When Charles Darwin first encountered the Chilean wine palm while traveling aboard The Beagle in August 1834, he was not impressed, noting that "this palm is for its family an ugly tree: its stem is very large and of curious form, being thicker in the middle than at the base or top." While all can agree that Jubaea chilensis is a palm of massive proportions, we disagree with Darwin that this is an ugly specimen and find it to be rather handsome, with a stout and stately appearance. Jubaea chilensis is native to the foothills of the Andes and coastal areas of central Chile. When Darwin wrote about these palms, they covered every available hillside. Since then, endemic populations have decreased rapidly, in part due to the harvesting of the palm's sugary sap—a process which requires the entire palm to be cut down in order to be drained. It is currently ranked as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). However, due to modern protections in Chile, the population is now stable.
The Chilean wine palm is most notable for having the widest trunk amongst palms. It is a slow grower, taking 20-25 years to begin growing a trunk. Once it begins to take on height, the trunk forms a wide column that is lightly imprinted with a diamond shaped scar pattern left by falling fronds. Old fronds fall off quickly, giving it a relatively clean crown. Its monolithic presence is punctuated by its upright frond formation, with massive 10-20 foot fronds mostly pointing upwards. This palm has no armor or spines. The fruit are yellow-orange with edible nuts inside that taste like coconut, earning them the name coquito (little coconut).
This Jubaea requires a cool, dry, and temperate habitat in order to survive. It struggles in hot and humid environments that palms typically love, and will eventually rot in those conditions. This makes the palm extremely valuable for its cold-hardiness, and is also why it thrives in cool and misty San Francisco.
The grove of Chilean wine palms prominently featured in our Chilean Garden are still quite young, no more than 10-15 years old and have not started to grow their trunks yet. Enjoy their dense crowns and the close view of flowers and fruit before they tower above you in the canopy!
IN BLOOM CONTRIBUTORS: Text and Profile by Sarah Callan. Photos by Joanne Taylor.