Elephant Tree – Bursera microphylla

Elephant Tree - Bursera microphylla, photos by Steven Foster

Overall At-Risk Score: 44

Latin name:

Bursera microphylla

Common Name:

Elephant Tree, Torote (in Spanish)

Family:

Burseraceae (Torchwood family)

Lifespan:

Long-lived tree/perennial shrub

Reproduction:

Elephant trees produce small drupes which attract local birds who then go on to disperse the seeds inside.

Geographic Region:

Bursera microphylla lives primarily in Northern Mexico in the states of Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sinaloa, Sonora, and Zacatecas. In the U.S. it is found in a handful of counties in southern Arizona and California.

Habitat:

The elephant tree lives on arid, rocky hills and low-lying mountains in the Sonoran Desert from sea level to 760 meters (2,500 ft).

Status of Endangered/Threatened (by state):

There are no current state or federal protections in place for Bursera microphylla in the U.S.

Bursera microphylla has not yet been evaluated by the IUCN Red List.

Part of Plant Used/Active Medicinal Compounds:

The sap from Bursera microphylla was used by the native people (particularly the Cahuilla) as a cure-all for diseases, especially those affecting the skin. It was also used as a good luck charm by gamblers, and the Seri use the wood to weave baskets.

Wild Harvesting Impact On Other Species and Lookalikes:

Elephant trees are a critical species in the survival of several native birds such as the ash-throated flycatcher (Myiarchus cinerascens). The gray vireo (Vireo vicinior) in particular is dependent on the fruit of the tree as a food source, and the bird’s range in the winter is limited by where the tree can grow.

Recommendations for Industrial and Home Use:

Always consult your doctor before taking any new medications or supplements. With the rarity of this plant and the lack of readily available cultivated sources, it is recommended that you consider other options to use as a natural medical treatment. If you live somewhere that has the climate for it, the elephant tree is a relatively easy addition to any desert garden.

Citations

  • Bean, Lowell John and Katherine Siva Saubel, 1972, Temalpakh (From the Earth); Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants, Banning, CA. Malki Museum Press, page 48.
  • Dawson, E. Yale, 1944, Some Ethnobotanical Notes on the Seri Indians, Desert Plant Life 9:133-138, page 138.
  • Duncan M. Porter 2012, Bursera microphylla, in Jepson Flora Project (eds.) Jepson eFlora, http://ucjeps.berkeley.edu/eflora/eflora_display.php?tid=16431, accessed on August 15, 2019.
  • National Germplasm Resources Laboratory, Beltsville, Maryland. URL: https://npgsweb.ars-grin.gov/gringlobal/taxonomydetail.aspx?id=414217. Accessed 15 August 2019.
  • USDA, Agricultural Research Service, National Plant Germplasm System. 2019. Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN-Taxonomy).

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