Papery bark wraps something like a biblical king's gift

I was about to say that if you don't live in the tropics you ain't gunna see Bursera. I couldn't recall seeing any growing around Melbourne and I don't remember it from outdoors in London. To be sure though I checked our 'living collections census' here at the Royal Botanic Gardens Victoria.

Turns out we have one listed - Bursera hindsiana from Mexico - but none seem to be surviving today. One was planted in the Arid Garden, which makes sense, and another in our Grey Garden, which is consistent with the tone of the foliage. However it's the bark I'm interested in. The red, papery bark found on so many of the Bursera species. Many but not so much this particular species.

I don't have names for all the species I photographed in Mexico and Cuba but the peeling red bark made it hard to resist taking photos (and now sharing with you). To be fair, the general absence of leaves and flowers did focus the mind a little.

The first one I saw does have a name, Bursera arida. I was in Jardín Botánico Helia Bravo Hollis, in central Mexico. On one side of me was this columnar cactus.

On the other, a rather squat and leafless Bursera arida. On close inspection you could see the distinctively papery bark.

Back in Mexico City, at the botanic garden of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, we have this (unlabelled) Burseria. Perhaps the same species.

Far away in Cuba, in the Jardín Botánico Nacional de Cuba, I walked past this next tree every morning. It's clearly a Bursera and clearly not my little stumpy Bursera arida. This particular botanic garden is unusual in labeling very few of its specimens, and this was no exception.

It may be the rather common Gumbo Limbo, Bursera simaruba, which occurs from Florida through to Venezuela, including the Caribbean. This species is also called the Tourist Tree, which works for me, and has been used as a 'living fence' (I did see a lot of living fence posts in Cuba but none looked Bursera-like to me - at least as rumbled by on the highway).

There are some 80 species of Bursera, most of them from Mexico, and all producing a fragrant resin called 'copal' (a name I mentioned last week in relation to the green-barked Parkinsonia). This resin is used for medicine, varnish and more commonly as an incense. The wider family, Burseraceae, is sometimes called the incense family, strengthened by the inclusion of genera that produce  frankincense (Boswellia) and myrrh (Commiphora).

You might find Bursaria microphylla, often called the Elephant Tree due to its slightly bloated and lumpy trunk, in the garden of a plant enthusiast in Tropical Australia*. Do let me know. I'm interested in whether any species could be described as commonly grown.

As an aside, though, not every papery barked shrub or tree in Mexico (or Cuba presumably) is a Bursera. Here is a Senecio growing in the restoration area near the University with similar looking trunk. This is a daisy, not a member of the incense family.

For Australians**, we have the beautiful West Australian Miniritchie, Acacia grasbyi, with its even more highly textured ribbons of red and brown. That one you can look up on the web.

Postscripts: *Dale Arvidsson, definitely a 'plant enthusiast' as well as Curator of Brisbane's botanic gardens, says 'Brisbane’s City Botanic Gardens has a great specimen of Bursera simaruba'
**And a few eucalypts I gather. I noticed Jane Edmundson admiring a ribbony barked gum at Melton Botanic Garden on this week's ABC TV Gardening Australia show. I'm sure there are others...


Dale Arvidsson said…
Hi Tim - Brisbane’s City Botanic Gardens has a great specimen of Bursera simaruba

Tim Entwisle said…
Ah, great. Thanks Dale!