Jubaea In Chile

New Zealand plantsman Dick Endt visits the home of Jubaea chilensis, that hardy giant of the palm world, and finds it alive and well, in the longest and narrowest country in the world.
Dick Endt, 'Landsendt', Valley of the Palms, 108 Parker Road, Oratia, New Zealand.
Chamaerops No.25 Winter 1996/97

Above left: 'miel de Palma' (Palm Honey) bein harvested from the apex of a felled Jubaea trunk. Note that all foliage has been removed. The sap flows for up to 6 months before it is exhausted.
Above right: Jubaea at La Campagna National Park, Chile.
Below: Jubaea at Cocolan, Chile.

It was with considerable interest that I read the article, 'Germinating Jubaea' by Michel Lembreghts in the Winter issue of 'Chamaerops'. For me too it has been a challenge to grow this palm, often with negative results as far as germination is concerned. During my recent visit to Chile I visited a nursery on the estate of Cocalan where they propagate 45 ,000 seedlings every year.

Here in New Zealand the Wine palm is rare. There are less than a dozen of these palms of seedbearing age; most of these are more than 100 years old. In recent times many young seedlings have been planted; most of these are not likely to bear seeds for another 40 years. I will describe some of my observations of the Wine palm during our trip.

Chile consists of a long narrow strip of land on the south western side of the South American continent. The country has a length of 4330 km with an average width of only 176 km. It is hemmed in between the snowclad Andes on the east and the Pacific Ocean on the west. In spite of its great geographic size only one native palm grows on continental Chile and then only in a few isolated areas north and south of the capital city, Santiago. In the general landscape the Wine palm is rarely seen. Only in parks is this palm prominent, to gether with Phoenix canariensis.Most native palms have been exploited and destroyed for the harvesting of palm honey over the last few centuries.

There are only two places left in Chile where large numbers of Wine palm still exist. One, a national park, La Campaha just north of Santiago, the other at Cocalan, a semi-commercial operation where the palms are actually exploited for the harvesting of the nuts, some 100km south of the capital. The national park, La Campana, is perhaps the most natural place where these palms grow. For centuries many palms in this area were cut down for the extraction of palm honey, but since 1982 this operation has ceased and there is still a huge area of palms, largely undisturbed. The park consists of several wide valleys bordered by semi-arid hillsides. In the valley the palms are growing in great numbers and density. Even on the drier hillsides scattered colonies can be seen, often silhouetted against the skyline. The park area is some 4007 hectares in size containing 111,177 individuals, of which 75,618 produce seeds. The palms are the dominant canopy species. Throughout the valley the forest consists of shrubby growth not much more than 3 or 4 meters high. On the hillsides most palms are exposed, just growing on bare rock. Companion plants consist of Puya chilensis and various cacti. It was observed that little regeneration took place in the park. Although the palms provide copious amounts of seed, most of it is harvested illegally by local farmers for selling at the market place. Secondly the seeds are much sought after by rodents.

Seeds will germinate after a long period of drying though it will only germinate when a suitable site is provided. The palm seedling is most vulnerable in its first 14 years. Often these seedlings are danged by wandering cattle from neighbouring farms. In its early age the palm seedling requires shade. Once the trunk of the palm has attained its full diameter, growth of the palm will accelerate until it has reached an age of about 50 years when fruiting occurs. The trunks are often bottle shaped when they grow taller. This narrowing of the trunk is thought to be caused by heavy seed production at the expense of trunk development.It is estimated that Jubaea chilensis will ultimately reach a ripe old age of 1000 years.

The only area where the wine palm is still harvested for its palm 'honey' is at Hacienda Las Palmas Cocalan. This area is privately owned, much of its 4500 ha. is used for orchard production, lemons, stone fruit and grapes. Natural stands of Jubaea palms occur on this estate. There, thousands of massive palms grow, in some areas scattered and in others in dense communities. The land on which they grow has been cleared of undergrowth, grassed over and is grazed by stock. In this way the palms are farmed for their nuts and as well the land is grazed. Nearly all the palms showed black trunks where they have been subject to fires. The farming operation is well organised. Each palm has been marked on its trunk with the annual quantity nuts pro duced. Those palms which produce less than a certain amount are marked for honey production, in other words the palm is cut down, its leaves removed, exposing the growing apex on the trunk. An incision is made at this point with a sharp knife. Over the next six months the trunk is bled of its 600 litres of palm sap which after processing is made into so called 'palm honey', a maple syrup type product much liked by the Chileans. There is a policy that every palm cut down is to be replaced by at least 30 new ones. A well developed nursery in fact produces 45,000 seedlings every year not only to supply their own needs but also for reforestation in other parts of the country. It is amazing really that this commercial operation has a production aim 50 years ahead in time as it takes that long for these palms to produce nuts. The majority of nuts are sold in Chile, but every year several tonnes are exported to Spain as well as the US. Increased plantings of Jubaea in Chile will take a considerable number of years before they visually affect the landscape. We look forward to seeing these majestic palms reinstated in their country of origin.

 

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