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What is Jubaea?

Brenda Scott
Brenda Scott

Jubaea chilensis is a palm tree native to central Chile. It is the tallest palm and can reach heights of up to 80 feet (24.3 m) with a trunk three feet (0.91 m) or more in diameter. The crown of the palm is made up of pinnate or compound leaves that resemble feather dusters and grow on stems that can be over 12 feet (3.66 m) long. Hidden among the leaves are stalks with purple flowers that turn into a small, edible orange fruit which are known as coquitos.

Two common names for Jubaea are coquito palm, after the fruit, and Chilean wine palm. These trees contain a high fructose sap which can be boiled into syrup known as palm honey. The syrup is available in grocery stores in Chile and has a variety of uses. It can also be fermented to produce alcohol, which is how it came to be known as a wine palm. Such use is greatly restricted now in an effort to preserve the endangered tree.

Man mowing the grass
Man mowing the grass

Unfortunately, harvesting the sap from a Jubaea palm involves destroying the tree. Unlike maple trees, which can be tapped and continue to grow for years, the Jubaea palm has to be cut down. Slits are made daily in the apex of the tree and the sap is allowed to drain out over a period of months. At one time millions of these trees dominated central Chile, but due to harvesting they are now endangered and survive naturally in three large stands. Laws have been passed to preserve the species, and only limited harvesting is allowed.

Unlike some palm trees, the Jubaea does not do well along the ocean because it is adversely affected by salt. It is very hardy, however, and is drought, heat, frost and fire resistant. This tree grows better in Mediterranean climates than in tropical regions, and has been successfully cultivated in such places as California, Southern Europe, Australia and New Zealand.

Jubaea palms can live for centuries, but their beginning is rather slow. The seeds can take over a year to germinate, and for the first few years, growth can be very slow. There are a variety of opinions on the best way to set the seed successfully. Some growers soak the seed in milk, water or another liquid to soften the hard exterior and hasten germination, though care must be taken to prevent the seed from molding. Other growers recommend carefully cracking the outer shell before planting.

The Jubaea does best in deep well-drained soil, and trees should be planted between 20 to 30 feet apart. This spacing will allow room for the crown of the tree once it has matured. While mature trees are drought resistant, young palms should be provided with sufficient irrigation to let them become established.

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