Martin Gibbons, c/o The Palm Centre
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With summer finally here, the temperature rising,
the sun shining and the breeze chasing away those fluffy white clouds
leaving an azure blue sky, it seems an odd time to visit the southern
hemisphere and travel back (or forward?) 6 months in time, to when
the leaves are turning shades of red, yellow and gold, and sweeping
down from the trees on the back of an icy autumnal wind. For this
is Chile, that extremely long and extremely narrow band of a country
that clings to the western edge of Argentina for its entire length,
some thousands of kilometres, and separates it (Argentina) from
the south Pacific Ocean, denying it access for the entire length
of the western seaboard, and a bit at the bottom, too.
It doesn't take a lot of imagination on the part
of palm enthusiasts to work out why I am here. The prize is Jubaea
chilensis, surely the biggest-trunked, and one of the most cold-hardy
of all palms. Funny, the concept of 'west' and 'east' hardly seems
to exist in this strip of a nation, everything and everywhere is
either 'north' or 'south'; 'up' or 'down', and from Santiago, the
capital, this, of course, includes the two main national parks where
this wonderful palm still grows in the wild, one up, and one down.
First a city tour, ending up at a high hillside
park overlooking the metropolis, stunning, with skyscrapers and
glass towers, and a remarkable backdrop of snow covered mountains,
the Andes, spine of South America. Downside: a band of brown polluted
air that hangs over the city like a pall, and for which the word
'fug' was surely coined. It's worst at this time of year I am told;
low humidity and no air movement. Traffic jams everywhere keep it
from dissipating. That aside, it's a stunning view, from a stunning
park, populated by 30 or 40 colossi of the palm world, the endemic
Jubaea, Chilean Wine palm, standing sentinel, high over the city.
North then to the first of the parks where we will
see these giants in the wild, along straight north/south roads (that's
all there are) lined with poplars, elms and sycamores, all turning
autumnal colours, reds and golds, it could be England in October,
apart from the fact that there are acres and acres of vineyards
behind the trees, busy making one of Chile's most important exports.
After a couple of hours drive we are here. A long
and winding road then suddenly we are among them, hundreds and hundreds
of huge Jubaeas, in ones and twos and in groups of five or ten.
To say they dominate the landscape would be an understatement; they
ARE the landscape. The sky is deep, deep blue and between the palms'
bulk we can see hills and valleys, all clad to a greater or lesser
degree with these stunning palms. Even along the high ridge, hundreds
of feet above us, we can see a long line of them like Redskins in
a cowboy movie. Curiously there are no (or very few) young plants;
all the seeds are collected for sale either for export or in the
local market, and men and women are wandering around with overflowing
cans and baskets.
Two days later we are in a similar reserve, a few
hundred kilometres to the south. It's noticeably cooler here, but
the morning sun is rapidly warming the air, and steam is rising
from the Jubaeas' trunks after last night's downpour. It's a curious
sight, these huge pachydermal palms wreathed in mist, and our cameras
are busy. Again, the seed collectors are active, no seedlings this
year, that's for sure.
Darwin reported seeing hundreds of thousands of
Jubaeas when he sailed to Chile on the Beagle, inspired by the wildlife
on the Chilean Galapagos Islands to write his 'Origin of the Species'.
The palm's downfall has been that its cut trunk exudes a sweet sap,
which can be drunk as Palm Honey, or processed to produce Palm Wine.
For this reason, countless thousands have been felled since Darwin's
time and today's population is but a shadow of its former self.
Mercifully, the tree is now protected as Chile's national tree and,
incredibly, efforts are being made to replace ALL the lost palms,
a thankless task since they will hardly reach maturity in a man's
I had had a wonderful few days here in this friendly
country, England in South America, and plan a holiday here sometime
soon. Chile boasts great beaches, high mountain ranges, a perfect
climate and some of the most exciting palms anyone could ever hope
Just a paragraph left to express the hope that all
members enjoy this new issue of our magazine, keep the articles
and photos coming, we can't do it without you!
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16-01-21 - 06:00GMT
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