The Coastal Star

Secret Garden: Gumbo Limbo’s Ashley Trail offers intimate look at native plants

ABOVE: An orange-barred sulphur butterfly drinks nectar from a firebush. BELOW: Strangler figs line the path of the Ashley Trail. Photos by Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star

By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley

It’s easy to find the Ashley Trail from the parking lot at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton. Just follow the zebra longwing and monarch butterflies painted on the sidewalk.
The Ashley Trail is a quarter-mile loop through a hardwood hammock, a teeming butterfly garden and mangroves with their feet in the brackish waters of the Intracoastal Waterway.
The trail is also a way to step back into a landscape that would have been here when the first settlers arrived and the Seminole Indians plied the waters in dugout canoes.
You can navigate the trail on your own or take a guided tour. Ours begins in the parking lot where Susan Elliott, environmental program coordinator for the center, points out a number of gumbo limbo trees.
Of course, she reminds us that these trees are nicknamed the tourist tree because their peeling bark is reminiscent of the sunburned skin of tourists who neglect their sunscreen.
But her knowledge of local flora and fauna allows her to add that although most trees have chlorophyll in their leaves, the gumbo limbo has a green layer of chlorophyll on its trunk that you can see under its peeling bark.
This adaptation allows the tree to make food for itself and survive even if it’s defoliated during a hurricane.
After we enter the trail through the white trellis, Elliott quickly points out other special trees such as the lancewood. Its limbs quickly grow toward any light that comes through the dense canopy, resulting in straight and long branches. The Seminoles used the wood for lances, spears, arrows and fishing poles.
To make her tour appeal to children as well as adults, Elliott includes stimulation for all the senses. “I like to find things that will draw everyone in,” she says.
For example, as we move along, she suggests you might recognize the smell of a skunk as that peculiar aroma permeates the air. Although the park is home to spotted skunks that can climb trees, she looks for a white stopper. It’s a tree that gives off a similar scent.
When it comes to the sense of touch, she has us feel thickened bumps, or galls, on the leaf of a pigeon plum tree. They form when a wasp inserts eggs into the leaf that trigger the plant to repair itself. The galls protect the tree from the eggs and the eggs from predators, she explained.
Elliott enjoys the flora but doesn’t neglect the fauna as we move along the trail and come to a butterfly garden. It’s teeming with zebra longwings, yellow sulphurs, monarchs, giant swallowtails, ruddy daggerwings, gulf fritillary, long-tailed skippers and mangrove skippers. They are just some of the varieties attracted to the garden’s many nectar and host plants.
As we head down the trail, the path loses elevation and soon we are among the red, white and black mangroves. Elliott explains that because these trees sit in brackish water, they need to be able to exclude or exude the salt from their systems in order to survive.
Black mangroves exude the salt through their leaves. Put your tongue to a leaf and you can taste it.
On the other hand, red mangroves exclude salt. They have drop roots that shoot from their branches down to the water. “These little guys are responsible for keeping the salt out,” Elliott says.
She explains that the roots are covered in suberin, a waxy waterproof substance that acts as a filter when the roots absorb salty water. It’s the same substance you find on netted melons such as cantaloupes, where it keeps juice in and mold out.
As our tour ends in the shade of a chickee hut built by Seminole Chief Jim Billie from more than 5,500 cabbage palm fronds, it’s easy to understand why this spot is so popular. In fact, the center welcomed about 200,000 visitors in 2016.
“There’s something here for everyone,” Elliott says.

Contact Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley at

If You Go
What: The Ashley Trail at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. The butterfly garden is in full bloom during May and June.
Where: 1801 N. Ocean Blvd., Boca Raton.
Information:; 544-8605.
Admission: $5 donation requested per person.
Hours: The Ashley Trail is open 7 a.m. to sundown.
Tours: Guided tours of the trail are available Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 11 a.m. Meet on the front porch of the Nature Center.

Gardening tip
If you want a butterfly garden at your house, it’s easy. The first thing to plant is firebush with some milkweed and you’ll be off to a good start. You can find them at native nurseries and they’ll propagate themselves.
Then you can add some firecracker plants when you are ready. The butterflies seem to like their red flowers.
— Susan Elliott, environmental program coordinator, Gumbo Limbo Nature Center

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