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