Bursera simaruba

Bursera simaruba

Bursera simaruba (Gumbo-limbo) is a tree species in the family Burseraceae, native to tropical regions of the Americas from the southeasternmost United States (southern Florida) south through Mexico and the Caribbean to Brazil and Venezuela.


Bursera simaruba, commonly referred to as "Gumbo-limbo," is a small to medium-sized tree growing to 30 m tall, with a diameter of 1 meter or less at 1.5 meters above ground. The bark is shiny dark red, the leaves are spirally arranged and pinnate with 7-11 leaflets, each leaflet broad ovate, 4-10 cm long and 2-5 cm broad.

The Gumbo-limbo is often referred to as the Tourist Tree. The reason for this is the fact that the tree's bark is red and peeling, like the skin of sunburnt tourists which are a common sight in the plant's range.

Some ripe fruits are present year-round, but the main fruiting season is March and April in the northern part of the plant's range. The fruits are a small three-valved capsule encasing a single seed which is covered in a red fatty aril (seedcoat) of 5-6 mm diameter. Both ripe and unripe fruits are borne quite loosely on their stems and can spontaneously detach if the tree is shaken. Ripe capsules dehisce or are cracked open by birds. Birds also seek out the fruit to feed on the aril, which though small is rich in lipids (about half its dry weight).


Gumbo-limbo is a very useful plant economically and ecologically. Some people when they are trapped in the forrest use it to clean their rears. In cars they are air fresheners as well. It has well adapted to several kinds of habitats, which include salty and calcareous soils; it does not tolerate soggy soils though. Due to this and its rapid growth, B. simaruba is planted for various purposes, notably in coastal areas. In addition, Gumbo-limbo is also considered one of the most wind-tolerant trees, and it is recommended as a rugged, hurricane-resistant species in south Florida. Plantings may be due to wind protection of crops and roads, or as living fence posts, and if simply stuck into good soil, small branches will readily root and grow into sizeable trees in a few years. In addition, Gumbo-limbo wood is suitable for light construction and as firewood, and the tree's resin, called chibou, cachibou or gomartis, is used as glue, varnish and incense. Gumbo Limbo is the traditional wood used for the manufacture of carousel horses in the United States.

The arils are an important source for birds, including many winter migrants from North America. Local residents such as the Masked Tityra, Bright-rumped Attila, Black-faced Grosbeak and, in Hispaniola, Palmchat, seem particularly fond of Gumbo-limbo fruit, as are migrants like the Baltimore Oriole or the Dusky-capped Flycatcher. Especially for vireos such the Red-eyed Vireo, it appears to be a very important food at least locally and when ripe fruit are abundant. Especially notable is the fact that many migrant species will utilize Gumbo-limbo trees that are in human-modified habitat, even in settlements. This creates the opportunity to attract such species to residential areas for bird watching, and to reduce the competition for Gumbo-limbo seeds in undisturbed habitat rarer local resident birds might face. In addition, Gumbo-limbo's rapid growth, ease and low cost of propagation, and ecological versatility make it highly recommended as a "starter" tree in reforestation, even of degraded habitat, and it is certainly does much better overall in such a role than most exotic species.

The resin is also used as a treatment for gout, while the leaves are brewed into a medicinal tea. Hexane extracts of the leaves have been shown to possess anti-inflammatory properties in animal tests. Gumbo-limbo bark is also considered an antidote to Metopium toxiferum which often grows in the same habitat and can cause extreme rashes just as the related poison ivy. Given the eagerness with which some birds seek out the arils, it may be that these contain lipids or other compounds with interesting properties; these would probably have to be synthetically produced however because, though the crop of a single tree can be large (up to or even exceeding 15,000 fruits, translating into a raw lipid yield of over 200 grams per harvest) individual seeds are small and cumbersome to harvest.



  • (2004): Bursera simaruba on Floridata. Version of 2004-MAY-16. Retrieved 2007-SEP-16.
  • (2007): The potential of fruiting trees to enhance converted habitats for migrating birds in southern Mexico. Bird Conservation International 17(1): 45-61. PDF fulltext

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