Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Pac(aya) Man tree





Species name: Chamaedorea tepejilote

Common name: pacaya, guaya, palmito dulce

Location: Dominican Republic

The pacaya palm, sometimes called the pacaya grande depending on where you're from, is native to Central America from Mexico south to Panama. It is one of the most common palms native to the Americas, second only to Washingtonia palms native to California (which are planted in massive numbers as ornamental palm species). Because they are so attractive, pacaya palms have been transported throughout the Caribbean for use as ornamental species, but you will rarely find them outside of the Western Hemisphere. Unlike many palms, this species is highly shade tolerant, and actually "sun intolerant". The leaves, as you can see in the image above, become yellowed and sunburnt very quickly when exposed to direct sunlight so they are best planted in the shade of other trees.

The variety of this tree most commonly grown as an ornamental species are types that "cluster," as opposed to single stems. In the wild, this is incredibly rare but in cultivation it's common. It leads to a much more attractive bunch of stems, as opposed to one tall and spindly stem. The other benefit of growing this variety is that it is much more resistant to hurricane damage, since it is more difficult to disturb a clump of plants all connected via underground rhizomes than it is to disturb one lone tree.

This tree is an example of one of the many palm species that are dioecious. This means that there are separate male and female flowers on different plants; this is exactly like with holly plants, where you will only have red berries produced on female plants if the male is present (which doesn't produce red berries). The determination of "sex" in a plant is quite different than it is in a human; instead of being determined by a chromosome like it is in humans (with human females being XX and human males being XY) and it's instead a cluster of genes on a chromosome. Certain alleles, or copies of the gene, determine either "maleness" or "femaleness". The plants pictured above are likely male; in the entire cluster there was no evidence of fruit being produced, which occurs during all months of the year.

The seeds when ripe are apparently edible, as are the flowers (with the female flowers tasting significantly better than the male flowers, apparently). I would highly recommend you avoid eating any palm fruit unless you are absolutely positive of the species identification; many palm fruits are deadly toxic. In El Salvador and Nicaragua, the pickled female flowers of this plant are seen as delicacies and are served only during special meals.