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Elephant Tree, Torote Colorado

Elephant Tree, Torote Colorado
Bursera microphylla


Burseraceae, Torchwood Family


Tree, shrub; sarcocaulescent


Southeastern California, southern Arizona, Baja California, west-central Sonora, Mexico


Rocky plains and slopes; Creosote Bush Scrub

Living Desert Location:

Vizcaino Garden, Foothills of Sonora Garden, Yuman Garden, Wortz Demonstration Garden, Ethnobotanic Garden

Bursera microphylla, or Elephant tree, is a shrub or small tree with a thickened trunk and  relatively small branching structure in comparison to the trunk size. Sometimes referred to as sarcocaulescent, or fleshy-stemmed, the elephant tree’s soft wood and thick trunk allow for water storage in order to cope with extended drought conditions.  The trunk is covered in a thin layer of light-colored, paper-like bark that flakes away, or exfoliates, exposing the greenish tissue of the trunk beneath. Overall, the trunk takes on a fleshy appearance which points towards the common name of this tree.

The elephant tree has small, pinnately-lobed, somewhat glossy-green leaves which help slow water loss due to evaporation. The flowers are very small and usually appear before the leaves, sometime in July. The resulting fruits are small, reddish to dark blue to purple berries, called drupes. These fruits are an important food source for a variety of bird species during the winter and early spring months.

As a member of the Torchwood family, or Burseraceae, which includes the plants that produce the famous Frankincense and Myrrh, the elephant tree also contains highly aromatic sap that has some history of use by man. It is reported that material from Bursera micophylla has been used for fuel, shampoo, medicine and paint.

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