Bursera microphylla

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.

Bursera microphylla
Bursera microphylla

15 responses to “Bursera microphylla”

  1. Scott McGillivray

    The tree is intresting….but we need the wow wow of the flowers…volume of responses dictates how much the wow wow factor effects the viewee…thanks for pics, Scott.

  2. Micaela

    It is challenging to make a photo of a tree, which is large and complicated, as instantly gratifying as a small detail, such as a flower. However, they have a wonderful presence, which I think you illustrated pretty well in the second photo.

  3. Toni Alexander

    The elephant tree is having a tough time in the northern section of Anza Borrego as it can get pretty cold. There actually are a lot of them in the southern section of the park – about 50 miles south in a canyon called Turote Canyon. There are 3 in the Visitor Center garden.

  4. plantita

    Beautiful photo of a quirky tree. I find the tree, in all its huge complexity, every bit as captivating as the beautiful microcosm of a flower.

  5. Patricia Byrnes

    Awesome!!! Thanks so much. I love the desert but live in the plains. I am a gardner and will be a horticulture student in December ’08. I learned so much from this one single posting 🙂

  6. Mary Ann, in Toronto

    Lovely tree!
    Flowers are easy…
    but THIS is a shimmering, silvery vision in the desert.

  7. Kasey (South Africa)

    count me out of the flower wowow vote; the mix, the photographic quality & creativity and the interesting botanical notes keep me hooked! The effort is always appreciated, thanks.

  8. Sue in Bremerton WA

    I love the flowers, the plants, the trees, the leaves, the fungi, the moss and the bugs, slugs and snails, too.
    This is the only place I can visit every day and find such a plethora of information. Please keep up the good work. I enjoy so much, especially the flowers and plants from other countries. Wow.

  9. CherriesWalks

    All nature is worth looking at!

  10. Steve K. (Michigan)

    Another vote here for trees as well as flowers! This one is a beauty.

  11. phillip

    ….beauty is in the eye of the beholder….if this scragly tree were now spotted on mars…it would be the most important plant in our universe…or mabey not….ha…!

  12. Margaret-Rae Davis

    The bark and the shape of the tree limbs is very interesting. What great photos.
    Thank you,
    Margaret-Rae

  13. Don

    There are quite a few in the Anza-Borrego although they are not always easy to access. Very nice photo — forget the flowers, the form is quite enough.

  14. Ravikiran

    Its amazing for me because i had seen this plant firs time in the Desert Botanical Garden ,Central Arid Zone Research Institute Jodhpur Rajsthan India. when i was seen this plant i coulden identified this plant .When i was cut the twig there was very strong smell like terpene then i identified this plant it took about one week to identyfy this plant

  15. Clint

    Bursera Microphylla are fairly common in the Sierra Estrella Mountains, just south of Phoenix, AZ. They thrive on the south slope of the range, in and among large rock formations, all the way up to 4000 ft in elevation. The rocky terrain acts as a heat reservoir for the bursera’s, which transfer the heat from the rock to its outer branches, protecting this cold sensitive plant from the frost. In the absence of rock contact, it often succumbs to winter damage and kills.
    The elephant trees of the Estrellas have an unusual way of propagation, one that requires an animal vector to open the seed shell. The seed contains a single bursera plant that has already germinated inside the shell, like a chick inside a hen’s egg. The pup will die inside the shell unless some outside force opens it. This bizarre adaptation to arid environments does not bode well for rapid expansion of the species, which is evident by the complete absence of seedlings and juvenile bursera’s on the Estrella range. The ratio of old to young is about 100:1. This could have to do with other factors, as well, like the presence of non-native carpenter ants that consume every seed that hits the ground.

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