How to Grow and Care for Boojum Tree (Fouquieria columnaris)

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The Boojum tree is an interesting succulent with a distinctive growth habit. The tree has a tall, fleshy tapering trunk that stores the water that the tree needs to survive. From this trunk, short, spiky branches are formed horizontally and these grow tiny leaves. These stems have short, sharp spines.

Sometimes, the branches will become thicker and the tree can take on a bent shape rather than being just a straight column. Especially when the main stem splits into two or more branches. In their natural habitat, some of these trees are so bent over that they form loops while others are growing laterally along the ground.

Although this tree can survive on only 5 inches of rainfall a year, it’s drought-deciduous. When there is inadequate rainfall, the tree drops its leaves in an effort to conserve water. Then, when it rains, it grows new leaves on its many short branches. 

Shortly after rainfall is also the time that the Boojum will produce its flower stalk at the very tip of the tree. From this stalk, masses of yellow-orange flowers burst into bloom.

The boojum tree is the master of survival. Each tree can live for more than 300 years and some trees are said to be more than 700 years old. However, more recent studies have suggested that 100 years is a more common lifespan for these succulents.

History

This tall-growing succulent was given the common name “Boojum” by Godfrey Sykes, a botanical explorer. The name comes from a poem by Lewis Carroll called “The Hunting of the Snark”. According to this poem, the snark takes on a mysterious form called the “boojum” and anyone who looks at this form is said to disappear. 

The Spanish called the Boojum tree “cirio” which means taper candle. This is indicative of when the tall flower stalk emerges and bursts into flame-colored blooms. 

Plant Facts

Scientific nameFouquieria columnaris
Common namesBoojum tree
GenusFouquieria
FamilyFouquieriaceae (ocotillo family)
HeightUp to 60 feet (but the tree only grows around 2 inches per year)
WidthUp to 15 feet
USDA Plant Hardiness Zone8 to 10
OriginMiddle of the Baja Peninsula & on the Sonora coast of Mexico
Flower colorsCreamy Yellow to orange
Blooming seasonJuly to September after rainfall
Plant/Flower special featuresThis succulent is drought-deciduous. This means that during the dry season, the plant loses its leaves. The leaves sprout again after a rainfall. At the same time, the plant produces golden seed pods at the top.
Additionally, this plant can survive on less than 5 inches of rain per year.

How to Plant and Grow Boojum Tree

If you want to grow a boojum plant in your yard, you have to ensure that you have the space for it to spread and grow. It prefers full sun but can handle partial shade. It does best in extremely well-drained desert soils and is very drought-hardy. However, if you provide a little irrigation, the tree may retain its leaves rather than dropping them when water becomes scarce.

The boojum tree makes an interesting specimen to add to a desert or cacti garden. But, because of its extremely slow growth habit, it will likely survive in a tall container for many years successfully. 

fouquieria columnaris

How to Propagate Boojum Trees

The best way to propagate boojum plants is by using seeds. However, these may be difficult to find unless you know someone with a mature tree or you have a tree yourself and want to propagate more.

The main reason for this is that the tree is protected and is restricted from international trade outside of Mexico. However, the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance has worked with the Baja Garden’s Safari Park to start a seed bank. Their horticultural department has been able to propagate new plants and these have been made available for sale. 

Interestingly, nursery-propagated plants can legally be sold in the US.

If you do manage to source some seed, understand that germination can be sporadic. Nevertheless, if you want to try, place the seed in a tray or shallow pot filled with cactus mix. Keep slightly moist and watch for emerging seedlings.

Care and Maintenance

Boojum trees are not difficult to grow as long as they get plenty of sunlight and minimal water. 

Soil

As long as the soil you’re using or planting into is extremely well-drained, your boojum tree will grow happily. However, the more sand and grit you can provide, the better the tree will like it.

Water

Because the boojum plant is typically dormant during the summer, it requires very little water. However, if you provide some water at the end of the dormancy when you see leaf buds appear, you want to continue giving your plant water every 2 or 3 weeks. 

If your boojum is growing in a container, you may need to water weekly if there’s little rainfall. If you see some leaves turning brown or yellow and dropping off the tree, then you’ll know that you’re not providing your tree with enough water.

Fertilizer

Although not totally necessary, you can give your boojum some balanced liquid fertilizer during the cooler growing season. Make sure that you only use the fertilizer at half strength. 

Sunlight

Boojum trees prefer to grow in full sun once they’re mature. Younger plants, however, may need some protection from the scorching afternoon sun.

One thing to remember if planting your boojum tree outside or keeping it in an outdoor container is that it’s highly sensitive to strong winds that can bend and even break the tall, slender trunk. Therefore, ensure that you provide ample wind protection if you want your boojum tree to grow erect.

Temperature and Humidity

The boojum plant needs a warm climate to survive and is not cold-tolerant. It prefers to grow in more arid regions and doesn’t mind a little humidity.

Pruning

It’s not necessary to prune your boojum tree as this might actually be harmful to the growth habit.

Pest and diseases

The only issue that you should be aware of with a boojum tree is root rot. However, this is only a problem if you overwater your tree. 

Uses of Boojum Tree

The boojum tree is a host to the lichen (Ramalina menziesii). This lichen grows in abundance on the trunk of the tree. It’s also common for the epiphytic air plant (Tillandsia recurvata) to call the boojum tree home.

Common Varieties and Cultivars

The boojum tree belongs to the Fouquieriaceae family. There are only 11 species of Fouquieria. The most common ones, besides the boojum, are:

  • Fouquieria splendens (Ocotillo, Coachwhip)
  • Fouquieria diguetii
  • Fouquieria formosa
  • Fouquieria shrevei

Conclusion

The boojum tree is a very distinct and interesting succulent to add to your collection. It does grow best in arid areas that don’t get much rainfall and requires very little maintenance.

However, if you’re lucky enough to find one of these specimens for sale, it will grow quite happily in a container as long as you don’t overwater it. The tree is extremely slow-growing, so it should survive in the same pot for many years.

~ image source: depositphotos/vagabond54