Down Mexico Way

On a holiday in Mexico, Sweden's Jan Andersson looks for palms and cycads and finds plenty.
Jan Andersson, Stockholm, Sweden
Chamaerops No.34 Spring 1999

Picture: Purple-red new leaves on Ceratozamia mexicana.

Last winter holiday I decided to go to Mexico for the old antique palaces and while there I thought I may have some chances of seeing some palms and cycads in their natural habitat.

I went first to the Botanical Garden of Xalapa where I knew they had some investigation program about some Dioon species. I asked them where I could find the Dioons in the wild and I wanted them to indicate on a map that I brought with me. Unfortunately the director of the garden Mr Andrew Vovides wasn't there at that moment and my Spanish is very bad so I had trouble with communication with them in the beginning. But then I found another English man working there and he showed me on the map where I would have some possibility to find a colony of the big, more than ten meters high, Dioon spinulosum or are they Dioon rzedowskii? It was not far from a road south of Tuxtepec in the north Oaxaca province.

I heard from Mr Vovides assistant Mr Carlos Iglesias that the Dioon edule grows at such a slow speed that it takes a thousand years to grow every meter in stem height. In David Jones' book about Cycads it is written that Dioon edule grows to a height of three meters, that means three thousand years. In Mexico they protect the pyramids that are less then two thousand years, so I think they ought to protect old Dioons at least at the same level. Mr Iglesias told me that it takes Dioon edule fifty years to cone. Dioon spinulosum grows much faster and it takes it about twenty to thirty years to cone.

All people working at the Xalapa Botanical Garden were very friendly despite my bad knowledge of the Spanish language. Another Mexican man called Antonio showed me the Palms and Cycads they were growing there, also those in the Greenhouses. They had many very nice Chamaedorea tuerckheimii, which they said now was extinct in the wild. And they had a tremendous amount of Cycads, all of the over forty species of Mexican Cycads that exist. For the first time a saw several specimens of the big and wonderful Ceratozamia euryphyllidia. And I had never seen the Dioon with the more sparse leaflets arrangement, Dioon caputoi, before. They also let the Ceratozamia mexicana grow wild within the Botanical Garden, but that species grew like individuals very spread out, I didn't see any big colonies of them. In the garden they had also lots of Mexican palm species like many Chamaedorea, Gaussia maya, Astrocaryum mexicanum, Sabal mexicana, Thrinax radiata, Brahea dulcis and some exotic species like a very healthy looking Trachycarpus fortunei despite the year round warm climate in Xalapa, a big Arenga pinnata, some Syagrus and a palmate palm with very long, about four centimetres, sharp black spines on the petiole, which was labelled Livistona sp., what type of Livistona could that he?

When I returned to my hotel in Xalapa I made some consideration of what possibility I had to see the Cycads in wild. I thought that I better take the chance to see them while I am here. I decided to go to Tuxtepec and then to the place where I could see the big Dioons in the wild. Of course it is much easier to find the more common Dioon edule in the wild, but probably the big Dioons are more impressive, with stems over 15 meters high. The towns I passed through my trip to Tuxtepec I saw but quite a few Dioon spinulosum or rzedowskii in some home gardens, e.g. in Fortin de las Flores, Tierra Blanca. They are really looking fantastic, especially when the leaves are reflecting the sun. When I came to Tuxtepec, the people wondered what I was doing there since the town is far from a touristic spot.

I went to the road south of the town where the big Dioons where supposed to grow just about three hundred meters from that road. The people at Xalapa Botanical Garden had said that it was growing in a sugarcane field. At the beginning of that road the sugar cane fields also began. After about forty five km the road entered the state of Veracruz and the field I was looking for should be before that, in the state of Oaxaca. But the first time I went through the area I didn't find the field. Then I thought it maybe better to ask the farmers living around in the area where I could find the Palma des Chicalite, which is the local name for the big Dioon, it is the same local name for Dioon spinulosum and rzedowskii. So I went back with the bus and went off right in the wood or right at the sugarcane fields, the other people in the bus thought I was crazy to go off at that place, they started laughing at me, but they didn't understand my purpose.

I started walking the road and asked every farmer I saw on the way. But, no one really knew what I was talking about, some of them was so friendly that they pointed at some directions without knowing what I was looking for, instead of saying that they didn't know. One time nearly the whole village tried to help me, but it showed up that they didn't know. Then I hitchhiked with a lorry, because then I come up a bit and maybe I could be able to see the fields better and hopefully find the field where the big Dioons were growing, the sugar cane fields around were quite high. But I wasn't successful with that either. So I had to give up the searching. I should have asked the people at the Xalapa Botanical Garden to give a more exact location of the field where the Dioons grow, but that was too late to think about now.

On the continuation of the more touristic travel I went to Chiapas and the ruins of Palenque. On the way I saw lots of Thrinax radiata, Sabal mexicana and just outside Coatzacoalcos in a more or less swampy area I think there were some clusters of Acoelorraphe wrightii. It is not so easy to say what palms you see from a bus window and it is even more difficult to make the bus stop just for you to see the palms at a closer distance. It was quite strange that the other passengers didn't seem to be so interested in Palms and Cycads.

Around the ruins of Palenque they have kept the rainforest intact which means that it is very much to see there, also if you are interested in plants. Just uphill from the ruins there were plenty of Chamaedorea that looked like ernesti-augusti, tepejilote and oblongata, there were some very spiny palms that I think were Astrocaryum mexicanum and finally after less than an hour walking uphill I saw a very nice Cycad in the wild, Zamia splendens. Now when I found one specimen of Zamia splendens I thought that it had to be more just around, and if I am more lucky some female plant with some seeds, but I couldn't find anymore specimens around. Maybe are Zamia splendens not growing in big clusters. There were also many ferns out there but unfortunately my knowledge of ferns is too poor to really identify what I see.

After staying some time in touristic San Christobal I went to Tuxtla Guiterrez where they have a Botanical Garden which contains the species that exist in Chiapas. They had two Dioon merolae, some Ceratozamia mexicana, some Zamia splendens without labels and among the palms they got some Scheelea preussiana. If I remember right then Scheelea, Attalea and Orbignya is considered synonymous. Sometimes it is written Attalea sometimes the other names. Of course they had also plenty of Chamaedorea. At the garden they also had some very big feather spiny palms without labels and with light brown fruits round and big like a golf ball, the fruit contained two dark, hard and flat seeds, could it be Acrocomia? Later during my touristic trip I went to the newly opened Botanical Garden in Oaxaca but that Garden was not so interesting if the main interest is Palms and Cycads, although they had some unlabelled Dioons, one they called oaxacaensis which to me looked like a merolae At the University, UNAM, Botanical Garden in Mexico City they had very many Cactus and Succulents but only some few Cycads among them a big Dioon rzedowskii and some Ceratozamia mexicana They had even fewer Palms mostly Chamaedorea.

A big disadvantage with my trip was that I didn't have the Henderson book 'Field Guide to Palms of the Americas' with me. I just ordered the book when I came home. That means that I am not so sure of the real names of many Palms that I saw. For example there was a quite big and common Palm in the state of Veracruz that looked like an Attalea to me or could it be some kind of Syagrus The locals called it Palma de Coyolito, but that doesn't say anything to me. I have later checked this in the Henderson book and it was Attalea butyracea My chances of finding the right name of Cycads was bigger since I brought with me the booklet Cycads of Veracruz. But that didn't help me so much since it is much more difficult to find Cycads in the wild. I think you have to have much more help to find Cycads than just a mark on a not very detailed map in a book. You maybe wonder if I didn't see any Brahea Oh yes, in the countryside there were plenty. They seemed to grow in a little arid climate, nearly where the Yuccas grew.

Before I went to this holiday trip I listed the genus of Palms from David Jones' book that I might have a chance to see in the wild. During my trip I think I saw about half of those I listed. It is not so easy to find the small palms Reinhardtia and Geonoma, and I didn't. To summarize my trip I would say that there are many kind of Palms and Cycads to find out there, also around the touristic spots in Mexico. I think it is quite possible to combine a normal touristic travel, for example following the Lonely Planet guidebook, with some small side excursions to see a good number of Palms and with luck, maybe some Cycads too.


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