Springtime flowers: Gumbo Limbo

Gumbo Limbo (Bursera simaruba) flowers. Boca Raton, FL, April 11, 2015.

You know it’s spring in south Florida when your Gumbo Limbo sticks—er, trees—start to flower:

Gumbo Limbo (Bursera simaruba) flowers. Boca Raton, FL, April 11, 2015.

Gumbo Limbo (Bursera simaruba) flowers. Boca Raton, FL, April 11, 2015.

You see, Gumbo Limbos are briefly deciduous—at the end of the cool part of the dry season, they drop their leaves, and for a brief while their branches are bare:

Bare branches of Gumbo Limbo during leaf exchange. Boca Raton, FL, April 8, 2015.

Bare branches of Gumbo Limbo during leaf exchange. Boca Raton, FL, April 8, 2015.

Nursery people call this “leaf exchange,” and some trees do it very quickly (my neighbor’s huge Pongam tree dropped two tons of leaves on my lawn in the space of three days, and three days later it had already leafed out again), while others do it more slowly.

My Gumbo Limbo does it fairly slowly, all the more so since the scale insects seem to adore it so. If you click on the photo of the flower above to look at the larger version, you can see there are some tiny little scaly jerks sucking the life out of this tender new growth. I’ve removed as many as I can with my big clumsy fingers, but getting them all is beyond my abilities. I’m just hoping to reduce the population enough that the tree’s new growth can establish itself quickly enough to be able to withstand the onslaught until the various scale predators can help me out.

I’ve already seen several lacewing eggs on the tree, strategically located close to the emerging new growth; with luck these voracious larvae, which feed on scale, will help me stem the tide:

Green lacewing eggs on Gumbo Limbo. Boca Raton, FL, April 11, 2015.

Green lacewing eggs on Gumbo Limbo. Boca Raton, FL, April 11, 2015.

Green lacewings are interesting little beasts. As their name implies, they are delicate, lacelike creatures that do nothing but good in the garden:

The adults are usually predators of other insects, but a few species feed only on pollen. The larvae, on the other hand, are excellent predators on all kinds of small soft-bodied garden pests (aphids, scale, and the like), which is why lacewings are one of the more frequently used biological pest control species. Here’s a picture of the “trashbug” from a few years ago:

If you’re interested in reading more about green lacewings, here is an excellent blog post by Carol Leffler over in Polk County, writing for the Florida-Friendly Landscaping program. Some highlights:

  • Newly emerged lacewing adults undertake miles-long nighttime dispersal flights even when there’s suitable habitat where they were born. (Adaptation for species/habitat diversity)
  • A single lacewing larva can consume up to 200 aphids or eggs per week. (No wonder these insects are sold as pest control despite their habit of dispersal upon reaching adulthood)
  • Lacewings are relatively long-lived insects (they can live for several months, rather than the weeks or days of butterflies, flies, and other flying insects).

You go, little guys!

New backyard plant: Wild Cinnamon

Canella winterana foliage.

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 it’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 winterana),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.


Gumbo dreams

The "medium" gumbo limbo, showing the morning's rain everywhere. Boca Raton, FL, July 2, 2011.

Like most people, our house backs up onto another house’s back yard. We each have a backyard fence, and there’s about an 8-inch no-man’s land in between the fences. And that gap is being colonized with some plants, both native and non-native. One of the natives is actually quite a desirable tree: a Gumbo-Limbo (Bursera simaruba). According to the local wisdom here in south Florida, this tree is so easy to grow, you can just break off a branch, set it in the ground, and the branch will grow into a tree.

The problem is, the tree was not only growing very tall and slender—at least 20 feet—it was also growing in the wrong place: straight up into our phone and power lines. With Friday’s storm fresh in my mind, I decided it was time to take care of the situation, and at the same time test the truth of that local wisdom.

In my Florida Master Naturalist classes, this local lore was even elevated to an evolutionary strategy: the idea is, because the tree evolved in an environment with frequent hurricanes, it “chose” to be breakable under pressure of strong winds, but the broken parts, because they’re able to regrow, will allow the plant’s genes to survive. This is the opposite strategy of the mighty oak, which evolved incredible strength to try to resist the wind. The problem with that strategy of course, is that there’s always a wind that’s bigger and stronger than your wood. I’m not sure what kind of tree my neighbor’s was, but it certainly seemed to be trying to emulate the oak rather than the gumbo-limbo, but the “mere” 50-mph winds showed that it didn’t really have the genetic material to do so…

Anyway, back to my backyard. As any photographer will tell you, if you’re not sure which is the correct exposure, it’s a good idea to “bracket” your shots, exposing one “too little,” one “just enough,” and one “too much.” I decided to apply that wisdom to my gumbo-limbo experiment, planting one little branch, one medium branch, and one large branch. Here are the three contestants:

The large tree is about 6 feet tall, with 4 largish branches; the medium tree is about 4 feet tall, with only the one branch, and the small tree is about 2 feet tall. I applied rooting hormone to 2 of the 3 branches (I forget which one I forgot!), but I’m not sure it’s required, given this tree’s reputation. I also watered them in pretty well, which, of course, is necessary for any transplantation, let alone a rootless one like this one. We’ll see if any of them take off.

As I found out in the front yard with a fully rooted tree, gumbos tend to drop their leaves when transplanted, so I shaved most of the leaves off, leaving only a few to provide what photosynthesis they might until the branch either does or doesn’t decide to set up a root system. And when I got up this morning, I discovered an unexpected but welcome bonus, courtesy of the rainy season: with the inch and a quarter of rain we got before dawn, not only do I not have to water them again today, but the raindrops made for a prettier picture than I’m normally capable of!

I’m rooting for these trees to make it (yes, sadly, pun intended), but even if they don’t, I consider this time well spent. I’ll have learned something about what “they say” (ie, whether or not you can just break off a branch and plant it), and moreover, my phone and cable lines are clear now in the event of a storm.

If I happen to get a few extra trees into the bargain, well, I’ll count myself fortunate.

Saturday Stroll-with rain

This morning’s stroll, according to the radar, should have been safe. It had been raining off and on all night, but the radar images clearly showed that the rain bands that had been coming on shore all morning were petering out, and the last ones had already moved through our area.

Heh. So much for technology. If you want to know whether it’s going to rain: look outside! Unfortunately, I neglected to do that, so our morning stroll was quite a bit wetter than I’d expected. We spent most of the walk huddled under a palm tree at the new park up the street from us; our umbrella was able to cover Eric and about half of one of us… Read more

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