Parajubaea - Palms with Altitude

An in-depth look at all the species in this exiting genus, slowly becoming more widely available.
by Imtiaz McDoom-Gafoor, London, UK
Chamaerops No.33 Winter 1998/99, published online 26-09-1999

There are three species of this beautiful, high altitude palm from South America growing in the mountain ranges of the Andes in Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia. They are Parajubaea cocoides, Parajubaea torallyi and Parajubaea sunkha . Although rarely grown outside their natural habitat, they offer the possibility of growing another pinnate leaf palm in the milder parts of western and southern Europe which are not subject to temperature extremes.

P. cocoides is grown in Colombia and Ecuador between 2500 and 3000 m. elevation. It is only known from cultivated sources and is possibly a cultivated form of P. torallyi. The cool Andean climate sees little seasonal variation in temperature throughout the year with day temperatures barely into the low 20's c., and frosts occur at night. In Britain it has been grown to a 3 ft seedling which succumbed to -5c (24f) in a London garden. However, it has survived -8c (18f) in both Italy and northern California but was completely defoliated so perhaps its lowest endurance is somewhere between these two levels.

P. torallyi is widespread in Bolivia growing between 2700 and 3400 m. elevation. It is considered the hardiest of the three species as it originates in a climate with more distinct seasonal variation in temperate than Ecuador and also grows at a higher elevation. The climate regularly sees lows of -7c (20f) in the Bolivian Andes during the July and August winter months. Growing in sandstone mountains at the unbelievable altitude of up to 3400 m makes this the highest elevation palm in the world! It is possibly faster growing than cocoides but is still rarely grown outside of South America.

Some similarities are found between cocoides and torallyi such as habit. They both have smooth and tall stems, long petioles and regularly arranged leaflets. There are also two forms within the torallyi species - P. torallyi var. torallyi and P. torallyi var. microcarpa, which differ in both fruit size and the shape of the endocarp. They are restricted to steep inter-Andean valleys where they grow amongst spiny vegetation between 2700 and 3400 m. elevation. Here they are separated by several mountain ranges and influenced by distinctive climatic conditions. A third species was described as recently as 1996 - Parajubaea sunkha. "Sunkha" refers to the abundance of fibres the palm produces which the local people use for many purposes such as making rope and baskets. It grows in dry valleys in semi-deciduous forests also in Bolivia at the lowest elevation of the three species, 1700 up to 2200 m elevation. It is unlikely to be in cultivation anywhere outside its natural habitat and very little is known about it.

The potential of Parajubaea - particularly P. torallyi - in a cool temperate climate such as mild coastal areas of Britain and Ireland influenced by the Gulf Stream, northern Spain or parts of western France lies in two areas. Firstly, its appearance gives this palm an elegant, tropical look. The feather leaves are graceful, wispy and arching, shiny green above, greyish white beneath, on a tall, very slim trunk resembling Cocos nucifera, the coconut palm, to which it is related. It is also related to Jubaea chilensis from Chile which is reflected in its name - Parajubaea . More importantly, it has a degree of frost tolerance, especially the Bolivian species, which have a more leathery texture, perhaps an adaptation to its colder environment.

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