Tree of the Week-Tropical Gumbo Limbo

I hate to start a post with a crime scene photo but here it goes.

Pollarded Gumbo Limbo Tree


This tree caught my eye on an earlier trip as a great looking specimen before it was maimed. The so called pruning technique here is called pollarding. The name comes from the word poll, as in a polled Hereford with its horns cut off. The “horns” of the tree are cut off to make this denuded form. It is said that this controls the size of the tree allowing small sprouts from the cut ends to come out like a broom. In my opinion a tragic crime done to a nice tree.

Here is a picture of a normally grown Gumbo Limbo tree.

Normal (that is NOT pollarded) Gumbo Limbo tree


The Latin name of the Gumbo Limbo Tree is Bursera simaruba. It is a native Florida tree. It is found throughout the tropical regions of the Americas and is a popular landscape tree. It has been nicknamed the Tourist tree for its peeling red bark reminiscent of the sunburned skin of tourists. It has small seeds covered in a red meat that is attractive to birds because of the high fat content.

The wood of the tree has been known as the ideal carving wood for carousel animals. It has also been used for living fence posts, as the living twigs jabbed into the ground will often sprout into trees and serve as a support for wire fences. The tree can grow quite large, up to 90 feet tall and three feet across. This large size is probably what led to the pollarding shown in the first picture. Homeowners often plant it and it outgrows its space.

The name Gumbo refers to the tree’s sap. It is sticky and resinous. The uses for it are numerous including glue, varnish and incense.

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14 Comments

  1. Laura Kelly Bestor said,

    February 10, 2011 at 12:25 PM

    I love this tree……started three in a container….they have grown together…as I wanted them to do……now i want to move them to a different spot. We live on a canal (fresh water) I wouls like to plant it about 25 feet from the water….30ft from the house on a sloping lawn. Is this a good space for it…..it would get full sun all day and eventually give us shade?
    thank you for your help/
    sincerely
    Laura

    • February 10, 2011 at 1:21 PM

      They get really really big. The sunny slope sounds ideal, but go out there and pace it off. It would probably be OK, but only seeing the site will tell. It would give your home nice shade.

  2. Sara said,

    March 5, 2012 at 2:22 PM

    Hi – can you point me to a guide on how to properly shape / prune gumbos to avoid leggy growth? My nursery grown gumbos need some shearing, but I’m at a loss on how deep to cut.
    Thanks, Sara

    • March 9, 2012 at 5:14 PM

      I would snip terminal buds which will remove auxin from the branch and allow the suppressed side shoots to grow.

  3. Rick Anderson said,

    March 9, 2012 at 7:13 PM

    Update on Dec 28, 2010:
    Tree of the Week-Tropical Gumbo Limbo
    Today I met with the owner on issues unrelated to your blog. When I noticed that he had a number of smaller Gumbo Limbo trees in his backyard (about 5-6″ diameter and 20+ feet tall) he mentioned that the tree trimming firm he hired had been fined about $150 for excessive reduction in the size of the tree’s canopy.

  4. Michelle said,

    July 5, 2012 at 1:45 PM

    What is the proper spacing for two Gumbo Limbo trees? I had to have a medium sized Gumbo cut down a few months ago (due to a bad fungus) and had planted two branches in the ground about 8-10 feet apart … will that be enough room between them? I’d like to move them now, before they get much bigger/established. If the trunks will combine/merge together that would be kind of neat too (as long as it’s okay for the tree and won’t cause a safety issue) as it would block the neighbor’s driveway across the street šŸ™‚

    • July 5, 2012 at 7:46 PM

      Gumbo Limbo trees are very large trees if youb let them grow to maturity. I think a spacing of 30 feet would be about right. They grow fairly fast, and are wide guys.

  5. Karen Azari said,

    December 29, 2014 at 10:28 PM

    I want to save my gumbo limbo tree, but everybody tells me the tree is too far gone to save..It had white larvae growing under the bark and big white fungus mushrooms growing on top of the bark. Plus, it lost a few branches and there are just a few green leaves left on the tree (most of the branches are bare). What can i do to save this tree? The large tree is in our front yard in Miami, FL and we have a nice swing bench hanging from the tree.

    • December 30, 2014 at 12:03 PM

      It doesn’t sound too promising. Usually larvae of boring beetles choose to attack only weakened trees. Also fungi colonozing the wood is not a good sign since they are probably saprophytic and only consume wood that is already dead. I would look forward to the future and plant a replacement that can someday substitute when the Gumbo dies.

  6. January 6, 2015 at 7:10 PM

    Back to the “scene of the crime”, January 6, 2015. Numerous buds have emerged with long skinny sprouts. The net effect is to make the tree very vulnerable to various problems like fungus in the trunk, weak connection of the sprouts to the bark where the branches were cut, and an oversimplified shape that makes the tree look like a scoop of ice cream on a stick. (Like the trees kids would draw in 1st Grade.)

    I’ll send photo to blog author so she can update this post.

  7. Dylan Matheson said,

    January 10, 2015 at 4:39 PM

    I have lost many old growth Gumbo Limbos to some type of wood boring insect. Near the base of the trees, large round holes form with smaller holes at their centers. Once this has begun, the leaves fall off and the trees die. Can you tell me the best insecticide to use on the rest of my Gumbos to prevent this from happening please? I have read about Lindane but I don’t no where to find a concentrated amount or wether it will work. I am in the Key Largo area. thank you.

    • January 11, 2015 at 11:06 PM

      I would not use Lindane,if you can even find it these days. It is aRestricted Use pesticide and a chlorinated hydrocarbon which can get into your fat and stay there for years. The modern version of this sort of application can be found under the literature for Emerald Ash borer using injectible insectides. This is a costly enterprise, with each treated tree running you a lot of money per year. I would be interested in having you disect out one of the boring insects and get it identified by the local Extension Agent or Florida State University. Using aggressive borers such as the Emerald Ash borer, cannot be stopped by pesticide aplications. Eventually, in a few years, the borers win. For normal domestic borers, they iusually only attack weakened trees that are already in poor shape so it really is the end of a downhill process when a borer goes in a tree.

    • Jo Anne said,

      April 23, 2017 at 7:38 PM

      Can you tell me what happened to your Gumbo’s? I’m in Tavernier and have lost 2 trees now. Jo

      • April 28, 2017 at 7:59 AM

        The severe pruning did not kill it. The arborist was disciplined under some sort of city ordinance about it. The tree has leafed out and is doing well albeit with unattractive branching structure.


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