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Road to Rio - Part 2

Martin Gibbons, The Palm Centre, UK
Chamaerops No. 46, published online 18-03-2003

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From left to right:
- Polyandrococos caudescens left standing in a pasture after forest has been cleared.
- On the verge of extinction: Syagrus macrocarpa.
Photos: Martin Gibbons and Brian Trollip.

Christmas 2000. Brian Trollip and I were in Brazil, following in the steps of other palm enthusiasts. We had travelled north west into the interior from Rio de Janeiro, and had been rewarded with the sight of many rare and unusual palms. As we headed north we came across the main west-east highway and turned right, heading for Salvador and the coast a couple of hundred miles distant.....

The sky was blue, the weather clear and very warm, we had a good number of palms 'under our belt' and were excited by the prospect of seeing many more different species as the landscape changed and we sped east. Syagrus coronata seemed to be the most common big palm of the entire trip, distinctive with its great triangular leaf-boss, curiously twisted in a gentle spiral and supporting old leaf bases like spines on the back of some prehistoric lizard. The marble-sized, orange-red fruits are generously produced, often at eye-level, and we soon collected a few thousand from a garden, with the permission of the owner. It was extremely hot at this time and we were glad to get back to the shelter of our air-conditioned car.
From Ferio do Santana, we took the road to Santa Amoro, an old town with not much to recommend it, then sped east towards the city of Salvador and the Atlantic coast. The landscape changed with the miles and became flat and green. We saw a good number of Polyandrococos caudescens with their silver-backed leaves and characteristic new leaf spears with diagonal banding in green and silver. The fruits are curious, like big corns-on-the-cob, pendulous and sometimes twisted. Here we also saw spiny Acrocomia aculeata, Attalea sp., and outside a garage in the city, Syagrus botryophora, seeds of which we were pleased to collect.

Salvador itself is a fine old city with much Portuguese colonial architecture, cathedrals and churches, however, it seems very short of hotels and we had to leave the city and head south to try to find somewhere to stay for the night. After quite a long drive we ended up at a crowded beach resort, Praia do Forte, where we found a small, beach-side pension and enjoyed an excellent meal of locally caught fish, before settling down for the night listening to the ocean's roar.

While we were trying to find the hotel we had caught sight of a colony of Allagoptera brevicalyx but it was too dark to examine them properly. Thus, the next morning, we set off back up the road to check them out. This entire stretch of the coast comprises one massive building site. We drove past mile after mile of roadworks, and extensive hotel, motel and 'gated community' development will change its character forever. We found our plants, thousands of them; there was no seed, alas, but it was good to see them all the same. We wondered how many other colonies of palms had been destroyed during the 'development'. We also saw and photographed Attalea funifera with its large, egg-sized, pointed fruits.

Finally, after checking for other species we found ourselves back in Salvador and, using the compass to navigate, and more by luck than by judgement, we located the ferry which takes cars and foot passengers across the narrow strait to the island of Itaparica, in effect a circular short cut from the tip of the peninsular back to the mainland.

The ferry was hot and overcrowded, full of sweaty people (not least ourselves). There was little breeze as the old ship chugged across the strait and we thought of those single-paragraph news reports that one reads about ferries sinking in distant parts of the world. However, we arrived without incident and still in one piece. The journey took about an hour, then we drove a further half hour across the island, then over a modern bridge which connects the island with the mainland at the town of Vera Cruz.

Heading west, after about 15kms we saw the first of many Syagrus botryophora that we were to see, handsome tall trees, many in ripe fruit but all out of reach of our 24 foot (8m) long collecting pole. The answer was to lash the saw pole to a cut down sapling with gaffer tape which gave us an extra 8 or 9 feet. In this way we managed to collect a good number of seed though the physical effort involved in controlling the pole which, at that length, seems to have a mind of its own, was enormous and time consuming. We also saw Bactris species, more Polyandrococos and, one we were especially happy to see, Desmoncus orthacanthos, an unusual climbing palm with a prominent central vein in the leaf, and which supports itself on its upward climb through the trees with backward facing spines.

By this time it was getting dark and time to find somewhere to stay. We drove down towards the town of Santo Antonio do Jesus and checked in at a gloomy, Bates-Motel style place, run by an ancient crone and her simple-minded daughter. It was a bit creepy but we were so tired after our exertions that we slept like logs. In the sunny morning we drove on into the town proper and found a nice café for breakfast and a 'Posto Telefonico' to make phone calls, check emails and post cards home, then headed back to the main road and turned south, direction Ilheus, pronounced 'eel-use'.

The landscape was dominated by an abundance of oil palms (Elaeis oleifera), and along the way we also spotted a few Bactris ferrugina growing alongside the road. The plants were quite tall and again we needed the collecting pole to harvest some seeds, of which there were thousands. Growing with the Bactris was another Desmoncus species, again easily recognizable by the central leaf vein. This one was low and bushy probably because there were no nearby trees for it to climb into. Further down the road we saw a number of Raphia australis with their distinctive orange petioles. They were all in fruit.

We stopped at a wonderful country-club style restaurant for lunch where, curiously, the buffet lunch was charged for by weight. Our steaks were heavy, but delicious. We then carried on south, down towards Ilheus and saw several more occurrences of S. botryophora among which several trees had been cut down, perhaps for heart of palm. It is always a sad sight to see a palm that has been cut down, in this case especially so, the palms are beautiful and not at all common and to us it seems like wanton vandalism.

We drove past a hillside covered with trees heavy with purple flowers, a beautiful sight indeed in the bright sunlight and as we entered Ilheus we passed what seemed to be a palm-collector's garden, with Royals, Aiphanes, Livistona and other exotic palms growing in happy abandon.

Tonight was December 31st and we found a nice friendly hotel ('Hotel Atlantico Sul') in Ilheus. At an open-air bar in the middle of the bay we later had beers and watched the celebratory firework display across the water, amid the noisy jubilation of the locals, an excellent way to see in the New Year.

We decided to stay in the same hotel for a second night as we desperately needed to spend a day cleaning the seeds that we had collected. For this cleaning and drying process one needs a clean, flat, sunny and hot surface. We set off in the car and eventually found such a place. The coast here is all white sandy beaches but while thousands of people were enjoying their public holiday frolicking in the sea, we spent the day cleaning, cleaning, cleaning all the seeds, then spreading them out to dry off a bit in the sun, on a disused road behind one of the beaches. We collected a number of curious onlookers who really could not understand what we were doing and our Portuguese - though considerably better than it had been when we arrived - was not up to explaining. They probably thought, 'El Englatares es muito loco'. Boy, was it hot!

The following day we left the friendly hotel and headed south in the direction of Espirito Santo. Along the way, a number of Polyandrococos caudescens were to be seen, many with great bunches of unripe fruit. We also spotted stands of Syagrus botryophora along the highway. Some carried ripe yellow fruits so we decided to put the pole saw into action and had soon collected a few hundred seeds. We also collected many cuts from the sharp-edged saw grass which was growing around them. That night we stayed in a 'tres estrellas' hotel in the town of Texeira de Freitas where we tucked into a huge local meal of steak, bacon, ham and parmesan cheese, all gloriously combined to form a delightful meal.

Next morning we decided we really needed to clean some more seeds. Accordingly we looked for a suitable roadside spot as we drove south, crossing the state border into Espirito Santo, and were soon lucky enough to find the ideal location where a water spout jutted out at the side of the road into a stone basin. Running water is a bonus when cleaning seeds! We worked away for a couple of hours when some street kids sidled up to see what we were doing. Soon we had a small team helping us and they stayed all day, finally helping us pack up. We sent them on their way with R$25 apiece, a bit generous, but they had worked hard and earned every cent. We spent that night at the Park Hotel in Inhares, recovering from the heat and work of the day with a few welcome beers.

After leaving the hotel we carried on driving south, parallel with the coast, and about 30kms before Aracruz spotted a strange but beautiful Syagrus species growing in a garden and a little further along came across a stand of 5 more trees, some heavy with large fruit. We realized with awe that we were looking at the elusive Syagrus macrocarpa, believed by some to be almost extinct. We reflected on the fact that these few trees produce thousands of seeds every year yet there was not a single young plant to be seen anywhere. Whether the locals eat the seeds, or grazing animals eat the seedlings we did not know, but either way it seemed terribly sad that Nature was doing her level best to keep this species going while man was doing nothing to help. The seeds we collected we later distributed all around the globe. At least this elegant palm may survive in cultivation.

We later saw a very few isolated further specimens in remnant patches of forest, but mostly this has all been cleared for farmland, along with all and any palms that have been growing in it for hundreds of thousands of years.
Rio Bonito ('Beautiful River') was our destination that night and we found a nice hotel and, after wandering the streets for an hour, a reasonable restaurant where we celebrated our exciting palm find with the local beer. Next day we found a roadside spot to clean more seeds and this time were surrounded by a veritable football team of young kids, all eager to make a buck. The work went well and we paid off our young helpers at the end of the day, returning to the same hotel in Rio Bonito for a second night.

And that was more or less the end of our trip to Brazil. More seed cleaning the next day, then a day spent as tourists in Rio de Janiero, going by funicular railway up to the giant statue of Christ, whose outspread arms seem to encompass the entire city and which is the symbol of Brazil. An afternoon on Copacabana beach with the beautiful people and then we were off, back to chilly Europe with sun tans to remind us of the wonderful time we had had in this fascinating and friendly, palm-rich country.


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