Wine palm a very ugly 'tree'

Palmas de Ocoa, La Campana National Park is about a one hour drive out of Santiago, Chile, and famous mostly for its stands of Chilean Wine Palm, Jubaea chilensis. This species, the only one in its genus alive today, is restricted to only a few populations in central Chile. It grows further south than any other palm in South America.

Mostly it occurs on steep slopes of high mountains but in the La Campana National Park is grows in an accessible valley which Lynda and I visited under the guidance of Estela Davis and Catherine Kenrick from the Chagual Botanic Garden in Santiago.

The park also supports lots of other species restricted to this region. Our visit in autumn meant we were not destracted by many flowers but the local cactus Quisco (Echinoposis chiloensis) supports a leafless mistletoe, Tristerix aphyllus, which was in vivid red flower.

And there were the two species of large-flowering bromeliad, Puya beteroniana (with blue-green flowers) and Puya chilensis (with yellow flowers). Both had dry brown floral remnants when we visited in April.

But most importantly this is where the Chilean Wine Palm grows most abundantly today after its range has been severely reduced due to land clearing and fire, its seed traded as currency and many of the plants harvested (cut, then placed on their side to drain) for fermenting of the sap. Here, reaching up to 30 m, it towers impressively above nearby vegetation. Like the Monkey Puzzle Tree further south, it is an ‘architectural’ plant, described by Estela as like a column from a Greek or Roman temple.

Not the most elegant of columns perhaps. Charles Darwin dismissed it as 'a very ugly tree', despite it not technically being a tree but more accurately a giant grass or lily. The trunk starts out nice enough but narrows, unattractively to some, after 60 to 70 years. Noone is quite sure why this happens but one of the popular theories is that the change occurs after it first flowers, which takes about this long. It's a slow grower, and this is what an avenue of Chilean Wine Palms (in Jardín Mapulemu, in Santiago) looks like after a decade or two.

When young it can be easily mistaken for the more commonly planted, and somewhat weedy, palm from the Canary Islands - Phoenix canariensis. The difference lies with the crease in the leaflets. They fold downwards in the Chilean Wine Palm and upwards in the Canary Island Palm.

There is plenty of seed produced in the wild, and a nursery nearby within the private park 'Cocalan' was propagating large numbers for horticulture. Until recently, when it had to be removed to allow for a £35 million restoration of the Temperate House, London's Kew Gardens was home to a specimen planted as a seed in 1846 and arguably the tallest plant in a glasshouse. Here it is on its last day, just over a year ago, with only a few other palms for company.

In RBG Melbourne we have a number of specimens perhaps a 100 or more years old, growing outside. A particularly statuesque specimen (hardly narrowed at its top, interesting given its age) was planted on the lawn behind the Herbarium in 1904 by the Government Astronomer, Robert Ellery.


Stuart Read said…
muchas gracias Timoteo, mi palma favorita! Only today I was talking to a colleague ex-Argentina, who says in Uruguay there are plantations and this palm in natural situations - I'd be curious about its range. She notes an area of Argentina called 'mesopotamia' bet. 2 rivers which is also rich in J.c., apparently natural, not planted... the plot thickens. They're certainly rare /unusual to put it mildly here: Camden Park in NSW has lots and all the Macarthurs' friends seemed to get one - Euan Mills of Mt.Annan BG is propogating 1000 I think for the Nat.Arboretum of Aust., in Canberra- that'll be a future sight! Cheers, Stuart
Talking Plants said…
Gracias! It's become even more attractive to me after seeing it in this Chilean valley. I found it hard to get good information on its distribution while in South America - everyone seemed to have a different view about how rare, or not, it was. This stand is at least one of the 'strongholds' and the most southerly in nature...I think! Tim
Unknown said…
Thank you Tim for the item about the Chilean Wine Palm. There's a fine specimen in bed 31 at the Sydney RBG and I always likened it to the forefoot of some gigantic elephant standing guard over the begonia beds. Hate to disagree with Charles Darwin, but I think its beautiful.

Peter Sharp
Talking Plants said…
I agree with you Peter!
Talking Plants said…
I agree with you Peter!
Mark Russell said…
One of my favorite palms