The Zamias and Chiguas of Colombia

The author takes us on a comprehensive tour of the cycads of his fabulous country which has such an overwhelmingly rich flora, but is so dangerous to travel.
By Alvaro Calonje Daly, Pance, Cali, Colombia
Chamaerops No.41, Winter Edition 2001

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1. Zamia wallisii: Plant displaying paddle-shaped mature leaves. It is very rare to find plants with more than one leaf. Stem is subterranean.
2. Zamia encephalartoides: Plant shows a roundish caudex with smooth petioles and entire leaflets. Very striking plant.
3. Zamia manicata: Notice the collar in the base of the leaflet. Leaflets are tough, shiny, and have a few spines in the upper third portion.
4. Zamia obliqua: Plants with shiny apple green leaves that are very tough. The sharp teeth occur in the upper third portion.
5. Zamia roezlii: Emerging leaves in this beautiful species are bronze. The leaflets are curved, resembling the flexed wings of a seagull. This is the biggest of all Zamia.
6. Zamia chigua: Notice the leaves emerging simultaneously. Leaflets are closely spaced and very linear. Great plant for indoors.
7. Zamia amplifolia: Newly emerging leaves in this very rare Zamia.

Colombia is best known as the producer of the world‘s finest coffee, but it is also infamous for cocaine and heroin production, and the violent warfare these have helped engender. The violence and widespread corruption that have plagued Colombia for over 30 years has mainly been the result of conflicts of interest among drug dealers, weapons merchants, rich landowners, rebel Marxist guerrillas, paramilitary groups, and the Colombian government.

It is hard to believe that such ugly conflict could be staged in such an incredibly beautiful and biologically diverse country. Colombia enjoys both Atlantic and Pacific Ocean coastlines, and the Amazon jungle covers one-third of the country. In addition to this, the Andes Mountain Range splits into three distinct ranges in southern Colombia, thus giving the country wide valleys with big rivers, and allowing for many different ecosystems which house an astonishing biological diversity. With over 55,000, Colombia contains 10% of the world‘s plant species, second only to the much larger country of Brazil.

Ten percent of Colombia‘s landmass is part of the National Park System, and some of these parks are occupied by guerrilla units or paramilitary groups, thus impeding access to these areas and the opportunity for research. This has contributed to the mystery surrounding the Colombian Zamias.

Colombia has about 18 species of Zamias and Chiguas occurring in different habitats that range from tropical rainforest to high elevation cloud forest. Colombian Zamias are somewhat mythical because some species were discovered last century by Wallis and Braun and only rediscovered by Bernal, Restrepo, and Stevenson this century. Some species have hardly ever been seen, others occur only in small areas that are difficult and dangerous to access, while others grew in areas that have been flooded for the construction of large hydroelectric projects.

The different habitats where Zamias and Chiguas occur are savanna in the Northern coast, which has well-defined rainy and dry seasons; rainforest in both the Amazon and the Choco areas; high tropical dry forest in the east of the country; and cloud forest formation in the northwest.

The cloud forests of Antioquia contain two of the worlds rarest and most endangered Zamia species, Zamia montana and Zamia wallisii. Zamia montana is the highest elevation cycad in the world, found at 2700m above sea level, and Z. wallisii is the one with the largest leaflets. Both are endangered because of heavy logging in the area. The Urrao cloud forest, one of the most beautiful cloud forests in the world, has been decimated. Many of the prime cloud forests of Colombia have been cut for poppy growing for the manufacturing of heroin.

The highly elevated, tropical, dry forest of Santander contains one species of rare beauty. Zamia encephalartoides is a trunked Zamia that grows to six meters tall, has a black female cone, and thrives in dry areas of two distinct localities in the Chicamocha canyon. These plants are very resistant to salts and drought. They do not like wet tropical conditions. I have seen them growing outdoors in Southern California.

The savannas of Cordoba in Northern Colombia house Chigua bernalii and Chigua restrepoi, two species of a newly described genus that are truly exquisite in their architecture. Their leaflets have a protruding midrib vein. These species are found growing together and further studies may confirm that they are only one species. Zamia muricata, which also grows in scrubland, is a smallish Zamia with sharp teeth in its leaflets. Zamia ulei is found in the eastern savanna of Colombia as both an understory and a full sun plant.

The Amazon and Choco rainforests hold a bounty of different species of Zamia. Zamia amazonica occurs in both areas in disjunct populations. Zamia roezlii is common, while others, such as Zamia disodon, are extremely rare and possibly extinct. It reportedly occurs in Peru as well. Zamias lived in America before the uplifting of the Andes, and when this happened, many populations were destroyed, allowing for disjunct populations to occur. You see many cases of populations in the Amazon basin and the Choco rainforest, separated by the Andes.

Zamia roezlii, which grows to a height of 10 meters, is the largest of all the Zamias and is found near mangrove swamps in the Pacific coast; it tolerates high salts and is quite a beautiful Zamia, with high phenotypic variability. In the Calima Valley near Buenaventura, one can find Zamia chigua, Zamia roezlii, and Zamia amplifolia, amplifolia being more elusive and rare. Zamia chigua is a rather peculiar-looking Zamia, with very fine, closely spaced leaflets. I believe that these three species possibly produce natural hybrids because of the different forms found. Mr. Whitelock has studied the Zamias of the Calima Valley extensively and he reports a high degree of phenotypic variations.

In the Choco, one can find Zamia manicata, which has beautiful bronze emerging leaves and is one of two species of Zamias with collars in their leaflets. The other, Zamia macrochiera, is newly found. Zamia manicata makes a wonderful indoor plant. It is a very tough plant and reportedly very common in some areas of the Choco and maybe into the Darien in Panama.

Another species is Zamia obliqua, a tall Zamia that can grow to eight meters and is found as an understory plant. It has very nice apple-green leaflets and can have up to eight leaves at a time. This species occurs also in Panama.

Zamia amazonica is one of the most attractive Zamias, with its gorgeous red emerging flushes and deep, dark, glossy leaves. This one has great horticultural potential because of its beauty. This is a very tough and worthy plant. There are also several smaller Zamias in the Choco and the Amazon and they are Z poeppigiana, Z melanorachis and Z lecontei.
The state of conservation of Zamias in Colombia shows some promise by the work of the botanical garden in Medellin and a private arboretum near Cali. Unfortunately, the Pacific rainforest has been targeted as a prime coca leaf growing area, and it is being logged and planted now. The rainforest of Colombia have traditionally been places where people have always come to take something, never to leave anything, be it gold, platinum, hardwoods, or Zamias. It seems so durable and resilient, and yet it is very frail. Hopefully the conflict affecting Colombia will deescalate to negotiations and botanists from all over the world will be able to visit this beautiful and diverse country.

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