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.
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.