palmstorytitle.gif (2391 bytes)

Collecting Mauritia flexuosa in Trinidad, West Indies
By Robert Wilson

“What 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.

Almost 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.

When 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. 

As 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 lilies.

"Island" of royal palms, Roystonea sp.

After 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 trees, Roystonea 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.

As 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.

  1. Ensure 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.

  2. Wear 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.

  3. Make 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.

  4. Carry 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. 

  5. WEAR INSECT REPELLANT!  Mosquitoes, the likes of which I have rarely seen, were a constant.  

  6. If howler monkeys are overhead, they will welcome you to their habitat by throwing feces and urinating on you!  Make a wide berth.

  7. Don’t 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.

  8. Do 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.

Observing 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.

PACSOF Home Page

VPE Home Page

VPE Table of Contents

VPE Photo gallery

Virtual Palm Encyclopedia Site Map
Powered by FreeFind.

This site is copyrighted © 1998-2006, Palm & Cycad Societies of Florida, Inc.
For questions or comments, e-mail the webmaster.
Internet hosting provided by Zone 10, Inc.