Colombian Wax Palm Trees Fight Extinction
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Quindio Wax Palms grow high in the Colombian Andes in humid cloud forests surrounded by native pine trees, between the altitudes of 2,300 meters and 2,900 meters (7,930 – 9,700 feet). When people think of palm trees they think of sitting under the shadow of a palm swaying in the breeze on a sub-tropical beach preferably while sipping a Coco Loco through a straw from a large coconut shell. But the most famous palm trees in Colombia are the Wax Palms, or ceroxylon quindiuense.

These palms were exalted by the early settlers during their travels. The famous botanist Alexander Von Humbolt, whose travel writings inspired an adolescent Simon Bolivar, was amazed by the Wax Palms during his Colombian travels in 1801. These trees can grow up to 200 feet tall and can live up to 200 years, he noted.

Wax Palm trees Samaria Valley

Back then vast tracks of gigantic palms were common in the Andes. The white trunks punching high above the forest canopy, their crowns creating a forest above a forest. They were compared to the masts of sailboats anchored on a green sea. Humboldt later said the view of palm forests was the most moving of his travels.

The white appearance of the trunks came from a grey film of wax on the palm’s bark. The indigenous used to scrape the wax to make candles and molds for their gold and silver crafts. They used the trunks for building the walls of their homes and the palms on their thatched roofs. They would remove the inner pith of the tree and use the hollowed out cylinders for pipes and irrigation tubes. The palm’s bright orange fruit the farmers feed to the pigs.

The palms were officially named the country’s national tree back in 1985 and have been a protected species ever since.

Wax Palms are synonymous with the Colombian national park Los Nevados near Salento in the coffee triangle. The palms, native to the Andes in Colombia and northern Peru, can be found in different areas of the Andes mountain chain in northern South America. But in Colombia, 48% of the Wax Palms grow in the provinces of Quindio, Caldas and Tolima where four major Wax Palm forests can be found.

For Colombian’s, the palms symbolize triumph and victory. Images of Wax Palms can be found on Colombian money, stamps and postcards.

Wax palm seedlings in the forest

The palms have been protected for over 40 years because they are under risk of extinction. Wax Palms take 80 years to reach adult maturity and produce fruit. The fruit drops seeds to the ground and saplings emerge. It takes 20 years for the saplings to become small palm trees.

But the saplings are shade dependent. Meaning they can not survive in full sun, but only in the sheltering shade of the forest floor. The palms grow very slowly requiring 50 years or more to reach an adult phase when the main trunk will punch through the forest canopy finally reaching direct sunlight.

Why are the Wax Palms Going Extinct?

The immediate problem facing the wax palms are the landowners and farmers who have been clearing the forests over the years to mine, grow potatoes and pastures for cattle raising. Even if they don’t touch the Wax Palms themselves, by clearing the land around the palms, the seedlings will die by being burned in the full sun or be eaten by cattle and pigs.

Though no longer a practice, the locals used to chop down the small palm trees to celebrate Palm Sunday – a Christian holiday, when Jesus arrived in Jerusalem with his followers carrying palms. By cutting off the palms to sell outside the church, the farmers killed the young trees before they could reproduce.

The palms, limited by specific growing conditions, are located in cool, isolated areas. The trees can’t survive temperatures over 20 c. (70 degrees F.) Until recently, these territories were occupied by the FARC and other revolutionary groups. During the FARC presence in Colombia at this time was like the medieval ages in Europe, there was little development in these remote zones. Farmers were fleeing the countryside and not clearing lands and expanding their farms. The FARC demobilized in 2016 through peace agreements with the government.

Now after decades, the farmers are ramping up deforestation, clearing new lands, chopping down pine forests and opening land for raising cattle and the new cash crop, Hass avocadoes. This is drawing considerable concern for the future of the wax palms.

Wax Palms sitting on cleared land in full sun

Wax Palm Reserves to the Rescue

The initiatives to save the wax palms has seen the emergence of Wax Palm Reserves, a program where private farms and the government work together. Wax Palms are mostly in protected areas where it is illegal to cut down the palms and the forests around them. With government help, the farmers are organizing Wax Palm Reserves based on agricultural tourism business models. These reserves are viable with the money brought in through tourism and donations from ecological entities.

The reserves conduct tours educating the public on the story of the wax palms. They serve lunches, do special events and sponsor other programs. Today they no longer cut down their forests but are planting transplanted seedlings in nearby woodlands where the palms are fenced in, protected and can prosper.

Most of these farmers realize this work is a labor of love and they will probably never be around to see one of these seedlings grow into mature tree.

I was at a reserve in Valle Samaria near Salamina where for 50,000 cop ($15) they will plant a seedling in your name and promise to cultivate it to full maturity.

Where to see the Wax Palms?

Salento – Acaime Natural Reserve

The most famous Wax Palms are located in the Colombian national park Los Nevados near the tourist town of Salento in the coffee triangle just north of Periera. In the mornings one can catch a jeep in the town square which will take you into the mountains above Salento into the Valle de Cocora – a 20 minute ride. The jeep leaves you at a visitor center where a trail leading into the park begins. A gentle 2-3 hours walk up the mountain takes one to the Acaime Natural Reserve, the most important Wax Palm zone in Colombia. Here one can walk amongst the giant palms. But the palms here are scattered and not as thick as Wax Palm groves found in other parts of Colombia. Past the reserve, the path continues up to the snow-capped Nevado del Tolima – a three day climb up to 5,125 meters or 16,814 ft.

One of the owners of the El Valle Reserve explaining the growth process of the Wax Palms

Salamina – El Valle della Samaria

Located outside of the village of Salamina is Wax Palm Reserve called – El Valle della Samaria. One can rent a jeep in Salamina to take you up to the reserve, about an hour’s drive, for 150,000 cop ($35). The driver will wait for you while the owners of the Reserve give you a tour of the farm explaining the story of the Wax Palms. You’ll walk through cow pastures and forests at the altitude of 2,900 meters or 5,230 ft. Lunch is available after the tour. A cheaper option would be to take a bus from Salamina to the town of San Felix and walk to the reserve on foot – roughly a one hour hike. The road from Salamina to El Valle is difficult due to continual landslides.

Toche – La Carbonera

The Tochecita River Basin is a secluded canyon in Central Colombia near the little town of Toche, Tolima. Here the largest and most dense stand of Wax Palms in the world can be found in a remote area called La Carbonera. An ancient trail, called the Quindio Pass, comes through Toche. Jeeps full of young adventurers travel this road everyday. Cycling outfitters haul clients and bicycles up to a hilltop farm, allowing them to enjoy the dramatic forest views as they descend. Local farmers reinvented their properties into Wax Palm Reserves. They charge 5,000 COP for admission and serve beverages and snacks. Many of them are phasing out of cow farming to concentrate on tourism.

Toche can be reached from Salento. It can also be reached from the town of Cajamarca in the province of Tolima. The road is very difficult due to the mud and continual landslides and hiring a jeep to get close enough to hike is necessary. Toche is also near the volcano Cerro Machin. This is an active volcano and one of the most dangerous in the world. You can walk to the top where there are hot springs. One can also walk around the main crater of the volcano which looks like a swampy area. Birds thrive here and a forest of Wax Palms can be found nearby.

Jon McInnes

Jon McInnes is a journalist who has been traveling to Colombia since 1972. He travels to Colombia and other parts of South America yearly and writes for newspapers, food, wine and travel publications. He currently lives between Colombia and Detroit. You can also follow him on facebook and contact him via email at: jonmcinnesjon@gmail.com

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