Relict Species: The Elephant Tree


Relict: N. A remnant or survivor
Species: N. A distinct sort or kind
Bursera microphylla

                Perhaps you’ve had that odd experience where you say a word enough times that it seems to become stranded from its regular associations. When that happens, a common word like “banana” or “toast” suddenly stops representing a thing or a concept and becomes this weird jumble of sounds. Try it. Say banana to yourself a bunch of times and see if something is a bit different. It’s a little disconcerting when you realize just how weird and unusual the sound is, whereas it has become commonplace through use.

                Nature is like that, too. We see trees all the time, and yet only with continued contemplation do we see the hidden side of what is actually quite a bizarre and fantastical structure. There’s an enormous pillar covered in a rough coating shooting out of the ground. Maybe it has smaller pillars emanating from the main pillar. Some of them droop and spread. Some reach like upraised arms. They’re covered with leaves. Or needles. Or they’re drooping cones. When you think about it long enough, it starts to get weird. Most things in life are like this when they start separating from your day to day system of categories and context. Maybe it’s not something you ever think about, but as I get hit by that weird sensation that a thing suddenly isn’t what you always thought it was. Natural selection produces some spectacularly weird results.

                But then nature goes and does something that is just so weird that you can’t get away from that sensation no matter how hard you try. You’ve got seahorses, anglerfish, amoebas, rhinoceroses, and giraffes. And of course, you have the elephant tree. Now, the desert is full of weird stuff that doesn’t make any sense until you start understanding how it got to be that way. Take ocotillos, which look like a cross between a candelabra and a rose bush. They are deciduous, but instead of shedding leaves seasonally, they do it every time a major rain storm comes through. However, the elephant tree may be the weirdest thing I’ve come across in the desert so far.
       
         This tree, like the California fan palm, is a relict from the age when Southern California was tropical. It gets its name from its branch’s and trunk’s resemblance to an elephant’s limbs or trunks. In Spanish, it is called “torote,” which translates to “large bull.” Also like the fan palm, the elephant tree’s relatives almost live almost exclusively in the tropics. It is a semi-succulent plant, which means that, like a cactus, it can store water in its trunk and branches, yet it the trunk and branches are composed of wood. It is also drought-deciduous, which is a common defense strategy of leafing plants in arid climates. And, the bark is a papery white substance that attracts the attention of birds at distances, which aids in the dispersal of its seeds. While the bark is white, the sap is red. Because why not?

                So, here’s a tree that operates like a cactus. It also stretches out in all directions like an octopus playing twister against itself. Native-Americans used to revere the tree to the point that they were fearful of even touching it. The sap was used as a panacea in the belief that it would cure all diseases and prolong life. For a long time, Westerners denied the trees very existence, despite the tree’s relative abundance in Baja California. It wasn’t until the 1940’s that most western botanists agreed that it was real after finding it in isolated locations in the Anza-Borrego Desert region.

                So, as the tree is most closely related to tropical species in Madagascar, South America, and Africa, and as the tree exists only in a handful of locations in California and Arizona, it is both a relict and an oddity. By all rights, the tree should not be here, but it has developed quite a system of managing the brutal and prolonged heat of the desert. It still clings tenaciously in a few spots that, quite frankly, are extremely remote and would require a lot of work to visit. There are about 100+ specimens in Torote Bowl at Mountain Palm Springs, which is about as accessible as they’ll get.

You might never see one in person, but keep this one tucked away in the back of your mind when you think that life is dull. There’s a weird-ass deciduous cactus tree from the tropics with white bark, deciduous leaves, and red sap perched up on the rocky slopes in the middle of the nowhere desert.

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