Paradise Tree: Beautiful and Useful

"The native Paradise tree is more useful than Google, and easy to grow."

And how could any blogger resist leading off with this intriguing quote from the Key West Garden Club? I am a Master Gardener and a Master Naturalist, but I only know so much; so I always check out  statistics from experts before posting information about plants. I have a beautiful Paradise tree in my yard, it came from the raffle table at my chapter's program night about six years ago.
Paradise tree                Simarouba glauca

For the first six years the little tree had a perfect, closed, cone shape; but just this summer I was astounded one morning to walk out and notice that my tree had changed. The canopy had begun to open up, there were open spaces between the layers of branches. It seemed to happen overnight. Proving again that a garden is constantly in motion, which is one of the fascinating things about observing them.
Pinnate leaves of the paradise tree

The leaves of the paradise are glossy green and have a roughly textured look that makes it stand out from plants nearby. They are pinnate in form. Pinna is latin for 'feather.' Just as the strands of material that form a feather are joined together on two sides of the shaft, so the pinnate leaves are joined side by side on a common stem, called the rachis.

Plant Creations in Homestead had some fun with this declaration that "Pinnate compound leaves are a sign  that this is a intelligent tree."
I think so, too!

The new growth is a completely different color when it first appears. The pinnate structure is very apparent here.
"New growth emerges as flames of red and gold."
says Plant Creations
Last night Palm Beach County got a big blast of wind that had the leaves and branches dancing outside. And my Paradise tree had another surprise in store for me. As the wind lifted the branches upwards, the mass of the lime-colored undersides formed a marked contrast with the deep green of the leaf topsides, reminding me of snowfall on evergreens up north! I had never noticed the undersides before. The effect was very dramatic.
"Snow effect" of wind exposing undersides of leaves
My husband thought so too - as the thunder and lightening began, "Sue, what are you DOING out there?!"

I  have heard complaints that the paradise tree, like the gumbo limbo, drops its branches in high winds. Our local native growers, though, point out that this is the tree's adaptation to storms; and because it can shed branches when it needs to, it also doesn't fall over.

Which brings us to the next commonly heard statement that the paradise and the gumbo limbo will blow down during hurricanes. I know personally of several examples of both kinds of tree that are hugely mature and have indeed survived all hurricanes to date. On the bicycle trail in Palm Beach, right on the edge of the Lake Worth Lagoon, which the old days we called the Intracoastal, there is a gigantic gumbo limbo with a trunk too big to get your arms around. It has been there at the very least since the early sixties when I first saw it. Several of our FNPS chapter members have huge paradise trees in their gardens.

I think the lesson is that placement is a key factor for ANY tree in a hurricane.  As these urban legends are passed around, we have to look to for facts, which are not always on the surface. I found no corroborating support for labeling the paradise as an especially hurricane damage-prone tree.

Berries deepen to dark purple when ripe

Speaking of facts brings me back to the opening statement about the paradise being useful. It turns out that when my tree gets a little older it will have flowers and bear fruit. Paradise trees are dioecious, meaning "it takes two." All paradise trees bear flowers, but some have male flowers and some have female flowers. This is the opposite of a plant which is monoecious, where both sexes of flower appear together. The female flowers are followed by fruits that "are sweet and eagerly sought by birds and other wildlife," says Craig Hugel in Native Plant Landscaping for Florida Wildlife. The falling fruits can be a liability if the tree is placed near a driveway or sidewalk.

According the research done by the Key West Garden club, the Paradise seed produces 65% edible oil which is used in baking in Central America and India, and its oil does not contain bad cholesterol. They also claim the  fruit pulp is sweet and is used to make beverages when the birds don't eat them, the oilseed cake (what's left after the oil is squeezed out) is full of nitrogen, phosphorus and potash and makes a good fertilizer. Futhermore the shells can be used to make particle board and the termite resistant wood makes furniture, toys, matches and paper. Now that's pretty darn useful! Maybe even more useful than Google!!

I did discover that as the tree matures its roots, which are close to the surface, can become a hazard  to paved surfaces, causing upheaval. Although the University of Florida says that these are great trees for median strips. I am fortunate in that my tree is not near either of these things.

The paradise tree is denizen of coastal habitats, preferring moist, well-drained situations in full sun or light shade. It reaches 40 to 50 feet in height if it is happy. Some organic content in the sand will help it feel happy. It may have a crown as much as 30 feet across. That would be in an unrestricted space of course. It can be grown from seed, but de-pulp these and plant quickly, they don't stay viable for long periods of storage. This is a tree for south Florida, although along the coastal borders, it grows as far north as Cape Canaveral.

The research journey for the Paradise  tree was so entertaining. I have to end with two quotes I came across. The first from the U. of Florida: "Not particularly outstanding." And the second from our south Florida horticultural bible, A Gardener's Guide to Florida's Native Plants, by Rufino Osorio: "The visual effect as the leaves rustle in the wind, first flashing glossy green and then pale, milky green, is extremely attractive and makes this one of the most visually striking trees native to the United States. It is widely used as specimen or accent tree in parts of southern Florida, even by gardeners who otherwise have little interest in native plants."

Can you guess what I think?

sue dingwell

AFTERNOTE: In reply to several inquiries, the photos are all mine - use at will for any project you deem noble.

Plant Creations:
U of Florida Tree Fact Sheets:
Key West Garden Club: ttp://


Ginny Stibolt said…
What a great tree. I'm envious up here in north Florida...
Elizabeth Smith said…
Well, I agree with you and Rufino! I've always thought this was a handsome tree - I don't think it was named the "Paradise Tree" for nothing. What fascinating facts! I enjoyed reading your words and learning more about this interesting tree.
Ginny, Elizabeth, thank you both so much for the kind remarks! One of the things that I was looking for in my searches on the tree was an explanation of how it got its name. I was interested to find that there was only one mention of it - and the suggestion was that the term 'paradise' was associated with it due to its general resistance to pests - so it must have come straight from paradise. I'm still looking just in case!
Hobo Botanist said…
Nice article Sue! I believe the fruit is also a favorite for the rare white crowned pigeons. I may have to redesign my yard to include one.
Tony Payne said…
These are lovely. Having lived in South Florida for 3 years it's finally time to find out about some of the plant life that is new to me.
Tony said…
my paradise tree has a black, moldy, soot material on its leaves. In fact, this black moldy material has rubbed off on its trunk and the surrounding fence and vine below. If I can't find a treatment to this condition, I'll need to cut it down. Anybody know of any solutions?
Hi Tony. It is difficult to identify what's going on with your tree without seeing a photo. Sooty mold can be the byproduct of a whitefly infestation. Unfortunately, there are a few species of this pest that were introduced to Florida fairly recently. You might want to bring a leaf sample to your local cooperative extension office, where they can look at it closely with a handlens and give you some advice about treatment. The following link will take to to a county-based list of IFAS offices:
Good Luck!
Anonymous said…
Hey Tony my paradise tree has the same problem, and this soot is washing off onto my cars during rain storms. I have my Paradise tree planted near my driveway to give my cars shade, but instead this dark moldy soot is washing onto my cars making it look dirty and greasy. I have a plant expert coming this weekend to check it out.
Sorry to hear that. I think it would be lovely if you'd share the diagnosis your plant expert arrives at with us.
Dianda said…
I live in S. Florida and I just got a small Paradise tree as a gift from a friend that's a Park Ranger. The tree is about 2 feet tall. I was reading the comments and was wondering how far from the house should I plant it. I don't want to have issues with roots growing under the house later in the future. Also, how fast does this tree grow?

Thank you for your comments.
Hi Dianda,
You should plant it at so that the center of the trunk is at least 15' from your roofline. The trouble with the roots is that they tend to slink along the surface of the soil - I wouldn't worry as much about their impact on your house as I would any hardscaping (pavers, asphalt, sidewalk) you have. These aren't like Ficus trees. The other thing to consider is that - because the tree's roots are so shallow - pushing a lawnmower around under the canopy can become pretty tough; you might consider planting some sort of groundcover beneath it once it gets larger.
According to Ed Gilman, the tree will "grow quickly on rich soils high in organic matter and should be protected from frost." He never quantifies "quickly" in terms of inches or feet, however, so I have no idea how to interpret the term. Perhaps the ranger who gave you the tree will know.
Happy planting!
Dianda said…
Thank you so much for the info "The Jolly Bloggers"... I'm now ready to plant!
Have a great day!
Anonymous said…
Where can I buy a Paradise Tree?
The Jolly Bloggers said…
Unless you plan on ordering something miniscule online, that will be determined by where you live. Here's a good blog about where to find specific plants that might be helpful in your search:
Cheryl Akey said…
I have a small Paradise Tree that I would like to move to a new location in my yard. Do these trees move well? Any suggestions?
The Jolly Bloggers said…
Hi Cheryl,
I have never transplanted one personally, but I looked in the native nursery finder and located a place in sanibel that grows them. I think a phone call to them would be a good place to start for some suggestions from people with experience:
Unknown said…
Hi where can I buy Simarouba glauca plant. And will it gow in a pot. Thank you.
The Jolly Bloggers said…
Hi Purvi,
Try or one of the nurseries listed on the following page:
As to whether it will grow in a pot, I'm sure that if it is smal it will be fine, but eventually it should be transplanted into the ground.
Anonymous said…
Is the bird of paradise in Florida native please and thank you
The bird of paradise, while an elegant tropical, is not a native. It is from central and south america.
Brittany Laviano said…
I’ve been struggling to understand why recently my young Paradise Tree has started dropping its branches, but only the youngest ones on the top half. After all my research, I came upon this write-up and learned so much! Maybe it’s protecting itself. No other issues noted based on leaf health, etc. Thank you very much!
Unknown said…
Hi! Thank you so much for this blog! I just got this a tree. There’s 10 feet between my house and my neighbor’s, and the houses are 2-story (about 23 feet tall). Do you think it would be a good idea to plant a Paradise tree in between? I don’t have a path walk there, and not really planning to. Thank you for your advice!
Unknown said…
I have a Paradise Tree which I love. It is so beautiful but it constantly drops leaves and it’s really quite a job keeping them swept off my driveway. I would appreciate any knowledge you may have as to what causes this or what I may be doing wrong. The tree is approximately 15 years old.

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