The Travels of Jubaea

By: Scott Zona

Scott Zona, PhD, is a botanist with a long-standing interest in palms. He is co-editor of Palms, the journal of…

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Chilean palm (Jubaea chilensis) in its natural habitat. Hacienda Cocalán, Las Cabras, Chile. Photograph by L Alberto Gonzalez

Chilean palm (Jubaea chilensis) in its natural habitat. Hacienda Cocalán, Las Cabras, Chile. Photograph by L Alberto Gonzalez

The Chilean palm (Jubaea chilensis) is an aristocrat among cultivated palms. Few palms require the investment of time that Jubaea does, but the rewards are self-evident. In a garden setting, this palm reigns with a natural grace and gravitas that no other palm can match. Now widely grown in California, from the Bay Area to San Diego, it was not always at home in the Golden State. The journey of Jubaea chilensis, from its home in central Chile to its rightful place on the horticultural throne, is a remarkable tale indeed.

The species now known as Jubaea chilensis first came to the notice of European botanists in Caspar Bauhin’s Pinax, published in 1623, in which it was described as “species palmae, quae Coquillo dicitur in Chile, fructu suaviore” [“palm species with sweet fruit known as Coquillo in Chile”]. Bauhin was uninformed about the habit or appearance of the palm and did not have a specimen of the palm at hand, but simply repeated what he had learned from other sources, perhaps sailors or merchants.

Bernabé Cobo, a Jesuit priest from Lima, Peru, described the “Cocos de Chile” in his book, Historia del Nuevo Mundo, completed in 1653 but not published until 1890-1893. Cobo described the general appearance of the palm and that of the fruits, its place of origin, and the protracted juvenile period. He noted that a forty-year-old palm cultivated in Lima had not yet flowered. Cobo correctly associated Jubaea with the genus Cocos (the coconut palm), to which it is now known to be related.

For many decades thereafter, the palm remained unknown, or at least ignored, outside its native Chile. A more comprehensive account of the palm and its first scientific name were published in 1808 by Giovanni Molina in his Saggio sulla Storia Naturale del Chili, translated into English by Henry Boyd as The Geographical, Natural and Civil History of Chili. He described the palm accurately, noting its overall appearance, the arching leaves, the peduncular bract, and the size of the fruit “which does not exceed that of a walnut.” Molina waxed poetic in his description of the palm: “. . . nothing can be more beautiful than to see one of these trees covered with fruit, shaded by the upper branches [leaves] which bend over in the form of an arch.” He named it Palma chilensis Molina, which is the basis for the current name. In the English second edition, he reclassified it as Cocos chilensis (Molina) Molina, in recognition of the obvious relationship with Cocos.

In 1816, Karl Sigismund Kunth obtained material collected in Chile by Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland during their epic exploration of South America. Although Humboldt and Bonpland must have seen Jubaea alive and growing, neither was moved to record his impressions of the palm or its habitat. Kunth described the genus as new, naming it Jubaea, after Juba II (ca 25 BC to 23 AD), the king of the ancient kingdom of Mauretania (an area corresponding to western Algeria and northern Morocco), but he did not explain why he associated this palm with Juba. Kunth named the species J. spectabilis, an appropriately grand appellation and one that was widely used throughout the nineteenth century. At the time, Kunth questioned whether his new species might be the same as Molina’s Cocos chilensis. As more specimens became available and the flora of Chile became better known, botanists realized that C. chilensis and J. spectabilis were indeed one species; in 1895, in keeping with the principle of nomenclatural priority, the French botanist Henri Ernest Baillon made the combination Jubaea chilensis (Molina) Bail, the name by which the palm is known today.

Perhaps the most famous European to take note of Jubaea chilensis was Charles Darwin, who, unlike Molina, was unmoved by the sight of large numbers of them in central Chile. Upon visiting Chile on 16 August 1834, Darwin wrote,

These palms are, for their family, ugly trees. Their stem is very large, and of a curious form, being thicker in the middle than at the base or top. They are excessively numerous in some parts of Chile, and valuable on account of a sort of treacle made from the sap.

Jubaea Travels to Europe (1840s-1850s)

Sometime between 1843 and 1846, Jubaea chilensis arrived at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where it thrived in the greenhouses. In the 1870s, a specimen in a tub was displayed outside Kew’s main gate. Later, that palm was planted in the Temperate House, where it flowered and fruited for the first time in 1950—at more than one hundred years of age! The original specimen from the 1840s can still be seen at Kew, although it is now touching the roof of the conservatory.

Jubaea chilensis never became wildly popular in Victorian England, perhaps because of its rarity, slow rate of growth, sensitivity to cold, and, ultimately, its inconveniently large size. Nevertheless, William Robinson, the great Irish gardener and author, was enthusiastic about J. chilensis, saying that it may be “grown in tubs in the conservatory in winter, and placed in the open air in summer,” adding the subtropical touch for which Robinson was keen. It was usually depicted in period gardening books as a tub plant, which gave no hint to the ultimate size of the species. In Torquay, in southern England, these palms have been grown outside since about 1900; they may be tub plants that outgrew their conservatories.

An 1843 catalog of the plants cultivated at Muséum D’Histoire Naturelle of Paris includes Jubaea—the first record of Jubaea growing on the continent. No additional information was provided, but we must assume that the palm was cultivated in a heated greenhouse. In 1856, Jubaea chilensis (as J. spectabilis) was recorded in four botanical gardens and private collections in Germany, also presumably under glass. By 1857, it was listed in a catalog of plants growing in the botanical gardens of Amsterdam, Netherlands; shortly thereafter, it was listed in the botanical gardens of Leiden, Utrecht, and Rotterdam. By the second half of the nineteenth century, its march through the glasshouses and orangeries of northern Europe was well underway, with a future beckoning in the milder Mediterranean climes, closer in character to its origins.

Jubaea and the Grand Tour (1850s-1880s)

Like most aristocratic youth in the nineteenth century, Jubaea toured southern Europe, starting in Portugal, traveling through the French Riviera, and settling in Italy. In Portugal, it was invited to the Palacio das Necesidades by King Don Fernando around 1850. The palm was purchased from Belgium’s L Van Houtte, who dispatched his own collectors to South America and imported seeds directly from Chile. A specimen planted in the open ground in the palace gardens between 1856 and 1858 was only 1.5 meters (five feet) tall. By 1876, its trunk was already almost ten meters (thirty-three feet) tall and over 1.33 meters (4.25 feet) in diameter, and it was widely acclaimed as the most beautiful specimen in Europe. Elsewhere in Portugal, remarkable specimens were grown in the Duke de Palmella Park, near Lisbon, at the home of André Leroy, and at the famous garden of Villar d’Allen, in Porto, where they can still be seen today.

Shortly after making landfall in Portugal, Jubaea moved to the south of France, where Charles Naudin was one of the early champions of this peregrinate palm and, in a letter to fellow horticulturist and palm aficionado Benjamin Chabaud (2 April 1881), claimed to have “invented” Jubaea as an ornamental palm for the Côte d’Azur. Villa Thuret, where Naudin worked, acquired seeds between 1854 and 1860; many of the J. chilensis palms at Villa Thuret today date from those introductions. The specimens at Villa Thuret flowered and fruited for the first time in 1894 and regularly thereafter, becoming an important seed source for additional plantings along the Côte d’Azur.

By the 1880s, Jubaea was continuing its eastward Grand Tour to Italy. As in Portugal and France, Jubaea became a sought-after palm by those who could afford it, as well as by botanical gardens eager to add this rare Chilean beauty to their collections. Specimens were planted in the Orto Botanico in Florence in 1884, and shortly thereafter at the villa of the great Florentine palm botanist Odoardo Beccari. Both specimens are alive and well today. Records from Baron Ricasoli’s Casa Bianca, in Porto Ercole, list J. chilensis among the palms present in the garden in 1888. Good specimens from the late nineteenth century are also known from Pallanza, along Lake Maggiore in northern Italy.

Jubaea chilensis was an aristocratic palm for the rich and famous of southern Europe, a visible symbol of wealth and privilege. It was expensive to acquire, slow to grow, and massive in size. Only the finest gardens of the region could afford to grow it and display it well. Fortunately, many of the gardens still exist, and beautiful mature specimens of Jubaea can be seen today in the gardens of villas and chateaux of the region, as well as in public parks and avenues.

Antipodean Travels

The itinerary of Jubaea chilensis in Australia is not well documented, but, at about the same time Jubaea made its appearance in southern Europe, determined trans-oceanic travel brought this palm to the Australian continent, its cultivation aided by titled advocates. In 1868, Baron Ferdinand von Mueller, then director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, reported that he had not yet planted out the regal palms that were to be the nucleus of the cold-hardy palm collection. He also introduced the palm to Victoria, where the National Trust of Australia, Victoria recognizes the historical significance of one specimen of J. chilensis at Cororooke House, near Colac. The palm is said to have been planted by the Duke of Edinburgh in 1867, during his tour of the Western District. Australia’s Significant Tree Registry also lists several large specimens, but the date of planting is known for only one, a specimen at the Geelong Botanic Garden, planted around 1869. Two specimens of J. chilensis were planted in the Adelaide Botanic Gardens in July, 1901, by the Duke and Duchess of York and Cornwall (later King George V and Queen Mary) to commemorate their visit.

A still-youthful, thirty-year-old specimen of Chilean palm at The Ruth Bancroft Garden, Walnut Creek, California. Photograph by RGT

A still-youthful, thirty-year-old specimen of Chilean palm at The Ruth Bancroft Garden, Walnut Creek, California. Photograph by RGT

Go West! (1850s-1890s)

Jubaea chilensis immigrated to North America in the middle of the nineteenth century as the result of the US Naval Astronomical Expedition to the Southern Hemisphere (1849- 1852). A large number of seeds was sent to a government greenhouse in Washington, DC, but little is known of their fate; the seeds either failed to germinate or the seedlings did not survive.

Accounts of this noble palm being introduced to California by the Franciscan missionaries in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries are apocryphal, but, by the mid-1800s, the pioneering nurserymen of California offered numerous palms, including Jubaea chilensis, to the expanding, post-Gold Rush population. Jubaea was well suited to the state’s mediterranean climate and was offered by nurserymen throughout the state. The seeds were brought directly from Chile, as European specimens were not yet old enough to produce seeds.

One of the first Jubaea palms to be planted in the Bay Area was a specimen planted about 1877 on the University of California campus at Berkeley. Although shaded by surrounding trees, this magnificent palm is still alive and healthy.

The former estate of horticultural author and nurseryman Charles Shinn in Fremont, California, is now the Shinn Historical Park and Arboretum. Two massive Jubaea palms at the site were planted in 1878, and they are still prominent. Sexton Historic Grove (5490 Hollister Avenue) in Santa Barbara is the former site of the nursery of Joseph Sexton. The nursery commenced operation at this location in 1869, and, by 1877, Sexton offered Jubaea chilensis for sale in his catalog. Stately, old specimens of Jubaea can still be found throughout the city, such as those at 2044 Garden Street; the oldest are likely the legacy of Sexton’s horticultural activities.

A fine pair of Chilean palms (Jubaea chilensis) flanking the gate to Lotusland, Santa Barbara, California, in the early 1900s. Photograph courtesy of the Lotusland archives

A fine pair of Chilean palms (Jubaea chilensis) flanking the gate to Lotusland, Santa Barbara, California, in the early 1900s. Photograph courtesy of the Lotusland archives

Two massive specimens of Jubaea chilensis now reign at Ganna Walska Lotusland, also in Santa Barbara, marking the original gate to this fabled garden. The palms are the legacy of a previous owner of the property, nurseryman Ralph Kinton Stevens. Jubaea was listed for sale in Stevens’s 1891 catalog. He obtained the Jubaea seeds from a sea captain friend who ferried mail between the Western coasts of North and South America. The palms were already growing in Stevens’ garden/nursery by 1893 and remarked upon by a garden visitor, a fact that suggests the young palms had already attained some size and distinction.

In the 1880s, seeds of Jubaea were exported from Chile to San Francisco by the ton. No longer voyaging first class, the seeds, en bulk, were valued for their oil content. New crops were being promoted by organizations and individuals in an effort to maximize the agricultural potential of the young state. Jubaea, in its working class role, was recommended as a potentially lucrative crop. It is entirely possible that some seeds from these shipments were grown by curious or enterprising nurserymen, perpetuating its horticultural distinction as a regal specimen. Ironically, today, the economic value of the palm is derived entirely from its aesthetic merit.

The same two Chilean palms at Lotusland today. Photograph courtesy of the Lotusland archives

The same two Chilean palms at Lotusland today. Photograph courtesy of the Lotusland archives

Today

Jubaea chilensis continues to be a popular palm around the world in regions with mediterranean climates, and the aesthetic attributes recognized by horticulturists in the nineteenth century continue to attract devotees to this marvelous palm in the twenty-first. They are propagated exclusively by seeds, which are difficult and slow to germinate. Seedling palms are relatively slow growing and slow to build their massive trunks. Consequently, Chilean palms are expensive but, their many fans would say, worth every penny. Once established, they are drought-tolerant and untroubled by pests. [Sunset zones 12-24]

In its native Chile, the conservation status of Jubaea is cause for concern. It is recognized as vulnerable, threatened by over-exploitation and habitat destruction. The destructive activity of felling trees and extracting their sweet sap, which can be boiled down into a syrup (Darwin’s “treacle”), has been practiced for over 200 years. A few palms are still harvested for this product, but, fortunately, the practice has much diminished in recent years. Coquito nuts, the shelled seeds of Jubaea, are still harvested, as they have been for centuries, and are available commercially. They look like miniature coconuts, and have a similar flavor. In some remaining populations of Jubaea, the entire crop of nuts is harvested, leaving no seeds for natural regeneration and seriously threatening the long-term survival of the species. However, when properly managed, nut harvesting can, in fact, encourage the conservation of this magnificent, well traveled palm.

Bibliography

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Darwin, CR. 1845. Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of HMS Beagle round the world, under the Command of Capt Fitz Roy, RN. 2nd edition. London: John Murray.

Ford, HC. 1889. Palms eligible for ornamental and industrial purposes, pp 122-132. Official Report of the 11th Fruit Growers’ Convention of the State of California. Sacramento.

Franceschi, F. 1895. Santa Barbara Exotic Flora: a Handbook of Plants from Foreign Countries Grown at Santa Barbara, California. Santa Barbara, California.

Gonzalez, LA, RO Bustamante, RM Navarro C, MA Herrera M, & M Toral Ibañez. 2009. Ecology and management of the Chilean palm (Jubaea chilensis): History, Current Situation and Perspectives. Palms 53(2): 68-74.

Grau, VJ. 2006. Palms of Chile. Ediciones Oikos, Santiago de Chile.

Harvey, FC. 1893. Cultivated Palms in California. Garden & Forest 6(262): 104, 105.

von Mueller, F. 1869. Report of the Victorian government botanist and director of the Melbourne botanic garden. Journal of Botany, British and Foreign 7: 183-202.

Naudin, C. 1856. Renaissance du jardin de la marine à Toulon. pp 138-141. Flore des Serres et des Jardins de l’Europe, Journal Général d’Horticulture.