Germinating Jubaea

An excellent 'How to' article, this time about the tricky business of germinating the seeds of our biggest palm, Jubaea chilensis, together with the very best Jubaea photo I've ever seen.
Michel Lambreghts, 8 Rue Albert 1er, 4620 Fléron, Belgium
Chamaerops No.21, Winter Edition 95/96

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Photo: Jubaea chilensis in the south of france

Since the very beginning of my interest in palms, Jubaea chilensis has always been a secret star to wish upon. A star, because of its impressive beauty, its massive mature stature, its cold, frost and fire tolerance, its coconut-like fruits and, also, because of its relative rarity in nature and in palm nurseries. As my passion (should I say my love ?) for Jubaea seems to be shared by many palm enthusiasts, I think that my personal experience in germinating 'coquitos' will interest many friends of the European Palm Society. Because Jubaea seeds are often said to be slow and hard to germinate, because I had previously tried it so many times without any success and finally, because when talking with palm nurserymen I've often felt that there is something like a "taboo" regarding the discussion of germination techniques for this small 'coconut'. During my previous trips to the south of France, I always brought back a dozen seeds and put them, scarified or not, in various mediums and at different temperatures, but without any result. Somehow they simply refused to sprout, even after a year. During my summer holiday last August, I came across a private garden near Hyeres, where four fantastic mature Chilean Wine Palms stood in single file (see the photograph). They were all in fruit, but unforttmately all immature, with green soft skin. At first glance, I saw none lying on the ground. Too early in the year: such a pity! Then I looked closer, not with my eyes, but with my fingers. I felt around in the grass beneath the trees and discovered more and more seeds. They were obviously naked seeds from previous years, the youngest of them being at least one year old. Not too long a time for trying germination? After a pleasant talk with the owner, I was allowed to collect as many seeds as I wished. And for sure he found it very funny to watch me walking on my knees! When I had filled a full plastic bag, the owner invited me to taste coquitos' and cracked some of them with a stone. It seemed a crime to me! Like eating sleeping babies lost in vegetable ivory. . . But I must admit that it was delicious. And this was also the beginning of my success in sprouting Jubaea seeds. Cracking! It was just a matter of cracking. I had read it before but found it too dangerous for my precious seeds. But with dozens of them, it was worth a try, especially when I realised that most of the seeds had been cleared of their fibres by Mother Nature, slowly, in the grass. A first pack of about a hundred seeds were cracked (with a stone, as the old French man showed me!) and the endocarp was completely removed, without hurting the endosperm. This is not an easy task, so you have to practice. Just be patient and don't worry, for this is the only arduous step of my sprouting recipe. These seeds were then placed to sprout in a warm humid environment. Hundreds of other entire seeds underwent the same germination conditions. One month later, some seeds of the first group began to sprout and, four months later, about thirty Jubaea babies were born. Meanwhile, none of the endocarp coated seeds had germinated. Perhaps they will do later, who knows?

Maybe some of our friends, who don't know this trick, would like me to give some more advice. Let's go on, then, with the complete recipe! Firstly to sprout the seeds in best conditions -though I'm really not a specialist in this but just a palm enthusiast as you are. Secondiy to care for the seedlings, as 'infant mortality' seems to be another problem shared by Jubaea growers.

Guidelines for Jubaea seed germination:

1. Collect enough seeds. With just a few of them, germination will be too hazardous. Fresh seeds become available in September/October. But as seen in this article, older ones will also give some good results.

2. Remove most of the mesocarp fibres to facilitate the cracking procedure. Soaking the seeds in water for one or two days may improve this step. Seeds from previous years have often lost their fibres.

3. Crack and completely remove the endocarp. For me, the best way is to strike a single blow to make the shell explode. Repeated strokes increase the risk of damage!

4. Select the supposed viable seeds. A "good" endosperm displays a chestnut brown skin. The fertile germ is identified as a "flat bright brown tear" stuck on the surface of the endosperm. Exclude endosperms which are cracked, flaccid, dark brown and dehydrated, or which smell bad.

5. Treat as a preventative with a fungicide. Naked endosperms are particularly vulnerable and can rot easily. Place them in a sterile and well drained medium, such as a mix of peat and coarse sand (1:4).

6. Use individual small clay pots rather then a large seed bed. Individual pots prevent rotting seeds from contaminating the other ones. It also prevent roots damage by avoiding early transplantation. Small clay pots will further provide better conditions for the seeding, especially for temperature, humidity and air exchange with the environment.

7. Cover the seeds with just a few millimetres of sand and spray with fungicide as a watering.

8. Place the pots in a saucer and wrap them with a plastic bag to maintain moderate humidity.

9. Put your 'treasure' in a dark warm room (I put mine in the cellar) . To my great astonishment, temperatures ranging from 20° to 25°C appeared to be sufficient, but best results are said to be achieved with 25° to 30°C. Use a bottom heating system if necessary.

10. Open the plastic bag daily to allow fresh air to get in. Spray with fungicide when the humidity seems to reduce. Never allow the medium to be waterlogged or to dry out. Both could mean the death of most seeds. Well! You just have now to be patient and your sleeping Jubaea babies will soon wake up!

Caring for Jubaea seedlings:

11. Remove sprouting pots when the seedling is about one centimetre high. It means that the root has already developed and that the seedling is surely strong enough to enter the second step of its life. . . in full light.

12. The general guideline is now to minimize any stress to the seeding. With your small clay pots, you have no hazardous transplantation to do. Do not overpot the seedings (leave them to rest in peace, for as long as a year?)

13. Keep warmth and humidity for the first weeks, for example by placing an inverted plastic bottle on the pot. Warmth will improve root growth.

14. Use fungicide and allow the sand slightly to dry between waterings.

15. Begin a light feeding programme as sand is a poor growing medium (though the endosperm will provide all nutrients at first). Be prepared to loose some seedlings, maybe for the first years.

Chilean Wine Palm is not Phoenix nor Chamaerops. . . Nevertheless, good luck with your future Jubaea forest and tell us about your results!

Conclusions:

Cracking the seeds and completely removing the endocarps appears to be an interesting method to germinate Jubaea. The general method described here is said to be efficient for other Butiinae such as Butia species. Especially for Butia yatay, whose seeds also display a very hard endocarp and a very long germination period. I will try this year, and also with Parajubaea.

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