Bursera (2019)

PhotoBy Bob Williams (June 2019)

When researching Plant of the Month articles, you often read about the individuals after whom genera are named. The majority of the time, the individuals did field research for many years and wrote articles or books on particular genera.

The genus Bursera is named after Danish botanist Joachim Burser. He was born in 1583 and died in 1639. He became professor of botany and medicine at the Sorö Academy in Denmark. Burser traveled throughout Europe in search of plant specimens, which he arranged into a hortus siccus or herbarium. A hortus siccus is a collection of dried and preserved plant specimens arranged systematically in a book. Burser’s 25-volume book was studied by many Swedish botanists, including Carl Linnaeus. An entire genus of plants only found in the Western Hemisphere is named after a botanist who only traveled around Europe.

There are 100 or so species within the genus Bursera. They are native to the Western Hemisphere from the southern United States south to northern Argentina, in tropical and warm temperate forest habitats. The most amazing fact is that over 80 of the 100 Bursera species are endemic to Baja California.

Burseras are woody plants. They can take the form of a shrub, growing to a height of 5 to 6 feet. Others are trees that can grow to a height of 80 feet or more.

Most of the species lose their leaves in the winter and have a dormant period. The leaves tend to be smaller. The bark of these trees is an attractive feature. It is richly colored and peels with age, giving the plants an aged look when grown as bonsais.

These species have been found to have medicinal uses. Bursera simaruba has been used to treat malaria and amoebic dysentery, manage leukemia, and for skin care. The gum of B. fagaroides is used to cure scorpion stings, insect bites and other wounds. The bark of B. roseana is used to treat wounds and sores.

A large number of Bursera species are known for their aromatic value. The sap of many species is made into a gum that is used as incense. Bursera graveolens is prized for its aromatic wood. The fragrance gets stronger as the dead wood “ages” for five years or more.

Burseras are relatively easy to grow and are often grown as bonsai with a caudex base. The plants should get at least a half day of sun, but look better if you give them a full day of sun. Growing them “hard” gives them the cool character of plants grown in the natural environment. You may need to prune these plants at least two times a year, cutting leggy growth back. This also helps to thicken up the trunk. Keep soil lightly damp between watering and fertilize as needed.

Burseras are best grown from seed, but can be started from cuttings. If your plants form seed pods, wait until the pods split and expose the brightly colored seeds within. The seeds stay attached to the stem, which makes harvesting easy.

Plant seeds in a well-drained soil, cover with about a half-inch of soil and keep damp. Germination will occur in seven to 10 days. Cut back on watering during the winter after the plants lose their leaves. Just a very small amount of watering will do. Although they are not winter-hardy, these plants can tolerate lower temperatures in the wintertime when placed in a cooler place in your greenhouse or where you put your other plants in the winter.

There are several species that are worth searching out and growing, including Bursera fagaroides, B. microphylla, B. oderata, B. schlechtendalii, B. hindsiana and Bursera epinata. Other species are also available.


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Botanic Wonders – Growing Bursera
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