Today’s photographs and write-up are both courtesy of Ruth:
This short sticky tree may not look like much but it has a bit of a story. It’s a member of the Burseraceae, related to frankincense (Boswellia) and myrrh (Commiphora). Elephant tree is listed as an endangered species in the state of California but occurs more frequently in Arizona (where it is considered “Highly Safeguarded”) and northern Mexico.
I hiked out to this one in the Anza-Borrego desert where it stands alone amongst cacti and dusty alluvial fan clay rock shards. There once was a whole grove of elephant trees. The signage in the park still suggests a forest is just around the corner, but a waitress in a diner down the road told me that there has only been the one individual out there for a few years.
Bursera microphylla wasn’t discovered to be growing in California until 1937. It is the only member of the family that is not considered a tropical species, but remains (like the rest of the family) sensitive to cold temperatures. Climate change, with accompanying disrupted weather patterns, is speculated as one of the reasons for its near-disappearance in the Anza-Borrego Desert.
The specific epithet, microphylla, means small leaves, which it certainly has. In all of my observations from photographs and in-person, it looks completely deciduous. The bark is flaky and papery like a birch tree and can carry a red hue with age. The leaves give off a camphor smell when crushed. Native Americans considered it a valuable tree with healing powers, probably due to the camphor oils it contains.