Peeling bark on a gumbo limbo tree (Bursera simaruba)
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Wednesday April 17, 2019

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Belize is a country with a rich variety of Flora and fauna, due to its unique position between North and South America, and a wide range of climates and habitats for plant and animal life.
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Peeling bark on a gumbo limbo tree (Bursera simaruba)

The most distinctive feature of this tree is its bark. The smooth, red and peeling outer layer has led to its local name of tourist tree for its resemblance to a sunburned tourist.

The leaves and fruits have a turpentine-like odor similar to copal. Both trees belong to the Burseraceae family. Like copal, gumbo limbo produces a resin, which is dried and burned as incense in parts of South America. In Florida, at the northern end of its range, its soft timber was carved into carousel horses before plastic molds were invented.

In Central America, Gumbo Limbo grows in the same (generally) dry forest habitat as black poisonwood and is often found very near that irritating tree. The bark is said to alleviate the rash caused by poisonwood.

The peeling bark of this gumbo limbo tells us this plant is medicinal for our skin. You chip off pieces of bark and soak it in water and use the water to wash with. And many scientists do not believe that plants talk to us in this way, but why not? Plants advertise their fruits and flowers with colors and odors that we understand, so why not their medicine? And if they succeed in communicating their medicinal value to humans, we save them and treat them better and improve their rate of survival. So they put odors we like on their flowers, and colors we associate with food on their fruits, and labels we can understand on their medicine. Makes perfect evolutionary sense to me.

While the peels have medicinal value its actually the bark under, the actual bark, that has the sap. A panacea. And the leaves make a nice cleansing tea.

It likely makes photosynthesis through the bark - giving it an extra edge in competition on young stage. And this helps it especially in the dry season when the tree drops its leaves but the plant can continue to photosynthesize. I'm sure that in some era of this tree's history, this tree survived and adapted to very dry conditions.

If you are in the jungle and come across poison ivy, look around there will be a gumbolimbo tree nearby. It is the most effective antidote to the poison ivy (che chem). It is also a treatment for poison wood.

So why do these trees always grow near each other? According to the Maya legend, two great warriors were brothers, but of entirely different personalities. One, Kinich, was kind and loving while his older brother, Tizic, was hateful and angry. Both fell in love with the same maiden, the beautiful Nicte-Ha. T hey declared a battle to the death to determine who would have her.

A terrible battle raged on, the moon hid, and black clouds filled the skies as the earth was torn apart and the heavens went into hiding. Eventually the brothers both died in each other’s arms.

In the afterlife, they begged for forgiveness and asked to return to the world of the living to see Nicte-Ha again. The gods granted their wish and the brother Tizic was reborn as the Chechen Tree which burns and blisters anyone who touches it. The loving brother, Kinich, was reborn as the Chaca tree, which neutralizes the venom of the Chechen. They both watch over Nicte-Ha who was reborn as a beautiful white flower.

There is a slightly different version of this Mayan legend, and it goes like this: Yes there were two brother gods. And yes, one was good and one was bad. But eventually the bad one was so bad that he was turned into a tree so that he could do humans no more harm. But even as a tree Chechem figured out how to keep harming people by turning his sap into poison. And at this point, his good brother Chacá who was still a God, VOLUNTEERED to be turned into a tree so he could help heal all the people Chechem was harming. And so it was. Chaca is the medicine for Chechem. As an added bonus Chechem dies easily from even being too close to the fires of milpas. Chacá on the other hand is virtually immortal. You can stick a piece of it in the ground and it grows instantly into a new tree so humans plant it everywhere as fence posts and there it thrives. It pays to be good.

You can cut a tree and use it as a post and it will regenerate much like the Madre Cacao. Incredible tree. If you cut a tree...the roots sprout young ones.

Any plant that closes at night, especially to the touch (Mimosa pudica, or "12 o'clock" here in Belize), are good for sleep issues or sedation... though this one does not close at night.

The "fact" that they usually grow within close proximity of each other is not always the case, since Gumbo-limbo has a much larger range of habitat, while Che-chem generally is absent from the south of Belize except for some coastal areas and is confined drier areas in the central and North of the country. in the north its quite abundant.

It likely makes photosynthesis through the bark - giving it an extra edge in competition on young stage. And this helps it especially in the dry season when the tree drops its leaves but the plant can continue to photosynthesize. I'm sure that in some era of this tree's history, this tree survived and adapted to very dry conditions.

The sap, resin, root, seed, flower, leaf and bark of plants have been used since ancient times for a spectrum of ailments and illnesses. Most of the medicinal plants are found under the forest canopy; some plants are even restricted to specific locations. The knowledgeable traditional Maya healers would go into the forest to collect the special plants for remedies and treatments for specific illnesses.

A common remedy is the sorosi (Momordica charantia) leaves are rich in iron and are boiled and taken as a tea to cleanse and build the blood. The gumbo limbo (Bursera simaruba) bark as illustrated in the image, is boiled and taken as baths to heal sunburns, rashes, and it is also an antidote for the black-poison wood skin infection.

Traditional medicinal plants provided great developments in modern-day medicine. Traditional medicine is still an integral part of the indigenous health care of forest communities.

Photograph by Kimo Jolly

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