Frankincense, Myrrh, and Gumbo Limbo?

Way back, in biblical times and that long again ago, frankincense was a gift to treasure. Used as an incense, stimulating chewing gum, and in fragrant oils, the valuable fragrant resin came from the desert tree Boswellia sacra and related species growing in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The tree may remain a treasure in the next millennium as well, since its extracts show potential anti-cancer activity. Myrrh is a fragrant gum from related trees, Commiphora myrrha and allied species.

Gumbo Limbo (Bursera simaruba)

What do those ancient incense trees have to do with South Florida gardening? They are members of the Gumbo Limbo Family, the Burseraceae. In the American Tropics trees from this group have their own incense histories along with gums, varnishes, and medications. Who knows, maybe the New World uses go back as far as those in the Old World. A common tree in our area, Gumbo Limbo itself is historically an incense source in Central America.

The bark (by John Bradford)

We may know it better as a landscape tree with striking peeling red and green “sunburn” bark. It is not a choice tree for everywhere, but it has its charms and uses. Native to hammocks, the grows very fast and ultimately large, and incidentally is the world’s easiest tree to propagate from big cuttings. Stick a branch in the ground and it may just keep growing. Like many fast-growing trees, the wood is weak and brittle in storms. Young specimens tend toward thick branches and an open crown, sort of ungainly in appearance. Large ones often have massive low branches. The compound leaves are somewhat deciduous. Small creamy-greenish flowers form clusters in late winter or spring, followed variably by green-brown fleshy fruits that require many months to mature; the fruits open to reveal a single persistent seed. Insect pests can strike, including the introduced rugose spiraling whitefly.

The flowers (by John Bradford)

But can you smell the incense? Well, sort of. When wounded, the tree oozes its resin, which to my nose is more like an oil paint than perfume, although I’ve never tried burning it. (But I think maybe I will.)

Gumbo limbo gum in a wound...fragrant

 

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