Gumbo Limbo, Frankincense, and Myrrh

19 Jan

Bursera simaruba

(Burser is a personal name.  Simaruba reflects similarity to a different genus.)



Today John needed photos of MacArthur Beach State Park on Singer Island, Florida.   Aren’t many places I’d rather go!    So many wonders to behold, right in the city:

The Danzigergracht anchored off the beach—waiting to come or go from the Port of Palm Beach.


Gulf Fritillary on Sea-Lavender today. How can a butterfly flutter around in beachside gale?

Butterfly on sea lavender

Limber Caper pod.


And the good old Gumbo-Limbo tree.  If there’s one local tree everyone knows, this is it, and thus food for my conviction that the botany of everyday plants is more interesting and less pretentious than rare selections we don’t often see (but usually can if we want to drive for miles and listen to botanical priests).

Bursera simaruba 1

Gumbo Limbo peeling bark by John Bradford

Any 5th grader could tell us about the colorful peeling Gumbo Limbo bark, you know, tourist-tree and all that.    Why have such bark?    Notions, which are not mutually exclusive, include “molting” from fast growth (doesn’t strike me as a likely explanation); or shedding pesky algae, liverworts, lichens, mosses,  fungi, bacteria, or insects;   or providing a thin surface for stem gas exchange; or allowing photosynthetic activity in the stem itself.  The photosynthetic role comes up scattered in literature on this and close relatives, and, after all, the result of the peeling is continued re-exposure of green bark.  The green portion of he bark is loaded with chloroplasts.

Bursera simaruba 2

GL as it looks today, by JB

What I like best about Gumbo Limbo is the subtle fragrance of the resin.   No surprise, given that Frankincense and Myrrh are likewise members of the  Burseraceae Family.  F and M are native to the Old World.  In the New World species of Bursera have a similar history making life smell better.


Frankincense tree, in Oman, courtesy of Pat Bowman

The resin in some Bursera species is sufficiently pressurized to shoot herbivorous insects in a “squirt gun defense,” reportedly squirting as far as six feet and lasting multiple seconds.

Bursera simaruba 7

GL flowers by JB.  Not taken today.  The flowers come in varied mixes of male, female, and combo.   Almost all individuals make some fruits.

The fruits look like clusters of small grapes.  Each has a three-parted cover that falls away to leave behind a single sharp-edged, hard, reddish seed attractive to birds. Oddly the seeds don’t seem to offer much food value, but rather serve as grinding stones in bird crops, according to tree biologist Peter Tomlinson.



Posted by on January 19, 2018 in Gumbo Limbo, Uncategorized


8 responses to “Gumbo Limbo, Frankincense, and Myrrh

  1. theshrubqueen

    January 19, 2018 at 6:34 pm

    Thanks, George, going to look up grinding stones in bird crops and smell my Gumbo Limbo resin in the morning.

  2. Uncle Tree

    January 20, 2018 at 8:21 am

    The wonders of exfoliation! 🙂 Wish I could shed some years as easily.

    • George Rogers

      January 21, 2018 at 10:44 am

      Aren’t some of your poems sort of psychic exfoliation?

      • Uncle Tree

        January 21, 2018 at 11:41 am

        Good point, George. When the moment of truth arrives, one is forced to shed some weight. That’s why folks say, “You’ll feel better if you just go ahead and get it off your chest.” In my case, the weight falls on my feet and looks a lot like hair.

  3. Linda Grashoff

    January 20, 2018 at 10:40 am

    Happy to learn these things about the Gumbo Limbo. Next time I encounter one, I will be sure to smell it! I think having your students test the photosynthetic role of the peeling bard is a great idea! I hope you’ll share the results here.

    • George Rogers

      January 21, 2018 at 10:43 am

      The bark isn’t too different from your exfoliating photosynthetic dumpsters.

  4. Steve

    January 20, 2018 at 11:49 am

    Nice article George. My two cents… There is no reason why the peeling bark could not have evolved for more than one reason. One rarely sees epiphytes on Gumbo Limbos, I think it, and many of our native trees with peeling park, do so in order to discourage extra weight caused by air plants on their branches (especially after heavy rains). Gumbo Limbo has especially soft weak wood (a possible adaptation to prevent the tree from being blown over completely by storms, but rather to shed their limbs).

    • George Rogers

      January 21, 2018 at 10:50 am

      Steve, Thanks, right, sometimes I wish I could shed some “epiphytes.” Agreed with the not-mutually-exclusive thing, and with the plausibility of the goodbye-hitchhikers hypothesis, and I’m not married to the photosynthetic interpretation…until we put it to the test in class. Seems like observers see green, say, “well, that’s photosynthetic.” In my classroom we can test for carbon dioxide uptake and oxygen production…hopefully the equipment sensitive enough for the job. If the inner bark is photosynthetic…could it be so without chloroplasts? Never say never. Will peel some and see if there by any chance are chloroplasts……in bark? Hmmmm…but that’s the kind of stuff that keeps it interesting.


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