Living in the rainforest in Costa Rica means being surrounded by an abundance of interesting trees. One of my personal favorites is the Gumbo Limbo tree! A wildly popular tropical tree, it is native to the southeastern United States, but found widely throughout the Americas, West Indies and especially prominent in Costa Rica. This tree easily adapts to a variety of both dry and moist habitats, and is a fairly salt-tolerant species, enabling this tree to be found along most coastlines including around the Hotels of Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. Though consisting of a fairly soft wood, the Gumbo Limbo is considered a very wind-tolerant tree, making this species a good choice for hurricane or extreme weather areas.
This fast-growing canopy tree reaches heights of 50-60 feet and more, with a trunk that bears a striking color of green and red, with a thin paper like exfoliating bark. The Gumbo Limbo or Bursera Simaruba, goes by several aliases, such as the Spirit Gum, Birch Gum, Turpentine, Naked Indian, or more commonly named in popular vacation destinations…..the “Tourist Tree”, because of its red color and peeling skin!
The Gumbo-limbo is generally planted for shade and ornamental use in front or backyards, can be found along streets and highways, but it is also commonly used throughout Costa Rica as a “living fence” since it easily sprouts from cut branches that are stuck into the ground. With it’s naturally rapid growth, within no time farmers have a strong, natural, eco-friendly fence with which they can corral their livestock and mark their land.
The arils (or etable part surrounding the seed) provides an important source of food for winter migrating birds, including many migrants from North America, as well as local residents such as the Masked Tityra, Bright-rumped Attila, and Black-faced Grosbeak, the Baltimore Oriole, Dusky-capped Flycatcher and many species of Vireos. Additionally, Gumbo-limbo's rapid growth, easy and low cost of propagation, and it’s ecological versatility make this species an ideal "starter" tree for reforestation projects.
There are so many more natural benefits to this great tree, as the sticky, turpentine-scented resin has been used for centuries for making glue, varnish, liniments, as well as a water resistant coating for dugout canoes. The aromatic sap is also used as an anti-inflammatory, a treatment for gout, a form of incense, as well as the leaves are brewed to make a medicinal tea for a wide variety of ailments. The bark is also considered a treatment against rashes caused by plants such as poison ivy and poison oak. Though the actual wood of the tree is rather soft and spongy, this versatile wood is traditionally used to manufacture the colorful carousel horses you see at county fairs, and other small wood products such as matchsticks, toothpicks, charcoal, boxes, crates, and interior trim have also been made from the Gumbo-Limbo wood.
Tribal or Native Indian medicinal uses include remedies for skin infections, skin sores, ingesting a bark tea for urinary tract infections, pain, colds, flu, sun stroke, fevers and to purify the blood. A length of bark about 5 cm x 30 cm is boiled in a gallon of water for 10 minutes or so for these local remedies and then used topically or can be sipped as a tea 2-3 times per day. Not only is it touted to provide the above medicinal remedies, but it is also said to kill bacteria, stop excessive bleeding, increase urination, increase perspiration, cleanse the blood, neutralize various venoms, helpful as a cough expectorate, reducing fevers and my favorite remedy…..increasing libido!!
So when out hiking, exploring, or just taking a drive around Costa Rica, no more passing that Gumbo Limbo tree and not even giving it a second thought. Just look at how much one can do and “cure” with this beautiful and unique tree!
But my friends…..you have been warned!!!! None of these uses are FDA approved, so please do not try these remedies at home! At least not without a Shaman present!!
Kimberly Barron, originally from Malibu, California has lived in Parismina and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica for 20 years. Starting as a certified tour guide, she spent 15 years managing fishing lodges on the Caribbean Coast and later 4* & 5* Hotels on the Pacific Coast of Costa Rica. Currently semi-retired, Kimberly still works as the Marketing Director for Byblos Resort & Casino and Hotel Makanda by the Sea.