Just south of El Rosario, a peculiar plant begins to speckle the Baja desert landscape. It’s hard to miss the odd, tall tapered tree with spiny branches that looks more like a drawing out of a Dr. Seuss book than something you would expect to find in the stark desert. The boojum tree, or cirio in Spanish, is one of Baja’s most unique plants. It is almost endemic to Baja California, with just a few of them found in Sonora, Mexico as well.
A Peculiar Look
The Spanish common name cirio means wax candle, and with the plant’s tall tapered appearance, the name is apropos. Although many grow straight up, some trees loop and bend, and in addition to the singular trunk, mature cirios may have several wide stems at the top as well. Belonging to the same family as ocotillos, the cirios are drought-deciduous, getting by on less than five inches of rain per year. They remain leafless in dry seasons but sprout when water is available, often several times throughout the year. After significant rainfall, the cirio sprouts green leaves all over, usually within 72 hours of rain. Tubular flowers sprout at the top after rains in July-August.
The cirio is one of the tallest plants found in the Sonoran desert, with the tallest cirio ever studied having grown about 60 feet tall. But it gets there slowly, growing less than two inches per year. They generally live to be older than 300 years old, with some experts estimating that some trees live to be over 700 years old. It can take 50 to 100 years just for the cirio to mature and flower.
What’s In a Name?
The plant’s common name in English, boojum tree, was given to the tree in 1922 by Godfrey Sykes, an English-born botanist working at the Desert Laboratory in Tucson, AZ. The name comes from Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical poem, “The Hunting of the Snark.” The poem tells the story of a crew that sets out to find the mysterious “snark.” But they are warned that if they find a “snark” that happens to be a “boojum” they will “softly and suddenly vanish away, and never be met with again.”
Where to Find Them
Cirios are plentiful throughout the Central Desert from Sierra de San Pedro Mártir to Volcán Tres Virgenes in the protected area known as “Valle de los Cirios.” If driving on Mexico 1, they can be found starting just south of El Rosario. Cirios trees can also be found on Isla Ángel de la Guarda.
Scientific Name: Fouquieria columnaris
Common Name (English): Boojum Tree
Common Name (Spanish): Cirio
Division: Magnoliophyta (flowering plants)
Class: Magnoliopsida (dicotyledons)
Height: Up to 60 feet
Age: 300+ years