(First published in The Amateurs' Digest & Caudex booklet 18)
The name is from the Greek kommi (gum) and phoros (bearing)
Photo: Andrea Randazzo, Italy
The Afrikaans common name "kanniedood" (literally "cannot die") refers to the exceptional ability of all commiphoras to retain their water content and withstand drought for long periods. To my knowledge, very little is written in C&S literature or on the internet on the succulent commiphoras. Jacobsen (1974) lists only six species of the entire genus considered succulent:
C. dulcis - Sugar Candy Tree
Many others of the 200 or more species of Commiphora which are not considered succulent are nevertheless of interest to collectors because of their attractive peeling bark which often exposes bluish or greenish bark beneath. Some have red or orange color bark. Many species branch when quite young and young seedlings can often take on considerable size for their age and this makes them excellent candidates for bonsai treatment.
Commiphoras can be found mainly throughout Africa in the dry desert areas in the south, easterly through the dry forests and into more tropical areas and throughout much of the continent (including Madagascar), and even into the Arabian Peninsula and as far as India. They are trees or shrubs and some are dwarf size species. Plants can have swollen stems or thick branches which are often thorny. Because all species have adapted to living in dry environments there is a tendency toward increased water storage in the stems, even in species not considered succulent.
The leaves are generally compound (divided into several units) ranging in size from an inch to 10 inches or more. Flowers are very small and usually yellow or white.
The fruits contain a single seed (two in a few species) that varies in size from a few mm to an inch or so.
Commiphora humbertii in the photo develops a thick club-shaped trunk. It is an excellent species for bonsai treatment. The plant in the photo is often identified as C. monstrosa or monstruosa.
Temperature and Light
Commiphoras are summer growers, and need a lot of heat and bright light and can keep their leaves for most of the year if kept warm. If not kept warm year round growth rate will be slowed down considerably.
These plants are very sensitive to frost.
Soil & Potting
Most commiphoras grow in a sandy, clay type of soil. They tend to be vigorous growers which need a good size pot to allow roots freedom to grow which in turn encourages growth of the plant itself.
Repotting annually is a good idea as roots grow fast and can fill the pot during the first growing season. You can prune the roots a little when you repot if necessary with no harm to the plants. If you prune the roots don't water for a week or so after re-potting to give time for the cut roots to heal.
Water liberally when in leaf and very little if they are leafless in winter.
These are strong growers so feed at least three or four times during the growing season with a good houseplant fertilizer with trace elements - at full strength.
Commiphoras need to have their branches pruned to promote fuller branching plants which are aesthetically pleasing. Some growers say this pruning two or three times during the growing season seems to encourage fattening of the trunk and branches.
Don't throw out your summer prunings. Both old growth and younger branches are said to root fairly easily to begin new plants. This should be done in late spring and summer for best results.
Also easy to grow from seeds if you can find them.
Pests and problems
All soft wood plants such as these are susceptible to attacks by insects and fungi.
A source of Myrrh
Members of the genus Commiphora produce the myrrh (from the Arabic murr) that is referred to in the Bible.
Many of the plants in the family Commiphora have highly aromatic sap. The best known for its source of myrrh is C. lamii. The sap is a bitter tasting, agreeably aromatic, yellow to reddish brown oleoresinous gum.
Myrrh is used as an insecticide especially as a repellent of termites and as a mosquito repellent when blended as incense sticks.
How the gum resin is collected
A characteristic feature of most members of the Burseraceae family, including the Commiphora species, is the presence of ducts in the paranchymatous bark that hold gum resin. These ducts are almost circular and are scattered throughout the bark of the tree. To harvest the gum resin, a thin band of bark is shaved near the base of the tree. An incision is made at a depth of about half the thickness of the bark, or up to 0.75 cm.
The gum resin begins to ooze from the cortex soon after the cut is made and must solidify to brownish yellow drops, varying from pea size to walnut size before harvesting. The gum resin is pale yellow, brown or dull green in color with a bitter, aromatic taste and balsamic odor. Tapping of the tree begins in November and continues through January, with collection continuing until June. One tree yields up to 1 kg of gum resin.
The many uses of many Commiphora species
Fruits are used for the treatment of typhoid fever and as a remedy for stomach problems, constipation, fever, snakebites and toothaches. The powdered bark is mixed with porridge to cure malaria. The resin also has medicinal uses including sealing and disinfecting wounds. It is applied as a plaster and used for spasms. It is even used in embalming. The fumes of burnt resin are used as an insecticide and an aphrodisiac. An extract from the resin of some species of Burseraceae has been known to have anti-inflammatory benefits.
Leaves are browsed by goats, especially at the end of the dry season when young leaves appear. The nutritive value of the leaves is about 8 to 14% crude protein.
Wood of commiphoras has a reputation of being termite resistant although soft. Because it is easy to work with it is used in the construction of local houses, tool handles, beehives, spoons, water troughs, musical instruments and furniture. Some species are even cultivated and propagated as a quick growing live fence for boundary marking and for yam supports. The wood is also used for fence posts. Roots, leaves and fruits are edible. Dried sap and bark are used as incense. Extracted oils are used in perfumes and religious ceremonies.
Commiphoras are not widely available but some species can be found such as C. eminii. When you do find a dealer who sells commiphoras, be prepared to pay a hefty price. If you want to do an internet search of your own, the dealers who sell these plants are most often listed by search engines under "Exotic Plants" or "Rare Succulents" or "Rare Exotic Plants".
The following are just a few I found offered for sale with the comments they are all good bonsai candidates.
COMMIPHORA EMINII: Beautiful blue peeling bark Now becoming rare in habitat From Tanzania, it is found from the Coast hill forests, the Pugu Hills Forest Reserve and Tanga, to Morogoro and Dodoma. It grows in lowland evergreen rainforests and woodlands where the terrain is rocky. This species has a less extensive root system than most others.
COMMIPHORA KATAf: An Arabian species said to have a beautiful almost white fat trunk.
COMMIPHORA sp.: From Somalia. This species is quite different to most other species. Stems with knob-like swellings and very prostrate branches making it excellent for bonsai treatment.
C. HUMBERTII: Develops a thick club-shaped trunk.
C. FOLIACEA: No description given.
C. SESSILIFLORA: No description given.
Prices range from $50.00 to over $200.00 and size has nothing to do with the price. I saw C. kataf in a 4" pot listed for US$65.00!
Note: A photograph or description of the flower of Commiphora appears a rare thing indeed as I could not find one anywhere. Jacobsen does say the flowers are small and in panicles or clusters.
If anyone has such a photo or description of the flower, I would be very pleased to hear from them so that we can add that information here at a future date.
Thanks to Matthias Pernack for this photo and comments:
" Marina, today I read your Article about Commiphora. I own many different species. My Commiphora humbertii flowered this year. I thought you would like to see a photo of it. "
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