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Jubaea chilensis

Tobias Spanner profiles the Arnold Schwarzenegger of the palm world.
Tobias Spanner, Tizianstr. 44, München 19, Germany
Chamaerops No. 4, published online 23-11-2002

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High & mighty! Chilean Wine Palm.

Have you ever seen a Chilean Wine Palm in the flesh? If you have, then like me, you probably only talk of it in superlatives. Jubaea chilensis (syn. Jubaea spectabilis) really is a spectacular, mighty palm with its huge grey trunk and wide crown of elegant, arching, feather leaves. And best of all, this impressive palm can take cold, a lot of cold. One of the most striking impressions for me was to see the large specimens on the shores of Lake Maggiore in Locarno, southern Switzerland, with the snow-covered mountains in the background.

Jubaea is a monotypical genus, that is, there is only one species of Jubaea though it is closely related to the widely known Butia and to the rare Jubaeopsis of South Africa, to which it is in many ways similar.

The mature Chilean Wine Palm is really easy to recognise, with its massive, light grey trunk, which can grow up to a height of 20m or more and up to 1.3m in diameter. That is such a big girth that two men could not link hands around it. The trunk usually bulges a few metres above the ground and supports a large crown of more or less arching, unarmed, dull grey, leathery, feather-shaped leaves, some 4 - 5m long.

Jubaea is certainly a long-lived tree taking some 30 years even to form a trunk, but once it has, in common with other palms, the growth rate, which is unbearably slow at first, speeds up somewhat.

It is a monoecious palm, that is, a single tree is capable of producing fruit and viable seed, but it won't flower until it is some 50 - 60 years old, when many short inflorescences appear, rather hidden amongst the leaf bases. These produce large clusters of spherical, yellow fruits 4 - 5cm in diameter. These ripen in the autumn, with a soft pulp, and inside is the grey, stoney, very hard endocarp (seed), with three distinctive germination pores rather like the 'eyes' of a coconut.

The endosperm (kernel) is edible and tastes just like that of a coconut too. In Chile, to where Jubaea is endemic, it is called 'coquito' which means 'little coconut', and the fruits are sold on the local market, and also exported.

In the areas of its natural distribution, Jubaea is very rare today, due to formerly excessive tapping for its sugary sap, which involved killing the tree. It is the only palm native to mainland Chile, occurring in dry scrubby woodland on the slopes and ridges of valleys near the coast in the central part of the country, from 31 to 35 degrees southern latitude, only a few hundred metres uphill, and not far inland.

The climate of this area is very similar to that of coastal California: warm temperate, dry, and without extremes of temperature, those in the summer being quite similar to those in the warmer parts of northern Europe.

Today, Jubaea is widespread as an ornamental, in parks and gardens, in many sub-tropical and warm-temperate countries, but it is by no means common, presumably because of its slow growth and the fact that, to the uninformed, it is not so different from, say, Phoenix canariensis, and to the local authority, costs about 100 times as much. However, it is cultivated in such diverse places as Florida and England, which indicates its climatic adaptability.

Nevertheless, Jubaea is essentially a non-tropical palm, preferring mild summers and cool winters for optimum growth. Its tolerance of frost is surprisingly high; in fact it is probably the most frost-tolerant feather leaved palm. Mature trees can withstand a heavy frost down to - 1 5c without damage and various reports indicate that they can withstand even harder frosts if they are of short duration.

Even young plants are undamaged during long periods of frost and cold and the stiff leathery leaves can cope with snow cover quite well. Seedlings are undamaged down to -7c to -10c.

Additionally, the Wine Palm can tolerate severe drought. Many of the wonderful specimens in the Mediterranean region didn't even suffer brown leaf tips during last year's extremely dry summer, when many of them had no water at all for months. In its native Chile, Jubaea receives only little rainfall, below 500mm/year, but it also seen-is to grow quite happily in high rainfall areas.

Since Jubaea withstands cold, moist winters, frost, and drought so well, and will grow just fine even in cool summers, it probably is the best - if not the only - feather leaved palm for cultivation in north western Europe. What a pity it is so rarely seen there. For example, the huge specimen in Torquay, England, seems to be the only outdoor Jubaea in the whole country. If only the far-sighted gardener who planted it 100 years ago, had planted another 499!

Especially as Jubaea's cultivation is quite simple. For optimum growth it should be planted in a rich, fertile, open textured and well-drained soil in a sunny position, maybe shaded during the hottest hours of the day. Outside only young or recently planted Jubaeas need to be watered; established plants are extremely drought tolerant. But wherever you plant one, bear in mind the final size of the tree, even though you probably won't be around to hear the neighbours complaining.

It is very resistant to insect pests in our part of the world, only the odd scale insect may be found on them if they are kept indoors for long periods. Fungus can attack seedlings in cool, damp weather. Maybe the only drawback the Chilean Wine Palm has is its extremely slow growth, especially during the early years. If kept in a tub, this should be as large as possible to give sufficient room to the roots and speed things up a little. But of course, specimens planted in the ground will always be faster, though if you live in an area with very cold winters like 1 do, you should think twice about planting out. The good winter protection that will be necessary will turn out to be quite a bit of work in later years, as the plant gets bigger.

But do plant out if you are in an area that suits it so that your grand/children can one day enjoy resting in the shade of its large leaves, swaying in the breeze. Well that's if you have a plant in the first place. Because of its unreasonably slow growth, most nurseries seem not to find Jubaea worthy of cultivation, and only few specialized growers keep it.

The easiest way to get one is from seed, which will germinate in from 1 to 15 months from planting, normally between 3 and 6 months. Seeds have only short viability (surprising since they come from such a dry area...) and will dry out quickly if stored unsealed. Plant them in individual pots, or just put them in a plastic bag with moist compost and keep them at room temperature (20c) or warmer (up to 30c).

Though seedling growth is quite fast, having established itself, it then settles down to a much more sedate rate of growth.

Patience is certainly the key word for this magnificent palm.

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