flexuosa in Trinidad, West Indies
By Robert Wilson
would drive someone to get out of bed at 3.30 am, drive over 50 miles on often
body- jarring roads, only to endure being bitten by numerous mosquitoes and
other blood sucking insects?” This is
the question my wife asks as I get ready to roll out of bed and prepare for my
expedition to the Nariva Swamp and nearby forests, on the southeastern section
of Trinidad, West Indies. It is a
rhetorical question, because I know that she knows the answer: Palms!
I no longer deny what has long been obvious to her--that collecting and
growing palms (cycads, orchids and succulents to name a few other plants) is my
one obsession. Today’s object of
desire is the moriche palm, Mauritia flexuosa.
one year ago, I had taken a similar trip with a few other (non-palmaholic)
friends, checking out an area that had been threatened, as state lands were
cleared for agriculture. At one
time, Mauritia flexuosa was much more abundant, and was once a primary
source of food for macaws and other small animals. However, habitat destruction
has decreased the number of palm trees in the area.
A lack of food sources, along with poaching, has resulted in a decrease
in the presence of these beautiful birds. An
uproar by the ecologically conscious resulted in increased enforcement of
habitat destruction laws and a reprieve for the endangered flora and fauna.
I was making a return visit to collect some seeds of the moriche, a palm
much utilized in South America for food and shelter, but not much cultivated
outside of its natural habitat.
I eagerly arrived at the pre-arranged location, my guides were not yet there.
The weather looked a bit ominous. Since
this is the Caribbean, I pay little heed to the weather forecasts.
It is pretty much the same every day, rain in the rainy season, hot in
the dry season. Unfortunately, we
were now in the wet portion of the year and it had rained throughout the
previous day. High winds had even
blown off a few roofs. By the time
my guides arrived the weather was once more threatening.
we turned off the main road into the less densely populated areas, I began
looking for the numerous birds that I had encountered on my previous visit.
Red-breasted blackbirds, whistling tree ducks, yellow-hooded blackbirds,
wattled jacamars, turquoise tanagers, herons, and other birds went about their
daily tasks of hunting for food, mating, building nests and avoiding predators
while putting on a wonderful exhibition. The
magnificence of nature never felt closer as we observed the southern lap wing
taking flight against a backdrop of emerald green leaves and pink and white Nymphaea
"Island" of royal palms, Roystonea sp.
one mile we came across a stand of royal palms (photo to right). What an awesome sight! I
jumped out of the car, camera in hand, and quickly framed the view, focused, and
fired off several shots. Royal palm
sp., can be seen all over Trinidad and Tobago, but all others pale in
comparison to the majestic palms that we saw that day, standing tall, many over
100 feet in their natural habitat.
we left the paved road behind, we came upon a man walking along the track.
We offered him a ride. That turned
out to be one of the best decisions we made that day.
He indicated that, because of the rain the previous day, the “road”
was nearly impassable in places. As we
dropped him off, he indicated that if we should get stuck we should give him a
call as he owned a tractor and would be able to assist us. As we proceeded, we learned several lessons that would be helpful
to anyone venturing into habitat to collect seeds/plants.
that your vehicle is well-suited to the terrain! Within two minutes of dropping off our new friend, I was
stuck in a muddy area that was well covered with water.
It was not the only time that day that we would need the assistance
of our new-found friend.
tall boots! Then you can wade
into water and use a stick to determine the depth.
They also come in handy when walking through forested areas covered
by a carpet of dead leaves ……. “Was
that a snake you just stepped on?” It
appeared to be a pile of leaves. Camouflage
in nature hides a lot of unpleasant surprises.
sure one of your guides can climb!!! The
M. flexuosa trees that were loaded with ripe fruit were all over 40
feet tall. With the use of
ingenious rods made from the leaves of Attalea and the trunks of
other trees, we were able to collect an adequate number of seeds.
When seeds and debris are coming down, don’t look up; direct
contact can be painful. Yes,
ripe M. flexuosa seeds are as hard as golf balls!
I have the bumps and bruises to prove it.
a copy of Henderson's Field Guide to Palms of the Americas (which I
don’t have but will be my next purchase) or other appropriate books that
can help identify palms. I came
across many palms that I have known by their local names (peewah, gru-gru
etc.) since childhood. Being
unable to relate them to their scientific name was frustrating.
I did observe thousands of Attalea sp.
seedlings and trees, no doubt dispersed by howler monkeys who find
the fruit a real delicacy.
INSECT REPELLANT! Mosquitoes,
the likes of which I have rarely seen, were a constant.
howler monkeys are overhead, they will welcome you to their habitat by
throwing feces and urinating on you! Make
a wide berth.
over-collect seeds or plants. Limit
the amount of seeds collected from one tree or area, thereby ensuring that
animals that depend on them for food are not handicapped. Be judicious in your choice of seedlings.
Ensure that the species remains viable in habitat and your seedlings
will survive transplanting. Moist
newspapers help retain moisture to roots and minimize transplant shock.
check out palms growing in habitat. The
thrill is worth any discomfort you may have to tolerate.
At the end of a successful day, all will be forgotten.
palms in habitat can give you a lot of information regarding their culture.
As far as Mauritia flexuosa is concerned, the best-grown specimens
can be found in what can be considered muck. At
the base of one tree was an incredible mound of decaying organic matter.
The circumference of that tree was approximately 48 inches!
Mauritia flexuosa can be rheophytic, therefore constant moisture
is recommended. I also recognized
one of my errors in growing this palm. The
forest floor is a very dark place, yet the seedlings thrived.
I would recommend at least 80% shade for young palms.
Mauritia flexuosa is an emergent palm, so adults can tolerate a
lot more light.
My collecting trip was well worth any discomfort and inconvenience I may have had to endure. I can’t wait for my next viewing and collecting trip--this time into the rainforest. In the meantime, I’ll be ordering Palms of the Americas and looking for stronger insect repellent!
Click on the photos below to enlarge.
|Four moriche palms in habitat||Moriche palm crown||Moriche palm trunk detail||Moriche palm growing under marshy conditions|
|Moriche palm seedling (note the Heliconia flowers behind)||Moriche palm inflorescences||Moriche palm infructescences||Moriche palm fruits|
This article was originally published in the
December 2002 issue of the Palm & Cycad Times,
the publication of the Palm Beach Palm & Cycad Society, and is reprinted here with permission.
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