Ecuador - Pearl of the Amazon

By Tobias W. Spanner, Tizianstr. 44, 80638 Muenchen, Germany,
Chamaerops No. 50 - published online 31-01-2005

Ceroxylon amazonicum and Wettinia maynensis in forest remnants on a steep mountainside between Limon and Gualaquiza, Morona-Santiago, Ecuador, 1600 m a.s.l..
Photo by M. Gibbons & T. W. Spanner

While Central Europe was hit by the worst cold in years in January 2003, I was lucky enough to spend a couple of weeks in Ecuador. The smallest country in South America abounds with palms, almost too many to handle. On arriving in the capital, Quito, located at 2800 m in the central valley between the two main ranges of the Andes, rows of Parajubaea greet visitors right outside the airport. Most of Ecuador’s population lives in this heavily farmed central valley, a high plateau that is characterized by a year-round cool, dry and sunny climate, and runs north to south through most of the country. The native Parajubaea cocoides thrives everywhere, as do other “exotic” palms such as Phoenix canariensis, Jubaea and Trachycarpus. The capital also boasts a few rare palms such as Ceroxylon ventricosum and C. parvifrons that grace some of the city parks. Quito is just half an hour’s drive south from the Equator, and one can feel the intensity of the sun even though the temperatures are anything but tropical due to the altitude. Some of the world’s highest volcanoes such as the snow-capped Cotopaxi, Chimborazo and Tungurahua, many of them still active on occasion, protect the valley on the east and west and form some breathtaking scenery, such that you will find in few other places on earth.

Above 3000 m on the cold and cloudy flanks of the mountains stretches the paramo, a most unusual type of vegetation formed mainly by hard, brown grass, giant Bromeliads (Puya), Blechnum ferns with small trunks and, in some places, millions of Espeletia, palm-like plants with soft, rabbit-ear-like leaves and bright yellow flowers that give away their close relationship with such profane plants as dandelions and sunflowers. The Puyas look a lot like the more familiar but completely unrelated Dasylirion with their large rosettes of strap-like, prickly, bluish leaves. Even their flowering structure, which arises as a huge spike from the center of the plant, resembles that of the Mexican Sotols (Dasylirion). Due to the constant low temperatures and the humidity brought in by a never ending procession of clouds from the Pacific or Amazon slopes of the mountains, organic matter breaks down slowly and builds up to form a thick, peaty layer.

The Pacific and Amazon slopes of the Andes, where the constant onslaught of rain-laden clouds brings plenty of precipitation (several meters per year in some areas), are the areas with the greatest diversity of palms. Coming from the mountain passes at 3500 or 4000 m in the Paramo, one descends through enchanted cloud forests, abounding with tree ferns, bromeliads, orchids and high altitude palms such as Ceroxylon and Geonoma. At mid-altitudes, palms become even more plentiful. Several Wettinia, spiny Aiphanes, slender Prestoea, stunning Dictyocaryum and Iriartea, and the beautiful Euterpe precatoria can be seen, sometimes in great numbers. In the northwest, the famous Ivory Nut Palms, Phytelephas, cover many hillsides with their unkempt crowns. The giant heads of incredibly hard seeds are still collected in vast numbers by local peoples for the manufacture of small, ivory-like carvings that are sold in local markets and in souvenir shops as well as being exported around the world.

A specific palm we had come to revisit on this trip was a rare species of Ceroxylon native only to the foothills of the Andes in southeastern Ecuador. Ceroxylon have a reputation of requiring constant cool temperatures to grow well. While this may indeed be true for all the high altitude species, there are some that will tolerate moderate heat, in particular C. alpinum, which has a range extending down to 1100 m on the western slopes of the Andes. One little known and very rare species, however, Ceroxylon amazonicum, is definitely the most heat tolerant in the genus and, surprisingly, thrives even under almost tropical conditions. While we discovered that in the upper reaches of its range it grows in cloud and rainforests to around 2000 m (6500 ft.) a.s.l. alongside species such as Wettinia, Ceroxylon echinulatum and Geonoma, it also descends down into the steamy tropical lowland forests as low as 800 m (2600 ft.), where palms such as the stunning Mauritia flexuosa, Syagrus sancona and Oenocarpus bataua are seen close by.

While we found that the distribution and altitudinal range of C. amazonicum is actually much greater than previously recorded (by Colombian botanist Gloria Galeano, who described the species in 1995), and covers many mountain ranges in southeastern Ecuador, it is seriously threatened by deforestation for agriculture, namely cattle pastures. Some populations we had observed on an earlier trip a few years before had visibly declined by the degradation of their natural habitat. In other places, the palms were plentiful, and allowed to remain after the forest around them had been cut down. Despite being saved from the chainsaw, these populations would not be able to survive for very long. Ceroxylon seedlings, like many other palms adapted to growing in dense forests, cannot establish themselves outside of the protective canopy of forest trees that saves them from the scorching tropical sun and foraging cattle. Thus, such populations are effectively kept from rejuvenating and doomed unless the forest is allowed to re-establish itself.

C. amazonicum is arguably the most attractive of the Ceroxylon, forming a smooth, slender, tall trunk that carries a dense, rounded crown of flat, spreading leaves, dark green above and intensely silvery below. The silhouette of the leaf looks very even, as if all leaflets had been clipped to the same length, quite unlike any other Ceroxylon, with the possible exception of C. parvifrons. The latter, however, has a V-shaped, not a flat leaf. Unfortunately, none of the plentiful seeds we saw on the trees were ripe in January and another trip in June was required to harvest some and finally introduce this rare palm to wider cultivation. Our experiences with seedlings brought from Ecuador a few years ago have shown that it is indeed a fairly easy and very fast growing palm that should adapt itself well to many climates where Ceroxylon could not be grown so far.


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