This handsome broad shouldered coquito palm and his companions stand guard near the deYoung Museum in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.
This Incredible Hulk of the palm world, Jubaea chilensis, dominates the landscape with his thick muscular trunk. The straight gray trunks can grow to over 3 ft (0.9 m) in diameter and soar to heights of 80 ft (24.4 m). In older specimens, the trunk typically constricts near the top to form the brute's "shoulders" upon which rest a proportionally small "head" that is composed of densely packed pinnate (feather-shaped) leaves. These are held stiffly erect on short stems to form a crown that is about 30 ft (9.1 m) in diameter. The leaves grow 12-16 ft (3.7-4.9 m) in length and are a darker green on top with the lower surfaces a dull grey green. Purple flowers are borne on 4 ft (1.2 m) inflorescence (flower stalk) that grows hidden among the leaves. The orange fruits, called coquitos, are about 1.5 in (0.5 cm) in diameter. Within the fruits are smooth tan seeds that resemble tiny coconuts. These have similar oily white flesh (endosperm) that tastes like them too!
This coquito is germinating. It first sends out a long root and then forms a pointed sheath that penetrates the soil line, grows a couple of inches and then splits to reveal the first leaf. I planted some seeds in August 2001 and one of my happiest gardening days was when I saw my first baby Jubaea emerge into the sunlight on 4/26/02! See one of the seedlings in the December 2002 Journal Update 10/21/04: unfortunately by December of 2003 all the last 4 of the seedlings had perished due to my neglect because I failed to treat them for fungus disease. I'll try again.
Location Jubaea chilensis is native to coastal areas of central Chile. Small forests of this palm once grew in mountainside ravines from sea level to altitudes of 2000 ft. The species is greatly diminished now after centuries of exploitation in order to harvest it's sugary sap. The Chilean government has enacted laws forbidding this destructive practice - let's hope they can effectively enforce them. Otherwise it's possible that in the future this palm may exist only in the landscapes of areas with Mediterranean type climates such as California, the southern European coast and South Africa.
The coquito palm prefers deep well drained soil. Not a palm for the seaside as it does not tolerate salt spray. Light: Requires bright sunny conditions. Moisture: Tolerates drought conditions. Prefers sites where its deep roots can access subsurface moisture (just like the Washingtonia spp. palms). Hardiness: USDA Zones 8 - 10. Does not like hot climates. Very hardy - can survive temperatures as low as 5ºF (-15ºC). This palm is successfully cultivated in temperate areas of southern Britain, Switzerland and northern Italy. Propagation: Propagate using fresh seeds. Plant in a warm area, germination may occur as quickly as two months or take as long as one year.
In 1997 I photographed this young specimen, one of several at Miami's Fairchild Tropical Garden. Sadly, garden staff determined them to be hybrids of Jubaea and they have since been removed.
In areas where it can be grown, coquito palm is superb as a specimen plant where it can serve as a spectacular focal point on a sweep of lawn. Assembled into burly groupings coquito palm strikes an awesome presence creating fantasy groves of huge pillared trunks. Even though it is slow growing, I think it should be planted more often along streets and boulevards located in mild Mediterranean climates to create memorable urban vistas for generations to come.
This sap is rich in sucrose and other simple sugars. It is boiled down for use as a sweetener called palm honey (similar to corn syrup). It may also be fermented into alcoholic beverages inspiring the common name Chilean wine palm. This sap is obtained from the mighty trunks. The palms are felled and the crown removed. Several quarts of sap ooze from the wound each day. Sap may be collected from a single trunk for months or even years after the palm has been cut. Let's pray that this practice stops - the life of one of the hulking beauties is far too high a price to pay for a sugar solution.