Colombia’s national tree, the wax palm, is endangered. Now, with decades of guerrilla war in retreat, scientists are rediscovering vast forests and racing to study and protect them.
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In 1991 Rodrigo Bernal, a botanist who specializes in palms, was driving into the Tochecito River Basin, a secluded mountain canyon in central Colombia, when he was seized by a sense of foreboding.
Two palm experts were in the car with Dr. Bernal: his late wife, the botanist Gloria Galeano, who worked alongside him at the National University of Colombia in Bogotá; and Andrew Henderson, visiting from the New York Botanical Garden. They were chasing the Quindío wax palm, the tallest of the world’s palms.
Wax palms have long intrigued explorers and botanists for their remarkable height, with some reaching 200 feet. Until the giant sequoias of California were discovered, wax palms were believed to be the tallest trees on earth. A thick wax coats their trunks, something not seen in other palms, and they live where palms aren’t supposed to: on the chilly slopes of the Andes, at elevations as high as 10,000 feet. This has made them notoriously hard to collect and study. “They were these huge, iconic palms no one knew much about,” Dr. Henderson said recently.
The Quindío wax palm — the species predominant in Colombia — was named the country’s national tree in 1985, but the distinction came with little protection. Dr. Bernal and Dr. Galeano warned, in paper after paper, that wax palms were in danger. Many were marooned in pastures and vegetable fields, remnants of forests past. Wax palms cannot reproduce outside a forest: Their seedlings die in full sun, or are eaten by cows and pigs.
In Colombia’s largest known stand of the palms, only a couple thousand remained. But the scientists had heard that there were hundreds of thousands tucked away in the Tochecito River Basin — making it the world’s biggest wax palm forest, if the rumor proved true. The trouble was that no one could reach the place safely.
The entire canyon, Dr. Bernal knew driving in, was controlled by guerrillas with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. As a field scientist who often found himself in lawless corners of the country, he had encountered armed groups and come away unscathed. But now with Dr. Henderson in the car — a foreigner, an easy target for kidnapping — the solitude became terrifying. “I put the car in reverse so quickly I damaged it,” he recalled.
But they had ventured far enough to see and to photograph lush stands of the palms cascading down mountaintops, their pale wax-covered trunks extending like matchsticks from the dark understory. This was the same view that Alexander von Humboldt, the 19th-century German explorer, had absorbed in 1801. He later described the vista as among the most moving in all his travels: “a forest above a forest, where the tall and slender palms pierce the leafy veil around them.”
Dr. Bernal decided that if he couldn’t study Tochecito’s palms, he would have to forget them, “to erase them from my mind.” The Colombian conflict had that effect: it created spaces forbidden even to think about, blank spots on maps and in minds…