Road to Rio - Part I
A palm trip of a lifetime, to Brazil home of
many wonderful palm species, many of which would be worth trying
in Europe, even in sheltered areas in cooler climates. Part 2 follows.
Martin Gibbons, Ham Central Nursery, Ham Street, Ham, Richmond,
Surrey, TW10 7HA, U.K.
Chamaerops No.42 - 2001
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Picture 1: Trunkless Syagrus werdermannii
- occasionally seen by the side of the road
Picture 2: Syagrus glaucescens - wonderful, stiff leaved relative
of the humble Queen palm.
Picture 3: Syagrus duartei - very similar to Syagrus glaucescens,
experts differ as to its identification and validity.
Picture 4: Top left: Syagrus coronata - one of the most common palms
seen on our trip. There were literally millions of them.
Picture 5: Butia archeri - small palms, mature at only a couple
of feet tall. Would make wonderful pot plants
Picture 6: Allagoptera brevicalix - commonly seen, small palms,
growing in colonies and very difficult to photograph!
Picture 7: Acrocomia aculeata - tall and spiny palm, not uncommonly
seen by the roadside.
When Brian Trollip (nephew of the famous Steve Trollip
of South Africa) and I decided to visit Brazil for a three-week
trip over Christmas last year, we had the very best in the way of
predecessors. Inge Hoffmann had travelled our planned route some
nine or ten years previously, as had Brian's uncle with three friends
in a minivan, some four years ago. Both parties had published details
of their expeditions, so we were armed not only with valuable routing
tips, but also with a juicy list of palm species we could expect
to find along the way.
After arriving in Rio, we first collected our rental
car. Warning: car hire in Brazil is not cheap. Even though we had
booked in advance, we still ended up paying nearly £1000 ($1500)
for our 17 days on the road. In these cases, one just has to grin
and bear it, and try not to dwell on it too much.
Our trip proper began in Belo Horizonte, Brazil's
third largest city after Rio and Sao Paulo, from which we set off
at 9 a.m. on Saturday, the 23rd of December. With a good breakfast
inside us, we headed northwest towards Itabira, seeing Acrocomia
and Syagrus species along the way. In Itabira we were stranded for
an hour by the most torrential downpour! The rain just fell down
in a tropical storm of such ferocity that we were forced to call
a halt before we had hardly begun. Once the rain stopped, however,
the sun appeared in a cloudless blue sky, and the temperature rapidly
climbed to around 90 F. (30 C.), where it stayed for most of the
rest of our journey. We stayed at Gaunhaes that night and the next
day set off for Serro, and between here and Diamantina, we saw the
first of many exciting palms that we were to see on our trip. As
we rounded a bend, on an outcrop of rocks, Syagrus glaucescens was
waiting for us. As we approached we saw many more, all growing on
or around this rocky hillock, and we stopped to photograph them
and check for seeds, none of which, unfortunately, were ripe.
Quite unlike Syagrus romanzoffia, the best known
of the genus, S. glaucescens grows only to around 10 or 12 feet,
and has short, stubby and very stiff leaves, with upward-pointing
leaflets, almost cycad-like in appearance. These palms, like the
landscape on which they were growing, seemed very old, and one would
suspect they are extremely slow-growing. They are scarcely known
in cultivation anywhere in the world.
After Diamantina, like Inge before us, we spotted
a veritable field of diminutive, blue feather palms that turned
out to be Butia archeri. With short and thick trunks that had been
burned by many bush fires, and grey-blue leaves, they presented
an extraordinary sight. We only saw them in this one area, and if
that is the only place they grow one would think that their future
is not very secure. Should this field be ploughed or otherwise cultivated,
that may be the end of these lovely and again slow-growing palms.
Other palms we saw in the same area include Allagoptera campestris,
Queen palms, and but a single Syagrus flexuosa, an unusual, suckering
species. The countryside around us was quite wonderful, with great
rocky outcrops and cliff faces, all demanding to be photographed.
Passing Biribiri and Mendanha, we chose a side road
leading to Inhai that took our fancy and, rubber-necking all the
while, drove several miles along it. Our patience was rewarded as
we came across 30 or 40 Syagrus duartei growing together in a grassy
meadow. To our eyes it looked very close to S. glaucescens and since
some authorities describe it as trunkless, there seems to be some
confusion here. Anyway, they were wonderful plants indeed. It was
starting to get dark by this time, making photography tricky, so
we decided to head back to Diamantina for the night and return in
the morning. It being Christmas/New Year, the church in this pretty
village was lit up with thousands of tiny white light bulbs; an
incredible sight in the village square.
We set off early the next morning, stopping at the
palms for a good photo session, but further along the road was blocked,
so we had to return a second time and abandon hopes of getting to
Inhai. Thus we turned left (north) on the main road, towards Turmalina
and Minas Novas ("New Mines"). Though it was rather dull
from a palm perspective, one never knows what might be waiting around
the next corner. In this case, it was the town of Arucai which straddles
the Arucai River. Here we found a small posada (inn) called Posada
Tropical where we stayed for the night, enjoying a very un-Christmassy
Christmas supper al fresco in the village square.
Sometimes on palm travels you can drive for an entire
day and see nothing, and this was the case here, as we crossed the
river again, heading north for Itaobim. This very long drive was
relieved, however, by spectacular sandstone hills in bizarre and
beautiful shapes. We stopped every so often to take photos, and
for lunch, but from a palm point of view, it was very disappointing.
And then, suddenly, by the side of the road we saw Syagrus oleracaea,
Allagoptera leucocalyx and S. flexuosa, all growing together. Our
disappointment was forgotten as we admired these rare species.
Pedro Azul (Blue Peter?!) was our stop for that
night, at the Posada Bom Jardim. In town the next morning we bought
maps, had a haircut, sent emails, and had breakfast as well, so
it was a successful morning. Heading north once again, we were stopped
by police for a minor traffic offence, but it was very good natured
and we were allowed on our way without even a bribe. On the way
to Victoria da Conquista, our immediate destination, we saw many
Syagrus coronata, and on the later road from Bromado to Caetite
we found S. werdermannii in great abundance, growing by the roadside
and easily accessible. That night we spent in Brumado in a brand
new hotel, without a/c, tv or phone, but very cheap, and the steaks
From Bromado, we headed east then north again and
at a junction a few miles up we found a good population of Allagoptera
campestris, small, plumose-leaved palms of the cerrado, with seed
heads like corn-on-the-cob. Over the next hour or two, as we sped
north along a ruler-straight road towards Mucuge, we were to see
millions more, hundreds of square miles of them, covering the landscape
from horizon to horizon. Yet another example of a palm so common
in the wild, yet so inexplicably rare in cultivation. Growing with
them, and similar in appearance except for their fierce spines,
was Bactris tucum, with a maximum height of about three or four
feet. The flat landscape then slowly gave way to spectacular scenery
with, again, huge outcrops of rock, and at the base of these were
growing Syagrus harleyi in abundance, together with amaryllis, cacti
and terrestrial orchids, in sandy soil.
From here it was not far to Andarai where we stayed
at the resort Ecologica, on the river. Superb food, comfortable
beds, and the sound of the river ever in the background. Downside:
lots of insects and huge toads the size of dinner plates to eat
them. Nonetheless a great place to stay and we were sorry to leave
the next morning. Our first palms of the day were Elaeis oleifera,
the American Oil palm (as opposed to E. guineensis, the African
Oil palm). Soon we had a major change in direction as we met the
main west-east highway, and turned right towards the east coast,
Salvador, the sea, and part two of our Brazilian adventure.
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