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Boojum Tree

Updated on August 20, 2014

What in the World is a Boojum Tree, and Why Should I Grow One?

What in the world is a boojum tree?

I have a perverse sense of humor. But this really IS one of my favorite plants. Problem is, most of you will probably never succeed in growing one. But regard that as a challenge if you want. It's the kind of plant you can brag about.

Boojum Trees (Fouquieria columnaris) are succulents that grow almost exclusively in Baja California. There are a few growing in Sonora. All the others were transplanted, and they may do well in the Sonoran Desert floor areas, and cities such as Tucson and Phoenix. But if you have a wet climate, forget it. If you want to set up a dry greenhouse, that might work.

But keep in mind that if you decide to grow one, it won't get very big in your lifetime. Several sources claim the really tall ones might be as much as 500 or 600 years old.

A Boojum Tree looks like an upside-down green carrot, in my opinion. Apparently a lot of people agree. It was named by Godfrey Sykes, an Englishman, after the poem The Hunting of the Snark, an epic but silly nonsense poem by Lewis Carroll, of Alice in Wonderland fame. At the time he was working for/with the Desert Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona. He saw them, and exclaimed they looked just like a boojum, and the name stuck. Apparently the Seri Indians would agree with his assessment independently, because they believe that if you touch a Boojum, a strong wind will blow, and that's a bad thing. It is called "cototaj" in the Seri language, and also known as Cirio.

The word "Boojum" was an invented word from Lewis Carroll's epic nonsense poem,

The Hunting of the Snark

Lewis Carroll on Boojums

"For, although common Snarks do no manner of harm,

Yet, I feel it my duty to say,

Some are Boojums" The Bellman broke off in alarm,

For the Baker had fainted away.

"'But oh, beamish nephew, beware of the day,

If your Snark be a Boojum! For then

You will softly and suddenly vanish away,

And never be met with again!'

"In the midst of the word he was trying to say,

In the midst of his laughter and glee,

He had softly and suddenly vanished away

For the Snark was a Boojum, you see."

I bought my Boojum Tree some years ago, in a very nice pot. I kept it in the living room, and I really liked looking at it. At the time, Mexico wouldn't allow Boojum Trees to be exported unless the branches were cut short (or maybe the United States wouldn't let them be imported, I'm not sure which). I don't think I ever took a picture of it, unfortunately. So I'll have to show you other people's plants.

When they say the Boojum Tree is a hardy plant, they must really mean it. You see, I have a brown thumb. But mine lived quite a few months. I should have planted it outside. But I wanted to see it every day. The pot it was in apparently didn't have a drainage hole, and it should have. Ultimately, it just got too much water, and just sort of rotted away. But I'm thinking of trying again, but this time, I'll put it outside immediately.

Boojums tend to grow a very tall trunk, and may only branch toward the top. Even less commonly, the main trunk will loop around at the top.

The Boojum on the upper left is an excellent very young specimen. It is around 2-3 feet high. It is covered with thin branches and lots of leaves. They leaf out in winter, and this is winter (supposedly, anyway, but we've been stealing everyone else's global warming, and it's been pleasant sweater weather in the daytime for weeks.) This one is located on the campus of the University of Arizona, across the street from the Social Sciences Building, near Old Main.

All photos mine.

Basic Requirements

Boojum Trees should be planted in the fall if possible. The growing season is winter, and they should be watered regularly in winter. If you want to know when to water them, I recommend you watch the weather report for Baja California, and water the trees when it rains inland. :) Here is a link to that page:

Baja California on Wunderground.

If the winter is unusually dry, such as this one is, you will want to water it more often.

If you aren't quite sure about those weather reports, the ones for Tucson should work well:

Tucson, Arizona on Wunderground

I'm serious! This should work well.

Here is another suggestion: "Small plants in pots may need water weekly. During this time, leaves which turn yellow or brown, or begin to drop are a sign of too little water. Plants in the ground, which are over 3 feet tall, do well with regular watering every 2-3 weeks during the cool season." More frequent watering is recommended during the season when they have leaves, which may appear in September or November. The plant goes dormant in summer, and loses its leaves, although the white flowers bloom in summer.

Young plants will need a nurse plant (a tree that will supply some shade, such as open shade). Older plants will thrive in direct sun. They are sensitive to cold, so plant them in a warmer place, not near a wash or other places where cold air flows.

I will list a potting soil for succulents. I don't know anything about this potting soil, and you may need to mix it half and half with vermiculite. Normally, this plant will grow in a variety of soils as long as the drainage is good. Gravel, decomposed granite, and sand are recommended. When you plant it, only put soil up to the original line, and after filling, water it.

You should not prune this tree. Pruning is just mutilation. It rarely needs to be fed.

If you have any questions, you can call the University of Arizona, or Desert Botanical Gardens, and ask to talk to an expert.

More information is available here:

growing boojum trees, pdf file

Here is more information on the Boojum Tree:

University of Arizona on Boojum Trees

The map on that site is how I found the two Boojum Trees I photographed. According to the map, there are more where I found the first one, but I only saw one live one and one dead one.

Photo of Boojum Tree at the University of Arizona

The Boojum Tree is in the center. The others are cactus.
The Boojum Tree is in the center. The others are cactus.

This Boojum Tree

This Boojum Tree is probably 30 feet tall or so. I'm guessing. At the very top, you can see the dried flowerhead, faintly. Up and down the sides are the little branches, covered with leaves, and there are leaves on the trunk. It's that time of year.

There is a dry place close to the top. This worries me. I am not sure whether the tree is truly healthy.

This particular Boojum Tree has been on the campus as long as I can remember, and always was fairly tall. And my memory goes back to around 1958 or 1960.

More Boojum Photos

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Closeup showing the leaves on the very thin branches, and on the trunk.This is a Boojum skeleton from the same garden. I vaguely remember this Boojum while it was still alive.The flowering top.
Closeup showing the leaves on the very thin branches, and on the trunk.
Closeup showing the leaves on the very thin branches, and on the trunk.
This is a Boojum skeleton from the same garden. I vaguely remember this Boojum while it was still alive.
This is a Boojum skeleton from the same garden. I vaguely remember this Boojum while it was still alive.
The flowering top.
The flowering top.

Closeups of Boojum Trees

These two photos are from the same cactus garden near the Student Union building. There are lots of other interesting plants in the same garden; I will show you a few later. They all do well together.

The other photo is the young Boojum Tree I found near the Social Sciences Building. I knew it was there, but I almost missed it, because I was thinking it would be tall, and it seems to blend right in.

As far as I know, these are the only Boojum Trees currently on the University of Arizona campus. Try as I might, I was unable to find any others in the cactus garden.

Probably this one is several decades old. It is the healthiest young one I think I have ever seen.
Probably this one is several decades old. It is the healthiest young one I think I have ever seen.

A Real Surprise

The best Boojum in the city

I came across this one quite by accident. I was simply driving around in a neighborhood near Tucson, and happened to notice this one. It is amazingly healthy, and has to be at least 30 feet tall, maybe 40. There was a car at the base, which was not even a third as high as the saguaro next to the Boojum Tree. I imagine a car is usually about 4 or 4 1/2 feet tall. This tree has four big branches at the top, along with what's left of last year's flowers. I'll try to get the flowers this summer.

The first photo shows the Boojum in full. The next few are various details. The final picture is of a House Sparrow sitting on one of the thin branches. I think there were five of them flying around and landing on these little branches. If you have read much of my writings, you know I can't pass by an opportunity to notice a bird!

The best Boojum, full size

Ain't she a beauty?
Ain't she a beauty?

Details

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Trunk with branches.Branches and flower top.Just the flower top with seasonal leaves. They have "fall" in the spring; the tree goes dormant and loses leaves for summer.With companions. Saguaro on the left, prickly pear on the lower right.House Sparrow male. Compare his size to the enormous Boojum, by comparing the leaves.
Trunk with branches.
Trunk with branches.
Branches and flower top.
Branches and flower top.
Just the flower top with seasonal leaves. They have "fall" in the spring; the tree goes dormant and loses leaves for summer.
Just the flower top with seasonal leaves. They have "fall" in the spring; the tree goes dormant and loses leaves for summer.
With companions. Saguaro on the left, prickly pear on the lower right.
With companions. Saguaro on the left, prickly pear on the lower right.
House Sparrow male. Compare his size to the enormous Boojum, by comparing the leaves.
House Sparrow male. Compare his size to the enormous Boojum, by comparing the leaves.

What is a Boojum?

Did you ever hear of a Boojum Tree before?

Boojum at Boyce-Thompson Arboretum

Boyce-Thompson Arboretum is a wonderful place. It's located near Superior, Arizona, west of Phoenix.

I caught this Boojum as it was in its "fall" colors, about to lose its leaves. In the first photo, you can compare this plant to the Italian Cypresses in the distance. Other plants also give you an idea of size. This is a pretty reasonable specimen.

Boyce-Thompson Boojum

Most of the plant.
Most of the plant.

Closeup, more or less

Detail.
Detail.

More Photos Coming Soon

(I hope)

Harrison Yocum (see my lens on his life) had three Boojum Trees in his yard. I photographed one of them, but I don't know where the picture is. I'll post it when I find it, so stay tuned.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum also has several Boojum Trees in its gardens. I have a photo of one of them in the dormant stage, but I think I'll go take some pictures this time of year.

All in all, if you CAN grow a Boojum, you will be a REAL desert gardener. I hope this little article has given you enough information to get started. Have fun!

Learning about Boojums and Baja California

Available from Amazon

Field Guide to the Common and Interesting Plants of Baja California

by Jeanette Coyle

Baja California Plant Field Guide

by Rebman, Jon P., Roberts, Norman C.

I'd love to hear your comments about this wacky tree!

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    • Pat Goltz profile imageAUTHOR

      Pat Goltz 

      4 years ago

      @David Stone1: Thanks for your support! As for evolution, don't even go there. ;)

    • David Stone1 profile image

      David Stone 

      4 years ago from New York City

      It seems like a remarkable natural development, a unique bit of evolution,

    • profile image

      nonya222 

      4 years ago

      Awesome to learn about something new. Fun read, Thanks!

    • delia-delia profile image

      Delia 

      4 years ago

      Well that's a good description "wacky" or just very different...I found it interesting. Always like learning something new....thanks for sharing!

    • MariaMontgomery profile image

      MariaMontgomery 

      4 years ago from Central Florida, USA

      Thanks for introducing me to a new type of tree, and for a very interesting lens.

    • VioletteRose LM profile image

      VioletteRose LM 

      4 years ago

      This is something new to me, its really interesting!

    • Redneck Lady Luck profile image

      Lorelei Cohen 

      4 years ago from Canada

      There really are such a wide variety of plants throughout the world. It is so interesting to get an opportunity to see them. Very fascinating plants in the hot Arizona area.

    • profile image

      GrammieOlivia 

      4 years ago

      It certainly is different than anything I have seen before! I kind of like it, but, I can be weird in my choices of plants..................lol

    • Kailua-KonaGirl profile image

      June Parker 

      4 years ago from New York

      I have seen these interesting plants in my travels, but didn't know their name and never had a desire to try to grow one. They are not the most attractive thing to look at and since I am more acclimated to the tropics and not the desert, they can stay in the desert where they belong. LOL. Very well written and informative articles.

    • norma-holt profile image

      norma-holt 

      4 years ago

      What an interesting plant and nicely presented in this lens. Well done.

    • lewisgirl profile image

      lewisgirl 

      4 years ago

      Great lens! Lots of info and pics.

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