In my quest for the perfect gumbo, I’ve written about a dog named Gumbo, described gumbo soil, penned gumbo poetry, tasted dozens of tiny cups of gumbo and listened to the music of Dr. John Gumbo. Just when I thought I’d exhausted the types of gumbo, I ran into a gumbo tree.
When researching hurricane resistant trees, I discovered University of Florida’s list of wind resistant trees – and in the number ten spot is Gumbo-limbo. Of course that’s only one of its common names. Sometimes it’s called the Tourist Tree because its reddish bark resembles the skin of sunburned Florida tourists. Others call it a Copperwood. But if University
of Florida calls it the Gumbo-limbo, so shall I.
Some think the name Gumbo-limbo comes from the Gumbo Limbo Environmental Complex in Boca Raton. This exotic nature center features winding boardwalks, sea turtle conservation tanks, a butterfly garden, a Gumbo-limbo trail, and 20 acres of protected barrier island. It’s a refuge to many varieties of plants and animals – some rare or endangered.
But where Gumbo-limbo really gets its common name, no one knows. Scientifically, it’s Bursera simaruba. According to Merriam Webster the first documented use of the word Gumbo-limbo was in 1837, but the origin is unknown.
In literature, I’ve read tales of the healing “chaca” tree of Mayan legend. That, too, is the Gumbo-limbo tree. Along with Mexico, Gumbo-limbo grows in Central America, northern South America and the West Indies. Here in Florida, it’s common on the east coast of South Florida, but not so much on the interior and west coast.
I wish it did grow here along the west coast in the Florida Panhandle. I’d cut down every single pine tree (count ‘em 21 ) in my yard and plant a group of these luscious canopy trees and make my own shady gumbo grove. And in the fall, we’d sit under the shade of the Gumbo-limbo and dine on gumbo.