What is Bursera?

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  • Written By: S. Williams
  • Edited By: Kathryn Hulick
  • Last Modified Date: 07 November 2019
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Included in the Burseraceae family, the bursera genus includes small, flowering shrubs as well as trees. The shrubs are native to the tropical areas of the Americas and related to frankincense and myrrh. Most of the trees feature thickened trunks with patterned bark. The bark emits a strong odor as oils are released when cut. One tree, A bursera, grows slowly making it a prime choice for succulent bonsai trees. J. Burser, a 17th century botanist, first identified the bursera genus that carries his name.

These types of plants will not survive through heavy frost if planted in non-tropical areas, but can tolerate extreme heat and sun with adequate water supplies. Even in tropical regions, they lose their leaves during the winter and droughts. The bursera trees produce very small flowers in the spring that later develop into small berries. Seeds or cuttings are the most common propagation methods. Over 50 different species of bursera have been identified with the majority growing primarily in Mexico.


Bursera simaruba, or gumbo-limbo, is native to the southeastern U.S. and thrives in tropical areas due to its hurricane resistance. In addition to its popularity as a shade and ornamental tree, its gummy resin is used in the West Indies to produce glue, varnish, and canoe coatings. A gout treatment is made from the sap, while the leaves are brewed into a medicinal tea. Gumbo-limbo wood is used to make matches, toothpicks, boxes, and fence posts. This tree propagates easily, and the fence posts frequently take root and grow.

Several different species of bursera are referred to as elephant trees. These flowering shrubs prefer the arid, desert regions of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. The trunks and branches are short and stout, resembling elephant legs and trunks. Depending on the type, the elephant tree grows to between 10 and 16 feet (about 3 to 5 meters) with an open crown. The oblong leaves are a dull, light-green and are approximately 1 inch (2.5 cm) long when fully developed.

Bursera microphylla, also known as torote or torote colorado, is another member of the aromatic Burseraceae family. It also grows well in the desert areas of the southwestern U.S. and Mexico, but grows to a much taller height of 25 feet (about 7.5 meters) with slightly larger leaves than the elephant tree. The most noticeable features of the torote are the red-tipped, twisted branches and the oversized, water-filled trunk. It produces small, cream-colored flowers and bean-sized berries that contain several seeds.


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