New backyard plant: Wild Cinnamon

The rainy season is right around the corner, so last month I worked on the landscape a little bit. I’d been disappointed in the performance of the gumbo limbo tree out front; it was in the shade of the towering coconut tree that dominates that front yard, and I wanted to see whether it would do better in full sun. It was bothered by scale, the spiraling whitefly infestation that’s hit south Florida, and the sooty mold that both those pests leave in their wake.

After about a month t’s obvious that full sun is not keeping the scale in check one bit:

Gumbo Limbo (Bursera simaruba with scale. Boca Raton, FL, April 22, 2014.

Gumbo Limbo (Bursera simaruba with scale. Boca Raton, FL, April 22, 2014.

For those of you who can’t get enough, here’s a close-up of the same image showing those nasty little honeydew-creating soot-making ant cows (seriously—ants farm the honeydew these insects produce, and tend the herd with care). I spent 45 minutes today exploring the fractal wilderness of a growing plant, trying to hand remove these little guys, and ants were crawling over me half the time.

Gumbo Limbo (Bursera simaruba with scale (detail). Boca Raton, FL, April 22, 2014.

Gumbo Limbo (Bursera simaruba with scale (detail). Boca Raton, FL, April 22, 2014.

Still, that tree was doing poorly where it was, and perhaps the more prominent location at the end of the driveway in full sun will motivate me to remove the scale more frequently, which should go a long way toward rehabilitating the plant.

With that corner opened up, I needed something to take its place, and I settled on the lovely wild cinnamon (Canella wintering)., ,which is highly recommended by nursery owners and extension agents for its horticultural properties (attractive to pollinators, easy to grow, low maintenance, and the list goes on).

I’m looking forward to the tiny flowers and fruits this little tree is supposed to provide, and I’m sure the local pollinators will go nuts for it. Right now it doesn’t look like very much:

Wild Cinnamon (Canella winterana). Boca Raton, FL, April 22, 2014.

Wild Cinnamon (Canella winterana). Boca Raton, FL, April 22, 2014.

But once it takes off, it’s quite a treat for the gardener. Every part of the plant—leaves, flowers, and berries—is fragrant (the botanical term is “aromatic”), and the flowers and fruits, while subdued compared to some of the exotic plants you see around town, are still quite attractive. Here’s a view of the obovate leaves:

Canella winterana foliage.

Canella winterana foliage.

Although its common name is wild cinnamon, it is not the culinary variety (genus Cinnamomum), which comes from the East Indies, not the West Indies like this plant. And if you insist on using it as a spice, you’ll find out (according to Daniel Austin, the south Florida ethnobotanist) that fresh leaves are “fiery”:

Fresh leaves are fiery, and they have been used to season foods throughout its range. Indeed, in Cuba they have the common name pica-pica (it bites, referring to the stinging taste).

If you’re familiar with the spicy food of the west Indies (Jamaican jerked chicken is an example), you’d not be surprised to find that this spicy aromatic tree was used in seasoning foods in the region.

It might be that the fiery flavor comes from the potent chemicals it contains. According to Osorio, the plant is resistant to insect activity; according to Austin, this is probably because of the “potent chemicals” it contains, which “have been shown to have insecticidal activity.”


The genus name Canella comes from the Latin diminutive canna (“reed”) and, according to Wikipedia, the species epithet winterana is an artifact from a period when this plant was confused with Winter’s bark, Drimys winteri, which is itself named for William Winter.

It also apparently excels in the somewhat cramped space I’ve given it right next to the house; I’m told that the branches don’t tend to get much more than four feet long, so I’m comfortable planting it that close to an area I might need to access.


Austin, D. 2006. Florida Ethnobotany. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press.

Osorio, R. 2001. A Gardener’s Guide to Florida Native Plants. Gainesville, FL: U of Florida P.


Early spring birding in the front yard

It may be only Presidents’ Day on the calendar, but the weather down here in south Florida is nice and the birds are enjoying it. Was outside doing some early morning gardening on this blessed day off work and I heard the R2D2-like witchety watchety-doo of a White-Eyed Vireo across the street. Ran inside for [...] [...]

New backyard butterfly: Ceraunus Blue

Ceraunus Blue (Hemiargus ceraunus). Boca Raton, FL, February 6, 2014.

Today I saw the smallest butterfly I’ve ever seen in my life: the tiny Ceraunus Blue, Hemiargus ceraunus. Most blues, as this family of butterflies is known, are tiny, but I cannot convey to you the utter tininess of this thing. The tiny little stalk of dead weed it’s perched on looks gargantuan in the [...] [...]

Birds of Green Cay

Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps), Green Cay Nature Center, November 30, 2013.

Every Saturday after Thanksgiving for the last several years I’ve led the local Audubon Society’s field trip to one of the constructed wetlands in central Palm Beach County: Green Cay. It’s always fun to visit there because the birds know that the people never leave the boardwalk so they’re very tame. Photographers, well aware of [...] [...]

New yard bird: Green Heron

Green Heron (Butorides virescens), Boca Raton FL, November 26, 2013.

The week before Thanksgiving continues to be busy at the homestead. On Tuesday and Wednesday—both rainy, windy mornings—we had a special visit from a new bird for the yard: Butorides virescens, the Green Heron. It’s a nice little marsh bird, but rather uncommon here so far from the nearest canal or other permanent wetland. We [...] [...]

Plants and transplants

Swietenia mahogani, Boca Raton, November 23, 2013.

The week before Thanksgiving 2013 was a busy one at the homestead. First, I found out that the “shrub” I transplanted from the old house and put right up next to the new house, counting on a nice upright slender shrub was in fact a West Indies mahogany tree that would have a crown width [...] [...]

New backyard planting: Black Ironwood, Krugiodendron ferreum

Black ironwood (Krugiodendron ferreum). Boca Raton, FL, October 28, 2013.

It was my dad’s 70th birthday last week, and to celebrate the occasion I sent him a pair of the most comfortable work gloves I’ve ever owned. Turns out my timing was good: the next day he planned to start a major lawn-reduction project involving the removal of hundreds of square feet of sod, the [...] [...]

New backyard butterfly: Little Yellow (Eurema lisa)

Eurema lisa on Richardia grandiflora. Boca Raton, FL, October 25, 2013.

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Ringneck snake (Diadophus punctatus). Boca Raton, FL, August 17, 2013.

Fear of snakes is instinctive. It just is. I imagine that most of those who have overcome it have done so through repeated exposure, knowledge gained over time. It’s not enough to know that an animal is harmless; you have to feel it. And if you don’t, you’ll still be scared by something as innocuous [...] [...]

Observe the moon this Saturday

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International Observe the Moon Night is this Saturday, October 12. Head on out and look at the moon, just a day past first quarter and well situated for evening viewing. Get out there and get to know our nearest celestial neighbor, our partner and protector in space. Without the moon, why, where would we be? [...]