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 were delicious!

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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