Our grounds host many spectacular Gumbo Limbo trees but the triple-trunked, massive beauty near the South Pasture area frequently evokes curiosity about its age.
Gumbo Limbo trees (Bursera simaruba) do not usually lay down growth rings, so the typical method of taking a core to count rings will not yield that information. Additionally, according to Stephen Brown, Lee County Horticulture Extension Agent, there is no correlation between trunk diameter and age or crown spread. The crown is the mass of foliage and branches that grow outward from the tree’s trunk. The “crown spread” is the crown’s average horizontal width.
Brown notes that these trees can grow rapidly. A seed can produce a six- to eight-foot tree in 18 months, and growth rates can vary significantly depending on very minor differences in soil conditions or other factors. Gumbo Limbos reproduce via seeds, but a branch inserted into the ground can grow into a mature tree. In some parts of their range they are used as living fences.
When visitors ponder the age of this tree they are often wondering if a Calusa child might have climbed its branches or lingered under its shade. References to longevity of the trees are scant, with one publication stating their age span is 100 years. Since the last archaeological evidence for Calusa at the site of their impressive town is about 300 years ago, it is not likely that they knew this particular tree. We will never know for sure, but it is possible that the tree grew from a branch of a tree that grew from a branch of a tree that grew from a branch of a tree that started as a seed from a tree that was also marveled at by people centuries ago, just as we do today.