Burseraceae Plant Family

About the Burseraceae or Copal Family

Burseraceae is a family of flowering plants that consists of about 540 known species. They are native to tropical regions around the world, including Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Many species in this family are famous for producing aromatic resins, such as frankincense and myrrh, which have been used for their religious, medicinal, and perfumery properties for thousands of years. The leaves of some Burseraceae species are also used in traditional medicine, and some species are cultivated as ornamental plants.

Taxonomy and Classification

Burseraceae is a family of flowering plants in the order Sapindales, which also includes citrus and maple trees. The family consists of around 18 genera, including Boswellia, Commiphora, and Bursera. Some members of the family like the genus Triomma was previously included in this family. Within the Burseraceae family, there are no subfamilies or tribes recognized by all taxonomists. However, some researchers have proposed dividing the family into two subfamilies, Burseroideae and Canarieae. The classification of the Burseraceae family has been a subject of debate due to the diversity of the species within the family.

Morphology and Characteristics

Plants in the Burseraceae family come in many shapes and sizes, ranging from small shrubs to large trees up to 30 meters tall. Members of this family often have a distinctive appearance with compound leaves that are pinnate or palmate. The leaves may be evergreen or deciduous, depending on the species. The flowers of Burseraceae plants are usually small and inconspicuous, with four or five petals and sepals. They are typically unisexual, with male and female flowers occurring on separate plants or in separate inflorescences. Some species produce showy flowers, such as Commiphora wightii. The fruits of Burseraceae plants are generally drupes or capsules that contain one or more seeds. Plants in this family are well- for producing aromatic resins, which are secreted from specialized ducts in the bark or leaves.

Distribution and Habitat

Burseraceae plants are primarily found in tropical regions around the world, including Africa, Asia, and the Americas. They are most diverse in the drier regions of the tropics, such as the deserts of Mexico and the Horn of Africa. The genus Bursera is mostly found in Mexico and Central America, while the genera Boswellia and Commiphora are found in Africa and India. Many species in this family have a preference for arid or semi- habitats, such as forests, woodlands, and scrublands. However, some species can also be found in wetter areas like rainforests. Some Burseraceae species like Boswellia sacra are endemic to specific regions, such as the Dhofar region of Oman.

Economic and Ecological Importance

Burseraceae plants have significant economic and ecological importance. Many species in this family are cultivated for their aromatic resins, which are used in incense production, perfumes, and traditional medicine. The most well- of these resins are frankincense and myrrh, produced from the Boswellia and Commiphora genera respectively. In addition to their use in fragrances, some species in this family are also used in traditional medicine to treat a variety of ailments. For example, the resin from the Boswellia serrata tree is used to reduce inflammation and pain in Ayurvedic medicine.

Ecologically, Burseraceae plants play an important role in many ecosystems. They provide habitat and food sources for many animals, including insects, birds, and mammals. Some species are also nitrogen- helping to improve soil fertility. The resins produced by these plants may also serve as a deterrent against herbivory and protect them from pests and diseases.

Notable Species

Some notable species from the Burseraceae family include:

  • Boswellia sacra: Also known as frankincense or olibanum, this tree is native to the Arabian Peninsula and northeastern Africa. It produces a resin that is used in religious ceremonies, perfumes, and traditional medicine.

  • Commiphora myrrha: This small tree is native to Somalia, Ethiopia, and Yemen and produces the resin known as myrrh. The resin has been used for its medicinal properties, particularly as an antiseptic and disinfectant.

  • Bursera simaruba: Commonly known as gumbo- or torchwood, this tree is found throughout tropical America. Its bark is used in traditional medicine to treat a variety of ailments, and it is also popular as an ornamental plant.

  • Commiphora wightii: Also known as guggul or Mukul myrrh, this shrub is native to India and produces a resin that has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. Its resin is believed to have anti- and cholesterol- properties.

  • Protium heptaphyllum: Native to Central and South America, this tree is known as copal and produces a resin that is used in traditional medicine, incense, and varnish.

These species are all commercially important and have cultural significance in their regions of origin. However, some species in the Burseraceae family are threatened by habitat loss, overharvesting, and climate change.