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Ceroxylon - The One That Got Away

Many will know of New Zealander Keith through his book, 'Palms & Cycads Beyond the Tropics'. This is an account of some of his experiences collecting such first hand information.
Keith Boyer, 70 Opanuku Road, Henderson Valley, Auckland, New Zealand
Chamaerops No. 18, published online 23-07-2002

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Above: Flora of Venezuela: Above, Espletia moritziana, 4200m
Below: Roystonea venezuelana, Merida, 1700m

Venezuela is a vast and beautiful country with around 200 species of palms, and climates that range from the tierra caliente - the hot lowlands of the Ilanos and the Caribbean coast to the tierra helada - the frozen land of the Andes.

We had spent a week in Caracas attending the International palm Society meeting which was an extremely well-organised event with numerous 4-wheel drive trips to cloud forest, tropical regions and various parks and gardens. We headed off for our second week into the Amazonas region where we travelled by dug-out canoe and on foot through tropical rain forest rich with palms, orchids and heliconias.

Only one week now remained for us to explore the rest of Venezuela so we chose the Andes and the prospect of finding Ceroxylon interruptum. We had seen this palm during our first week at El Junquito in the coastal range near Caracas. It grew between 2000 and 2400 metres elevation in thick stands amid low scrub at the lower altitude and in misty forest towards the top of the range. It was a magnificent palm with a white waxy trunk occasionally supporting a cluster of bromeliads, and its leaves were silver on both sides. Time had not been on our side, our guide advised us that we only had time to take a few photos and we were not suitably dressed for the numerous snakes in the undergrowth.

Our destination in the Andes was Merida and the plane started to descend, I caught a glimpse of palms on a steep hillside. They looked like Ceroxylon but we suddenly hit turbulence, cloud swirled around us and the plane climbed again, bounced around for a while and we finally landed instead at El Bahia 120 km south of Merida, he had been briefed to show us palms and had arranged a tight schedule. We races around Merida could support several species of Ceroxylon, as well as different Chamaedorea, Geonoma and Euterpe species from altitudes above 2000m.

Our short tour of the town gave us the impression that the climate was a cross between Mediterranean and our northern New Zealand temperate climate. Our city tour ended abruptly as we started to climb an adjacent mountain. The forest trees supported Tillandsia usneoides Spanish moss - hanging from the branches, and the pink/red inflorescence of Tillandsia fendleri through the treetops. Suddenly we entered a dry zone dotted with Agaves and cacti.

Our destination for the night was El Moro at around 2200m where the air was thin. The town was untouched by tourists, there were no shops, bougainvillaea provided colour to the square and vultures were roosting in large trees for the night. A few gardens grew coffee bushes, peaches, figs. potatoes and maize but we saw no palms. One adobe house utilised Ceroxylon trunks to support its clay tile roof, but that was as close as we got. The night was cold because we were now into the terra fria - the cold land where the average temperature is around 14C.

At sunrise our trip continued along a narrow track on the edge of huge hills that dropped a thousand metres. The track wound around beautiful valleys most lacking vegetation except cactus and Agaves. I contemplated that this was definitely not a region for Ceroxylon palms, but maybe they would suddenly appear in the next valley. However, the next valley came and went and we had climbed to 2800m, too high for any palm native to Venezuela.

Perched on the side of a mountain, the village of Los Nevadas was a welcome sight and a place for us to adjust to this higher altitude before continuing our journey the next day. There were no tourists in this village, and again no shops and no TV. The air was very thin and made physical activity difficult. With sunset the temperature dropped and the night became very cold. Sleep became our main priority.

Our next guide met us with mules at Sam. We mounted up and the mules automatically headed up the hillside. We had suddenly entered la ceja de la montana - the upper cloud forest of the mountain ridge at 2800 to 3200m. The scenery changed to weeping bamboos, small ferns, ground - orchids, sundew plants and iris, but still no Ceroxylon. It was freezing cold until we climbed high enough to reach morning sunshine where we had now left the upper cloud forest and had entered the Tierra helada - the frozen land of 3300 to 4600m above sea level. This is a special region known as the Paramos the high tropical mountains of South America, a special region that is within 12 degrees of the equator yet has 200 to 300 days of frost per year.

We had entered the Parc Nacional de Simon Bolivar de la Sierra Nevada and the region where rosette-like plants with yellow, daisy-like flowers grow. They are called Espeletia spp. and are also known as grey-haired friars or, in Spanish, Frailejon. Gentiana spp. with pale pink or mauve flowers, Geranium spp. and brilliant' pink/red Chaetolepsis lindeniana, Linden's Andean Sparker all dotted the landscape. Ice crystals grew from shaded places, from under rocks and at the edges of small streams while succulents thrived on top of rocks in the sunshine.

The permanently snow-capped peaks of Pico Bolivar and Pico Espejo were so close and so clearly visible as we climbed to the pass at 4300m (14,OOOft). The mules stopped and would take us no further, we were to walk over the mountain and down to Merida was now in the distance a long way down the hillside. It soon became our main focus because our flight back to Caracas was due to leave in just over three hours. We knew that if we stopped we would probably not start again.

We aching legs and feet we Just made the flight and we had not seen a single (live) Ceroxylon palm but we had experienced some of the world's most interesting climatic zones and had seen an incredible, unforgettable array of beautiful flora.

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