C. Michael Hogan PhD
December 18, 2008
The Chilean Wine Palm is the sole extant species in its genus, and is endemic to a severely restricted range in central Chile. The endowments of this majestic species as a food and lumber source have historically contributed to its status as a threatened species. This palm is considered the most massive, as well as interestingly shaped of its peers. The species is named after Juba I, the ancient Numidian chieftain.
This palm has a narrow geographical distribution between 32 and 35 degrees southern latitude, limited to the southern part of the Coquimbo region; the regions of Valparaiso, O'Higgins and Santiago; and the northern part of the Maule region. J. chilensis typically is found on steep slopes of higher elevation habitats, occurring at altitudes up to 1400 m; it is also found in high elevation valleys such as within the La Campana National Park.
The tree can attain a height of 25 to 30 metres and a trunk diameter of up to 180 cm. The distinctive trunk is usually bulb shaped, such that the thickest trunk location is not at the base of the plant. Crown widths can attain a span of nine to ten metres, with huge pinnate leaves 300 to 400 cm in length. J. chilensis produces prolific ovoid fruits in the form of yellow-orange drupes; within each drupe is a single spherical fruit two to three cm in diameter, with a tough outer shell covering a white meaty interior. The fruits are displayed high on the tree in prominent showy clusters.
The massive trunk of J. chilensis makes the species invulnerable to fire. The Chilean Wine Palm's habitat of central Chile's matorral and evergreen woodlands are not dissimilar to the chaparral and live oak woodland of the Santa Monica Mountains in North America.
The heart of this palm's range is within La Campana National Park in the Coast Range; here the Chilean Wine Palm may be found in clusters within a "casino" or oasis. It also occurs on exposed northern slopes (Dallman) growing with Echinopsis chiloensis. By hiking through the northern slopes of La Campana I confirmed Dallman's finding that the Chilean Wine Palm is most abundant on these northern slopes rising up from the Ocoa Valley and that these stands number into the thousands of trees.
Associate trees or shrub-trees are Acacia caven, Nothofagus obliqua (the northern limit of this genus) and Maytenus boaria. A number of other threatened species are found in this Mediterranean region of central Chile including Adiantum gertrudis, Avellanita bustillosii, Beilschmiedia berteroana, B. miersii, Crinodendron patagua, Cryptocarya alba, Dasyphyllum excelsum, Krameria cistoidea, Lomatia hirsuta, Persea meyeniana, Porlieria chilensis, Puya coquimbensis and P. venusta. In addition several rare flora are found in this same region: Adesmia balsamica, A. resinosa, Myrceugenia correifolia, M. exsucca and M. rufa including locations in and near La Campana National Park.
Fire regenerate species are also found in the same ecosystem including lignotubers such as Cryptocarya alba, Lithrea caustica, Kageneckia oblonga, Quillaja saponaria, Colliguaja odorifera, Satureja gilliesii and Trevoa trinervis; it is likely that these flora evolved as an adaptation to volcanically induced fires (Fuentes) as well as recurring aridity. Avafauna seen in these plant associations of J.chilensis within La Campana NP include Chimango Caracara, Chilean Tinamou, Chilean Mockingbird and the Moustached Turca.
The species is classified by the IUCN as vulnerable, (González ).with human overpopulation pressures of central Chile encroaching steadily on the remaining habitat. The national government of Chile has extended protection to the Chilean Wine Palm, which protection is most effective in the lightly visited La Campana National Park. The temperate forest regions of central Chile have experienced steady homogenisation since the Spanish Conquest, with resulting loss of biodiversity. (Rozzi) Major losses of the Chilean Wine Palm were experienced in Chile in the 17th and 18th century, when the tree was harvested for its sap and concentrated into a maple syrup-like "miel de palma", that was effectively the region's primary sugar source in that epoch.
More generalised impacts upon the Chilean Wine Palm habitat has been occurring since the advent of human settlement in the early Holocene; my explorations of the lower slopes of northern La Campana has yielded evidence of mid-Holocene human settlement, namely at the Silent Stones site; prehistoric deforestation and introduction of grazing animals has denuded and reduced the size of primordial sclerophyllous forests, culminating with larger scale modern Monterey Pine monoculture plantations that further fragment the landscape. Charles Darwin noted the species in 1834 when he climbed Cerro La Campana. Specific historical and ongoing impacts to the species occur due to harvesting of sap to make prized wine from the Chilean Wine Palm. This harvesting creates destruction beyond that due to deforestation and growth of the human population, since J. chilensis is preferentially preyed upon by humans to produce this wine.
The government of Chile has expanded protected areas for the Chilean Wine Palm and other Chilean Mediterranean flora. In 1993 the proposal was made by Corporación Nacional Forestal to include into La Campana NP the following extensions: Cerro El Roble, the Vizcachas Range (to elevation 2045 m), Cuesta La Dormida and Alto de Chicauma (to 1990 m). This proposal was subsequently adopted by the Chilean national government.
In addition, the following areas in the Mediterranean climate region of Chile were recommended by Corporación Nacional Forestal for strong protection: (a) near Pichidangui: Cerro Santa Inés, Los Molles; (b) Alicahue in precordillera Petorca, Quebrada El Tigre in Zapallar, Cuesta El Melón, Bosque de Quintero, Bosque de Mantagua, Yali Marsh and Laguna del Rey (important for nesting of birds on the Santiago coast); (c) Laguna de Aculeo; (d) Altos (Macizo) de Cantillana; (e) in precordillera Molina: Radal Siete Tazas Protected Area, and (f) in precordillera Talca: Altos de Vilches.
Fossil evidence of the extinct Rapa Nui palm, related to J. chilensis at the tribe level, has been found on Easter Island; The Rapa Nui palm has been assigned to a new genus Paschalococos within the tribe Cocoeae. All native palm trees (and indeed all indigenous trees of the island) have been driven to extinction on Easter Island in the period 1200 to 300 years before present by human overpopulation and exploitation. (Bennett) The type of eco-disaster seen on Easter Island appears common to most Pacific Islands, (Rainbird) and is arguably similar to consequences of European contact and overpopulation in numerous erstwhile pristine environments
It has been suggested that the eco-disaster on Easter Island was causative in the collapse of the human society, especially related to the disappearance of the Chilean Wine Palm cousin.(Cristancho) In particular the genus Jubaea tree on Easter Island was central to the economic, nutritional and spiritual life of the Rapa Nui natives; not only was the fruit a key food source and capable of producing a fermented alcoholic drink, but also the lumber was essential to the erection of the famed moia sculptures. As such, the extinct close palm relative on Easter Island is termed a Cultural Keystone Species, or a pivotal biotic element required for the continuance of the now functionally extinct native human culture of Easter Island.
* K.D. Bennett (1997) Ecology and Evolution, Cambridge University Press, 241 pages
* Peter R. Dallman (1998) Plant Life in the Worlds Mediterranean Climates: California, Chile, South Africa, Australia, and the Mediterranean Basin'', University of California Press, 257 pages ISBN 0520208099
* E.R.Fuentes and G.Espinosa (1986). Resilience of central Chile shrublands: a vulcanism-related hypothesis. Interciencia 11(4): 164-165.
* González (1998). Jubaea chilensis. 2006 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
* P. Rainbird (2002) A message for our future? The Rapa Nui (Easter Island) ecodisaster and Pacific island environments, World Archaeology, Volume 33, Number 3, 1 February 2002 , pp. 436-451(16) Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group
* Ricardo Rozzi, John Silander, Juan J. Armesto, Peter Feinsinger, and Francisca Massardo (2000) Three levels of integrating ecology with the conservation of South American temperate forests: the initiative of the Institute of Ecological Research Chiloé, Chile, Biodiversity and Conservation, vol. 9, No. 8, pages 1199-1217 Springer Netherlands
* Sergio Cristancho and Joanne Vining (2004) Culturally Defined Keystone Species, Human Ecology Review
The author expresses thanks to Michael Frankis for his expert review of this article, and for valuable insights contributed.