Herbs & Plants

Elephant Tree

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Botanical Name: Bursera microphylla
Family: Burseraceae
Genus: Bursera
Species: B. microphylla
Kingdom: Plantae
Order: Sapindales

Common Name : Elephant Tree

Habitat: This tree is native to Northern Mexico, in the states of Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sinaloa, Sonora and Zacatecas; and the Southwestern United States, in Southern California and Arizona); especially desert ecoregions.

Bursera microphylla is a shrub or small tree, to 16 feet, widespreading, with a very short, thick, trunk. and its bark is light gray to white, with younger branches having a reddish color. The light foliage is made up of long, straight, flat, legume-like leaves which are composed of paired leaflets. It flowers in rounded yellow buds which open into small, star-shaped white or cream flowers. The fruit is a drupe containing a yellow stone.

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Leaf: Alternate, pinnate, drought deciduous, 11-21 ovate to lanceolate, entire, 1/4 inch long leaflets per leaf, 1 to 1 1/2 inches overall, with a camphor-like odor.
Flower: Small, creamy white, borne on long stalks, usually clustered in 3’s, midsummer.
Fruit: Reddish brown, maturing late fall, 1/3 inch long, splitting into 3 pieces at maturity.
Twig: Resinous and stout, reddish brown.
Bark: Tight and smooth, very attractive, outer layer pale creamy white to gray-brown, peeling to reveal gray-green (photosynthetic), innermost bark reddish, spouting resin when cut.

This mysterious tree of the desert can readily attain a height of six meters in the southwestern USA, with its thick tortuous smooth trunks arrayed in a multifurcate branching habit; moreover, a mature specimen may reach six to seven meters in lateral spread with a characteristic open crown. In some parts of Mexico the height may reach as much as 15 meters with correspondingly greater spread. Young trees have a light reddish trunk, but mature trees have a characteristic white peeling bark. Glabrous leaves manifest an aroma of camphor, and are pinnately compound in a planar geometry with length of two to eight centimeters; the paired leaflets may number anywhere from seven to 33, with the odd terminal leaflet being lone

The drupe type leathery fruits are oval in shaped and tri-valved, with the stone being yellow. Stamens number from six to ten (Jepson) Flower buds are yellow, while the opened cream to white star shaped flower is five petalled with minute green five millimeter sepals and petals measuring four millimeters; blooming time is typically in June and July. Diagnostic features differentiating this plant from its genus member B. fagaroides include the notably longer (up to four cm) and more acute leaflets of the latter.

Medicinal Uses:
The Cahuilla Indian people of the Colorado Desert region of California, according to legend, used the red sap of the Elephant Tree as a panacea medicine.

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.

The Cahuilla Indians extracted the sap to be used as a generalized cure for a gamut of illnesses. (Bean) In present day the resin is dried and prepared as a substance similar to myrrh, mirroring the use of its Asian family member tree. In Sonora tannin has been historically extracted from the bark for export; (Kearney) in the same Mexican state the gum has been used to treat venereal disease. The copal form resin of intermediate polymerization has been harvested from several Mexican regions historically for manufacture of cement and varnish, and has also been used in medicinal treatment for scorpion stings; there is data to suggest B. fagaroides may have been more common for the latter uses, as well as incense burned in Aztec and Mayan temples in prehistorical times.

The resin was an Aztec remedy.  In the 16th century, Fray Bernardino de Sahagun wrote that a little ground copal, the size of a small fingernail, added to water and drunk only7 once a day on an empty stomach would cure diarrhea.  The resin, bark and leaves are steeped in tequila or grain alcohol to make a tincture that is applied to gum sores, cold sores, and abscessed teeth.  The dried stems and leaves are drunk in a tea to relieve painful urination, and as a stimulating expectorant for slowly healing bronchitis and chest colds.  A tea of the leaves or the leaves and bark is used as a tonic to fortify the immune system.

The information presented herein is intended for educational purposes only. Individual results may vary, and before using any supplements, it is always advisable to consult with your own health care provider.


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