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 lifetime.

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 to see.

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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  02-02-23 - 12:00GMT
 What's New?
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 Date: 24-05-2004

An Encyclopedia of Cultivated Palms
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'Palmen in Mitteleuropa'
by Mario Stähler
This german book tells you all about how to cultivate your palms in Central Europe. more...