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This is the elephant foot palm.  Despite the name, it is not a true palm (nor an elephant!) but is instead a member of the asparagus family.  The genus name is Beaucarnea and the most common of the 10 or so species is Beaucarnea recurvata, which is widely grown as an ornamental houseplant.

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Beaucarnea recurvata

This species is from Eastern Mexico (from the states of Tamaulipas, Veracruz and San Luis Potosí) where it grows in dry lowland forests.  It is capable of reaching a height of 5 meters (15 feet) but is usually much smaller and it grows slowly (although it is capable of living for centuries).   The most striking feature of the little tree is the swollen caudex at the base of the trunk, which is used for storing water in the trees arid home range.

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Beaucarnea gracilis in the Huntington Garden, Pasadena

This caudex, combined with the punk rock leaves/fronds gives the tree an irresistible Dr. Seuss-esque appearance which has made the plants popular in the nursery trade (if you get one, be sure to keep it warm and don’t overwater it).  Alas, its popularity has been detrimental to the wild trees which have been overharvested for sale to nurseries and ornamental gardens.  However with the world’s climate warming up as fast as it is, maybe they will take over Texas or California or France or something.  Who knows anymore?

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Beaucarnea recurvata in Parrot Jungle, Miami

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Has anyone noticed the rash of giant snake attacks in Indonesia?  These alarming stories of giant snakes  follow a very ancient (and horrifying) narrative pattern: a lone villager or traveler chances across an enormous predatory reptile from 20 to 30 feet in length.  Mayhem ensues.  Usually the human survives and fights off the monster with a machete (or with aid from a torch wielding mob), but sometimes the human vanishes…only to be found being slowly digested inside a reticulated python.

Taken from an individual human perspective, it is hard not to think of the pythons as the insatiable villains of such stories, but the real narrative is more complicated.    Palm oil is made from fruit of the palm oil plant, a tropical generalist. Not only is this oil a lucrative (and delicious) additive to desserts and other processed foodstuffs, it is also extensively used in cosmetics, shampoo, and soaps.  Indonesia has the third largest rainforest in the world, but palm oil growers are destroying these forests at an unprecedented rate. Indonesia’s tropical rainforests are vanishing even more quickly than the rainforests in Brazil or the Congo.  These forests are cut down and replaced with palm oil plantations, enormous monocultures where most traditional rainforest animals cannot live, however rats can and do live there on the oily palm fruit.  The pythons are hunting rats in these plantations because their forests were destroyed.

 

Humankind the great hive organism is swallowing these forests whole (in the form of delicious candy and aromatic toiletries).  The animals which live there are likewise being eradicated. Indeed the most recent giant python to attack a villager who molested it was literally cut into pieces, fried, and devoured by hungry villagers.  It makes one wonder if the Saint George and the Dragon pictures were not so much about humankind surmounting evil as about the tragedy of deforestation in medieval England.

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Wax palms in the Quindio area of Columbia

The Quindio wax palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense) is a tree which lives on the western slopes of the Andes mountains in Quindío (a region in northwest Colombia).  This palm tree has a smooth waxy trunk topped by a crown of dark gray green leaves….and what a trunk it has!  The tree grows to heights of 50 and occasionally 60 meters (160-200 feet) a bit taller than the space shuttle or the Statue of Liberty (without its base).  They are the tallest palm trees in the world. They are exceedingly beautiful and magical.

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(Monilemor photography)

The Quindio palms almost went extinct since people relentlessly overharvested them to make wax candles and torches and for palm fronds (which have a religious significance in Christianity).  This would have been a tremendous shame since the palms are not just magnificent in their own right but also provide a habitat for astonishing animals such as the yellow-eared parrot.

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Although the palms are still in trouble due to habitat loss, they are now stringently protected by law (and they have been named the national tree of Colombia).  Additionally landscapers grow them in warm climates around the world. Somehow I still find it hard to believe they are real…just look at them.  The world is filled with beautiful wonders!

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