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The Mountain Coconut

Hey kids… everybody seemed to like my first one, so here is another Ecuadorian palm story.  

In 2013, I first went to Quito and Cuenca to visit.   The first thing to keep in mind is that both of these cities are in mountain valleys at about 8000+ feet above sea level, but of course at the Equator.  So, it was interesting to see what palms I recognized from the States.  As far as big palms in the mountains, I only saw the following:

Lots of Canary Island Dates… some very old
Washingtonia… who needs a bucket truck?
Jubaea chiliensis….very rare
Parajubea cocoides

And this beautiful palm… Elegant with shiny, self-cleaning pinnate leaves up to 50 feet high. I had no clue what it was. The Cuencanos all called it Palma de Coco. It remained a mystery for many months until I found it in in my Martin Gibbons book, A Pocket guide to Palms. It is called Parajubaea cocoides, a native to Ecuador.

Page from Martin Gibbons book: A Pocket guide to Palms
Parajubaea cocoides seed on tree

Time passed and one day I saw some children in the street smashing little things on the ground with a hammer. When I got close, I saw that they were seeds of some sort. Next, they were scraping and finally eating the inside. When asked, “Que es estos?” the reply was “Palma de Coco.“ The light bulb went off in my head, and after looking closely, the seeds resembled mini coconuts including the white flesh inside. I tried one and it tasted exactly like its big tropical brother…

Cocos nucifera opened up
Full sized Parajubaea cocoides seeds without coat.

Granted, they were tiny, but they were definitely little coconuts. So… inquiring minds need to know…how did this species evolve to grow at 8000 ft.?

I found this on the Golden Gate palms website

~ Parajubaea cocoides ~

Quito Coconut, Cold Hardy Coconut

Height: 60' Growth Rate: medium to fast Climate Zones: 14-17 to 16 degrees Origin: Ecuador

Now here's a cool palm! Parajubaea cocoides, or the "Quito Coconut" as they prefer to call it in its native home of highland Ecuador, is a gorgeous feather type palm very reminiscent of the True Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera) which is impossible to grow in Northern California without extreme microclimate modification. Not to get off the subject, but there are a few rogue True Coconuts scattered around Southern California which have weathered many Winters outdoors without any special protection- the most famous being the "Newport Coconut". But since we don't live in Newport Beach, our next best option for coconuts is Parajubaea.

Parajubaea is closely aligned with the True Coconut tree, as is Jubaea chilensis and several other rarer palms. It is thought that over its course of evolution, Parajubaea and Cocos nucifera were the same plant and then became geographically separated; Cocos remaining in the lowland beach shores of the hot tropics, while Parajubaea slowly and methodically climbed the Andes.

My personal theory on the separation is this: a random mutation occurred in a True Coconut that produced abnormally small seeds. These seeds might have been small enough for ground animals or large birds to carry and relocate at higher elevations- thus eventually causing the palm to step up the mountains through progressive generations like one would climb a staircase. This may explain why, although almost exactly the same in appearance and structure, the Cold Hardy Coconut seed is about 1/50th the size of the True Coconut seed. The chief reason the True Coconut is not naturally found at very high elevations is that its seed is too heavy and large for animals to carry very far from where it fell. It chiefly relies upon water and tides for its dispersal.

There is probably a scientist out there that might prove me wrong someday - but that's my story and I'm sticking to it! Well, it sounds plausible to me… either that or we can blame it on aliens.

Till next time. Pedro Francisco

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