If a Snark Be a Boojum Beware

One of the more interesting plants you might purchase this spring for an indoor succulent collection is a boojum. I recently got one at the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix. I have wanted one for some time, for there is no other species quite like it.

The Boojum, Idria columnaris, only occurs naturally in one place in the world, the Sonoran Desert in Mexico. It appears in two places: the Central Desert of Baja California, and across the Gulf of California in the state of Sonora, in an area called Sierra Bacha, a small mountain range. Before being called boojum it was known by the Cochimu Indians as Milapa and by the Jesuits as crio, because it suggested a candle taper.

It was Godfrey Sykes, born and educated in England, who is credited with giving the Idria columnaris the common name used for it today. According to Mr. Sykes son Glenton, his father was with a group from the Desert Botanical Laboratory of Tucson. The group was "standing on an elevated area some distance north of the mountainous area of Sonora where Idria had been reported. Godfrey, looking through his telescope and suddenly perceiving the unusual trees, exclaimed, 'Ho, ho, a boojum, definitely a boojum'"* The name persists.

Travelers will first sight the boojum a few miles south of El Rosario, about 200 miles south of the border, going from Tijuana or Mexicali. The Idria is a succulent which can live for hundreds of years and reach extreme hights. It may be the tallest plant in the Sonoran Desert. Its "skeleton" is similar to the saguaro (Carnegiea gigantean) and the cardon (Pachycerus pringlei).

Since it is able to endure extreme wind velocities, its shape is often contorted, thus the boojum appears naturally as one of the most bizarre plants in the world. It is described by some as primitive and by others as grotesque. But do not allow these descriptions to mislead. The small plants available at plant sales in Arizona have a "stumpy" stem with delicate, light branches, with small leafy foliage, growing in a crown from the top. These slender branches can exceed the central stem length by several times.

For more information about the boojum, consult The Boojum and Its Home by Robert R. Humphrey* It is available at the Sierra Vista Public Library.

Barbara Shelor
March, 1992