Bradenton group raising funds to save iconic gumbo limbo tree at De Soto National Memorial

MANATEE -- Like Yosemite National Park with its giant sequoia and The National Mall in Washington, D.C., with its the cherry trees, the iconic gumbo limbo trees draw visitors to the De Soto National Memorial.

But a deadly fungus is threatening the existence of these majestic and beautiful-but-aging trees.

The wood-eating fungus, called Ganoderma, has been growing on the base of the tree and feeding on the living part of the plant just under the bark, De Soto National Park Superintendent Jorge Acevedo said.

"This blocks the nutrients from going up the trunk," Acevedo said, "and allows water to get into the inner wood, causing it to, basically, rot."

When the decay reaches a critical point, the tree will fall over. Park Ranger Dan Stephenson said that happened to two gumbo limbos at the park about two years ago.

The largest of the 14 gumbo limbos in the grove outside the visitors' center is of major concern because it is a popular focal point for many regular visitors, including artists.

"Everybody just loves that tree," said Elfi Starrett, a member of the board of directors of Friends of De Soto. "It's so iconic."

The nonprofit group helps promote and support the park and has begun a campaign to raise $10,000 to pay for the treatment and care of the trees.

"We hope to be a conduit to help the park," Starrett said.

She said the larger gumbo limbo has become a favorite because of its size.

The majestic, low-sweeping limbs create a great backdrop for photographers and painters.

But because of the potential danger of falling branches or even the tree itself falling, Acevedo had a rope perimeter placed around the tree, preventing visitors from sitting on it or touching it, as they are fond of doing.

"Kids loved to climb on those branches," he said. "I have empathy for them. I was a kid."

But the safety of park visitors comes first, the superintendent said.

American Forests, a national conservation organization, named the large gumbo limbo a "Champion Tree" for its size and age.

The large park tree is about 90 years old, is 45 feet tall with a spread of 73 feet and has a trunk circumference of 195 inches.

Acevedo said the tree also may qualify as a Witness Tree, which is a registry of trees growing in a location where a historical event took place.

"We believe the tree was planted during the dedication of the monument in 1939," he said.

The National Society of Colonial Dames of America placed a large granite monument at Shaw's Point during the 400th anniversary of the Hernando de Soto expedition.

At the time, Manatee County claimed this was the spot De Soto had made landfall to begin his search for gold and riches, but historical research indicates the landing may have occurred farther north.

The National Park Service established the national memorial in Manatee County in 1949.

With a Witness Tree designation, the park may qualify for federal funding to help pay for treatment, Acevedo said -- but it still would not be a guaranteed cure.

"The treatment will help the younger trees survive," he said, "but for the older tree, it'll only help prolong its life a little longer."