New Temperate Palms

Inge Hoffmann goes on an expedition to Brazil, to look at new palms that should do well in temperate gardens.
Inge Hoffmann, 695 Joaquin Avenue, San Leandro, California 94577, U.S.A.
Chamaerops No. 4, published online 23-11-2002

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Left: A honey of a palm! Butia archerii.
Right: 'My' Syagrus: Syagrus glaucescens

My goal on a recent trip to Brazil was not the tropical Amazonian rain forests, but the temperate region of the interior. The prospect of the high mountain ridges of Minas Gerais looked, to say the least, promising.

My first trip to Brazil had been made with a different purpose in mind: the collection of cacti seed on behalf of the International Succulent Institute. Later, when studying photos I had taken, I noticed in the background of some of them a species of Syagrus that I did not recognise. For years I had wondered what this species might be, especially in view of the fact that some of the cacti collected from this region grew outside in my garden in the San Francisco Bay area. Whatever it was, I figured it would make a hardy and worthwhile addition to my collection; further encouragement, if any were needed, to make a return trip.

I was met in Rio de Janiero by my Brazilian friend and fellow cactus seed hunter, Ingo Horst. The expedition was soon under way and with no language barriers to hinder us, we progressed rapidly up the coast north of Rio. Allagoptera arenaria was abundant in its sand dune habitat. Abundant, that is, in areas where modern development had yet to reach. Despite an intensive search, we could not find ripe seed. It was the dead of winter (July) and only a month later would the seed be ready. The stiff inflorescences would then hold the fruit upright until maturity, then bend to place it on the sand where it would more than likely be eaten by local rodents!

Ingo had established a network of farmers and gold & diamond miners who collected cacti seed to augment their meagre income. As he and they become more proficient in the collection of palm seeds, many more species will become available, some for the very first time.

Good information concerning Geonoma species growing in the higher elevations of the local mountains at Gen. Veladares, had been received from a good friend of mine, a geologist, Mr, Essenfelder. He showed us a lovely stand of Geonoma schottii and promised to send me some seed for my seed service when it was ripe. He had also been successful in pinpointing some Syagrus species he had discovered in the area.

Our drive inland to these sites soon became a nightmare on the bad roads. With an ice storm breaking it became difficult in the poor visibility to avoid the potholes in the slippery dirt road, and I for one was glad when we reached the little town of Serro.

Next morning the icy slush was still on the road, hours after the sun had risen. We were at about 1 200m altitude and it was a cold 10°C. We were soon on our way, and the moment we hit the exposed limestone rocks of the Diamantina area, we began to see 'my' Syagrus: a single trunk, only 120-180cm tall, with short leaves composed of rather broad, blunt leaflets. The crowns comprised only a few leaves and the trees were heavy with fruit, sadly, none ripe. Consulting our books we came to the conclusion that this was Syagrus glaucescens, and what an ideal pot plant it would make, small even at maturity.

As with all species we encountered, a specimen of leaves and seed was taken, to be sent later on to Dr. Luis Mattes of the Instituto Agronomico in Campinas.

A few miles down the road we stopped dead in our tracks, spotting a veritable field of small blue palms. None was taller than about a metre, with trunks about 15cm in diameter. They were in full flower, and seed. We were in the habitat of Butia archeri. A new road had sliced through this habitat and the resultant numerous burnings had cleared the lower leaves exposing the beautiful trunks. A real honey of a palm!

In the same vicinity grew another small green Butia, with a more massive trunk, yet still only 120-150cm tall, with softer, more relaxed leaves: Butia arenicola. Also we saw another species of Allagoptera: A. campestris, again dwarf, and despite a search, no specimen was found that was more than 150cm tall. I have since imported, via Ingo, some seed of these species, and whilst the Syagrus germinated within a week, the Butias have proved much slower.

Later we drove along a logging road into the Sierra Espinaho as Ingo had recalled seeing some palms there. I was not to be disappointed; we came across a glorious, trunidess form of Attalea there. Regular burning had either wiped out all the taller palms or the species had survived by growing in pure white quartz sand, surrounded by little combustible material. We found our car stuck in this sand and while trying to free it noticed a bush-like palm that at first glance reminded me of a Bactris. It seemed worth climbing the steep mountainside on which it grew to take a closer look. And I literally flew up there when Ingo parted the leaves to expose the trunks. Each was only 8-10cm in diameter with a basket weave pattern left by the burning of the lower leaves. Only 120cm tall with soft, light green leaves, it would make an ideal palm for small gardens or pot cultivation. The seed was elongated and not at all like that of Syagrus flexuosa, though the plant resembled this species in all other respects.

Two other Syagrus were discovered on the road back to Belo Horizonte and finally Campinas, where we were to meet Dr. Mattes. One of these has since been identified as S. harleyi, another trunkless species, indeed, specimens were seen with no more than 20cm of trunk yet in full flower.

Seed is gradually beginning to become available from this exciting area of the world, and one such recent consignment contained Syagrus vagrans, from the state of Bahia. It has the odd habit of producing bamboo-like rhizomes and would be an ideal plant for pot culture.

Interest in palms from Brazil is growing and currently an expert on Syagrus based at Fairchild Tropical Garden has enlisted my assistance in obtaining habitat seed to further his studies. Not only the scientist, however, should be interested in these palms. They have much to offer the palm grower in the temperate world and will make new and exciting additions to our gardens.

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