The Chilean Wine Palm

PHILIP W. RUNDEL, Professor of Organismic Biology, Ecology, and Evolution

One of the most striking palms present in MEMBG-indeed in any botanical garden-is the Chilean wine palm, Jubaea chilensis. This species has at times been called the "Incredible Hulk" of the palm world because of its massive diameters that reach to 1.5 meters or more (five feet) and height that can reach to 30 m. Individual leaves are 2 to 4 meters in length, producing a crown up to 9 meters across. Although most travelers to Chile in past centuries marveled at the beauty of the Chilean wine palm, there were some who were less enchanted. Charles Darwin, after visiting Chile in the 1830s, commented in his famous Voyage of the Beagle that, "These palms are, for their family, very ugly trees." The generic name Jubaea honors a relatively obscure Numidian king, Juba I who was involved in civil wars against Julius Caesar in North Africa. His son, Juba II, later fell back into favor with the Emperor Octavius and married the daughter of Marc Antony and Cleopatra.

The Chilean wine palm has a natural environment very similar to that of southern California. Its home is lies in valleys and on slopes of the coastal ranges of central Chile, a region that shares a mediterranean-type climate with California. The matorral and evergreen woodlands of central Chile where these palms grow are comparable in many respects to the chaparral and live oak woodlands of the Santa Monica Mountains. Thus, one can get a fair idea of this natural habitat by imaging large stands of massive Chilean wine palms growing in either Topanga or Malibu Canyon! Although natural fires are comparatively rare in central Chile as compared with California, the massive fibrous trunks of Chilean wine palm make them impervious to fires.

Chilean wine palms thrive in the mediterranean climates of southern California which are so much like their natural range in Chile. Once established, they are reasonably drought resistant, although successful establishment requires a relatively deep and well-drained soil for the root system. Additionally, they are surprising cold tolerant for a palm, perhaps because they occur naturally at elevations up to about 1,500 meters. Aided by the buffering capacity of their large trunks, they will readily survive temperatures well below freezing. Chilean wine palms have been grown successfully in gardens in England, northern Italy, and Switzerland.

The inflorescence of Chilean wine palm arises out of the axils of the lower leaves, forming a structure more than a meter in length with separate male and female flowers. The fruits, born in large numbers, are yellow-orange ovoid drupes about 4 centimeters long. The seeds, one within each drupe, are spherical in shape and 2 to 2.5 cm in diameter.

When the Spanish first entered central Chile in the early 16th century, they found literally millions of Chilean wine palms spread over valleys and slopes throughout much of the coast ranges. Isolated as this area was from the other Spanish colonies, the conquistadors quickly learned from the indigenous populations that these palms had a variety of valuable uses. The most important of these was to produce large quantities of a sugary liquid from the collection of palm sap. This syrup could be used directly as a sweetener, a use that continues today, or allowed to ferment to produce an alcoholic beverage. It is this latter use that gave rise to the common name for the palm, although this use is rare today. The palm seeds, called coquitos, are also edible, and the pinnately compound palm fronds were widely used by the indigenous peoples of central Chile as a thatch for constructing shelters.

The process of collecting the palm sap requires cutting down the tree. The trunk is felled with the top angled down a slope. Then the leaves are removed and a razor thin slice of tissue is cut from the apex. The sap is then collected as it drips from this cut tip. To maintain sap flow a new slice is made daily over six to eight weeks or more, over which time as much as 300 to 400 liters of liquid are collected. This liquid is then boiled to concentrate the sugar and packaged to become miel de palma, palm honey.

Four centuries of heavy utilization of Chilean wine palms have drastically reduced their numbers and range. Today, this palm is primarily restricted to three large stands with a total population of about 100,000 trees. These stands are largely protected, although limited harvesting is still allowed in one of these sites, Cocalán, for the production of palm honey. Whereas Chilean wine palm cannot be considered to be an endangered species, local conservation groups have taken a strong interest in recent years in promoting reforestation of these palms. There are now many Chilean nurseries cultivating palm seedlings, with an established goal to quintuple the existing populations of these trees over the next 30 years. Anyone with an interest in the conservation of the Chilean wine palm should look at the web site for the Fundación para la Recuperación y Fomento de la Palma Chilena .

Although difficult but not entirely impossible to find here in California, palm honey is readily available in grocery stores in Chile. The production is far too small to supply and international market. It is sold in cans as pure palm honey or with a few coquitos of the palm added. Palm honey has many uses, all delicious ones. In can be poured over fresh fruit, added to ice cream or yogurt, or, my favorite, applied as a syrup for pancakes. The flavor is not strong and more like corn syrup than maple syrup.

While mature trees of Chilean wine palm are striking when used in landscaping, this is a not a palm for the impatient gardener. Seeds commonly take 6 to 18 months to germinate and growth is slow. No one really knows the age that large trees in Chile can attain but there are reports that they are able to survive for hundreds of years.

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