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Two Palms from Costa Rica and their
Ethnobotanical Importance
by Javier Martín

President of Bosque Protegido S.A., A Conservation Company

I live in a neotropical country, in Costa Rica, Central America, between Nicaragua and Panama. I grew up between palms. My dad has a farm near the tropical wet forest of the Caribbean slope. This is close to the ocean, with a high temperature and humid weather--a tropical rainforest.

I used to walk with my dad in the forest between small, shade-loving Bactris, Chamadoreas and Geonomas, and the enormous Socrateas and Iriarteas, with their stilt roots that resembled the “several legs of a walking monster palm”. The mysterious but majestic presence of the Welfias, with their rakis covered by fruits, made them look like the hair of a bronzy giant.

At the age of six, of course, I didn’t know their scientific names. The forest was a cathedral hiding all sorts of magical mysteries. When I grew up I became a naturalist guide and I learned taxonomy of Costa Rican plants and got hooked on palms. Lots of these palms are no longer there; they have died due to human action. Some of them were taken because for their hearts (palmito), a delicacy in cuisine, and some of them died because they are shade adapted and the huge trees that act as their “sunroof” were logged for their precious wood, sending the shade-loving palms to a slow death.

Not accepting a passive position on this, I decided to do something. I became an activist for conservation in my country. It’s an interesting goal with numerous tasks, one of which is what I am doing right now…writing about palms in Costa Rica. I write on the Internet so that anybody in the world that likes palms may enjoy it. And, through this, anybody that wants to may become part of the worldwide solution for our environmental crisis.

Several palms in Costa Rica have ethnobotanical importance, but two of them are interesting because of the controversy regarding whether or not they were introduced to Costa Rica by the pre-Columbian natives. Both (Acrocomia aculeata and Bactris gasipaes) are currently used by costarricans, especially Bactris. Acrocomia is typical of the north Pacific region of Costa Rica, while Bactris is typical for all of the Caribbean slope.

Acrocomia aculeata
Acrocomia aculeata is a large palm that grows abundantly in the pastureland of Guanacaste Province, Costa Rica. It is distributed from Mexico to northern Argentina (Henderson, 1995).Photo copyright © 1998, Geri Prall. Poveda and Sanchez consider it native to Costa Rica (personal communication). This species is easy to recognize because of the large spines at the base of the leaf petiole. The trunk is tall and massive and the pinnate leaves grow in an irregular disposition, giving the appearance of a giant bottlebrush. Cattle disperse the palm seeds: when a hungry cow eats the fruits, the seed passes through the animal’s digestive system and is defecated far away. Formerly, the natural disperser was probably the tapir (Poveda, personal communication).

This palm is highly esteemed by the local people as the source of an alcoholic beverage. During the dry season in the dry forest life zone of Guanacaste, a palm is cuted--a hole is made in the trunk. After a short time, sometimes a few hours, a liquid flows and accumulates in the hole. At the beginning it’s a sweet and soft beverage, then in a few hours the fermentation process begins and it turns into a very strong alcoholic beverage--some sort of “wine”. The people collect this liquid, little by little, day by day, sometimes for three months. The wine that’s produced by this palm has the local name of Coyol. During December through April everybody drinks this beverage in Guanacaste province, especially in Santa Cruz. The people I have talked to about Coyol all insist that, a day or two after drinking it, if you stay for some time under the sun you will get drunk again.

Bactris gasipaes
A very important palm form Costa Rica is Bactris gasipaes. This palm hasn’t been found living in the wild; it was thought to have been introduced during pre-Colombian times, but recent excavations conducted in Costa Rica demonstrate the presence of seeds of a palm that is now considered a proto-B. gasipaes.

Photo copyright © 1998, Jody Haynes.When boiled, the fruit of these palms become a very good tasting non-sweet food item, which was the source of starch for the locals during and after pre-Colombian times. In present day, the Pejivalle (local name) is sold at the corner markets of San José, the capital of Costa Rica. The pejivalle fruit industry is big in the country, supporting a significant number of families that depend on it.

But probably the best use people have made from B. gasipaes in Costa Rica are the plantations of these palms as a source of heart of palm. Formerly, hearts of palm were taken from the wild, killing 100 or 200 hundred year-old palms to get a piece of 'heart' no thickerPhoto copyright © 1997, Jody Haynes. than a salami and no longer than two feet. This practice, of course, forced palms of the genera Welfia, Euterpe, Prestoea, Geonoma, and others to near extinction. It is sad, but the practice of cutting wild species of palms for the heart still happens here, especially during Holy week. During this time, Catholics are not supposed to eat meat, so the traditional diet during this week includes heart of palm. The silly thing is that some people cut wild ones while there are big plantations of Bactris palms to supply the demand of such a delicacy in cuisine.

The B. gasipaes plantations bring not only a booming agricultural industry but also relief to the endangered species from our forests. Additionally, the wood from B. gasipaes is very hard, therefore it has been used for millennia for the handles of tools--like spears and knifes--as well as hand crafts and other things.

If you are interested in trying some Coyol, becoming part of a patrol in the rainforest to protect wild palms during Holy week, or just enjoying the almost 100 native palm species, you should consider visiting Costa Rica some day.

Javier Martín
President of Bosque Protegido S.A., A Conservation Company.
And Naturalist Guide.
September 1998

Note: For further information, please write the author (click on his name above).

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