Time, Memory, Gumbo Limbo

Given sufficient room, the gumbo limbo tree casts a wide shade.

A friend recently posted on Facebook a check-in at the Gumbo Limbo Restaurant, the “casual” spot at the Naples, Fla., Four Seasons. A memorable, fanciful name for a restaurant.

The reference is cleverly culinary, with thoughts turning to the famous spicy Louisiana stew. But it’s actually referring to a tree.

Hearing about gumbo limbo brought back memories of my time in South Florida many years ago. A born and bred Northeasterner, I found myself surrounded by vegetation I’d never encountered before.

Key among them was gumbo limbo, a common tree native to South Florida and the Caribbean, and a name you couldn’t ignore or forget.

It’s not a particularly noble tree. In the wild, young trees form rather narrow trunks that branch in kind of an awkward way; overall, a shrubby appearance. You notice them in the hammocks (those small islands of trees and brush in the Everglades), mostly by their blistering, peeling coppery bark.

The peeling bark of the gumbo limbo tree.

But give the gumbo limbo a little room, and it will develop into a multi-branched, architectural specimen. Branches will emerge close to the ground, and long, contorting limbs will spread out many feet, bending gracefully toward the ground.

The glossy leaves are alternately pinnate, almost fernlike, allowing light to filter through. In the relentless Florida sun, the gumbo limbo is an oasis of shade.

During my time in South Florida, I saw a lot of gumbo limbos. Some were undistinguished scrub eking out a living in some thicket at the side of the road. But others, usually in parks, at the shore, or in a manion’s lawn, were majestic sculptures, with thick orangey trunks and graceful limbs that seemed to reach down to offer shelter from the sun.

The memory was almost as good as lunch at the Four Seasons.

The gumbo limbo tree casts a wide shade.










Untangling The “Money Tree”

They call this the “money tree,” a marketer’s moniker alluding to the plant’s ability to bring its owner good luck and prosperity. Supposedly, its braided trunks trap the luck and keep it in the house.

And although the plant, Pachira aquatica (or perhaps a close relative, Pachira glabra), is native to Central and South America, it has somehow gotten tangled up in sales pitches with Asian allusions and with lucky bamboo, another hapless victim of silly names. (It’s not a bamboo, but a type of dracaena).

Even so, it’s a really nice houseplant. Commonly sold with five or so trunks braided together, it has the ability to form woody stems at an early age and sprout new growth directly from the trunk. It has the look of a carefully trained bonsai.

It’s a cooperative subject, willing to become an authentic bonsai if its roots are trimmed and potted appropriately. Otherwise, it’s just as happy subsisting in a small pot, allowing its stems to continue to be braided as they grow.

Mine came in a very small 3-inch pot, and I recently decided it needed to be repotted.

Pachia aquatica (left) in its original 3-inch pot, and it’s new, 5-inch clay pot.


I’m guessing by its growth habit and suitability as a bonsai subject that it likes to be root-bound, so I didn’t want to put it in too large a container. A 5-inch clay pot seemed ideal.

The next consideration was potting soil. Again, because I want it to remain small and not bolt up to the 50-foot height it can achieve in the wild, I decided a lean soil with very good drainage was necessary. So I added vermiculite and a good dose of small pebbles to the potting soil.

These small pebbles, purchased in a nursery, can be used for drainage or as decorative topping for potted plants.


The resulting mixed looked like this:

Potting soil amended with vermiculate and pebbles for good drainage.


My money tree has been sprouting new leaves. Now we’ll have to see if repotting will encourage more growth, or whether it will put all its efforts into growing new roots.

Pachira aquatica in its new pot.