Adapted from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter of March 17, 2007
issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserve,
QUERÉTARO, MÉXICO

GUMBO-LIMBO/ NAKED INDIAN

With so many trees and bushes leafless because of the dry season, one common tree here is more conspicuous than usual because of the striking, reddish bark peeling from its green-to-gray trunks, as you can see below:

Gumbo-Limbo, Naked Indian, or BURSERA SIMARUBA

Since the tree is so attention-getting and is present in so many tropical-American countries (southern Florida, Mexico and the West Indies to northern South America) it's known by many names. When I lived in Belize I heard people call it Naked-Indian Tree because of its reddish color, and Tourist Tree, because its trunk peels like a sunburned tourist. Books often call the species Gumbo-limbo. Both here and in the Yucatan it's called Chakah. It's a member of the little-known, tropical Bursera Family.

Gumbo-limbo's leaves look like pinnately compound ash- tree leaves, except that they are alternate on the stem, not opposite. The tree's small, inconspicuous, greenish flowers produce elliptic, half-inch-long, dark red fruits eaten by certain birds.

The tree is brittle and juicy, and its sap smells a little like turpentine. I read that in the Caribbean people use its resin as glue, varnish, water-repellent coating, and incense. Gumbo-limbo is considered medicinal nearly everyplace it grows. A site reviewing the tree's "ethnomedical" uses and listing 22 of its names is at http://www.rain-tree.com/gumbo.htm.

What impresses me about the species is that it's so flexible in terms of habitat requirements. You find it holding its own in fairly undisturbed forests as well as appearing as a "weed tree" along roads and in chopped-over cornfields. In southern Florida it makes a handsome street-tree.

I like tough, adaptable beings. After humankind finishes destroying the environment, if anything is left alive, it'll be adaptable weeds, cockroaches and such. Maybe someday Gumbo-limbo will constitute almost-pure forests all through the Earth's tropical zone, from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego.