba as incense but it must be noted that these people live in the San Luis Potosí area, far away from the Tzotzil and Chortí natives.
The gumbo-limbo tree has numerous medical uses, according to tribal practitioners. It is prized as an energizer and used to treat gonorrhea, syphilis, arthritis, rheumatism, back pain, kidney problems, sweat induction, stomach bleeding, diarrhea, bruises, leucorrhea, skin irritations, intestinal ailments, snakebites, wounds, sore throats, asthma and high blood pressure. It is also used in weight loss cures and as a blood tonic for pregnant women. The tree's sap is an antidote for poison ivy and poison wood intoxication. The resin is the main ingredient in the manufacture of incense but also as a cure for open wounds, ulcers and gastritis. It can be applied on the skin as a crude remedy for strained muscles or pulled ankles. In some areas, the resin is also believed to be good against gout.
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A medicinal tea can be prepared from the leaves of gumbo limbo and modern tests have found hexane extracts in it, which are proven to have anti-inflammatory properties after testing on animals. The bark is also a local counter for Metopium toxiferum. This is a tropical plant that grows in the same areas as gumbo-limbo and causes very serious and painful skin irritation, just like its relative the poison ivy. The arils might have a good potential as well. They are eaten in high quantities by some birds, which means they must have a significant amount of lipids and perhaps other edible compounds as well. One tree produces a massive amount of fruits, more than 15000, but the seeds are very small and can't be harvested in any economic way. As a result, human harvesting is basically impossible and any interesting compounds found in the seeds will have to be synthetically produced.
In its native area, the gumbo limbo is a popular choice as a living fence plant. It has other industrial uses as well, for example in Haiti where the trunk is the material from which drums are produced. In the Caribbean, the gumbo-limbo resin is an ingredient in incense, glue and varnish and also used to repel water. The smell of the resin resembles turpentine and it has specific names in the West Indies, like cachibou, gomart or chibou. Fruits can be fed to birds, while the wood is easy to carve because it's not a hard essence.
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The tree is vigorous and grows very fast. Gumbo limbo is a great decorative plant because of its beautiful red exfoliating bark, especially in coastal locations since it readily tolerates salt and poor chalky soils. It requires almost no maintenance, which also makes it popular as a street tree. When planted on the streets, it provides shade during the summer.
Gumbo limbo requires soils with adequate drainage but otherwise is quite tolerant and can grow in both shade and full sun. It will thrive on fertile soil but it can adapt and survive on a wide range of poor ones like white sands, moderate salty ground or alkaline soils. It requires almost no care after it becomes established, although it's good to sometimes remove the lower branches if they get too close to the ground.
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Gumbo limbo is a sizeable tree that needs enough space to develop. It is best suited as a solitary tree on a property or as a street one, if provided with a big enough area. Street trees require some maintenance because the lower branches tend to stay close to the ground, so it has to be trained and pruned. Ideally, the lowest branch shouldn't be closer than 15 feet to the ground for a street tree. Solitary specimens can be allowed to develop at will and will have a spectacular bark even without any pruning at all.
The seeds of gumbo limbo germinate easily and can be used for propagation as long as they are fresh. However, gumbo limbo is usually propagated using cuttings. Even large size ones, with a diameter of 12 in or more, can be put in the ground because they will eventually grow into a new full-size tree. If you choose this method, you'll have to prune the tree with care because numerous unwanted sprouts will emerge along the main trunk. A problem of using cuttings is that the branches of the new tree will have a weak structure and can even break and fall in time. To avoid this, you can cut some of the main branches in order to space the remaining ones and force them to become stronger. Overall, it is probably a better idea to propagate the tree using seeds, or at least smaller cuttings.