|In many ways, Panama is a crossroads, in terms of travel, biogeography, and culture.
For oceanic navigation, the Panama Canal offers a crucial link between the Atlantic Ocean
with the Pacific. The United States has maintained a strong political and military
presence in Panama for many years because of the importance of the Canal to the U.S. It is
also the primary reason for the present activity and wealth of the cosmopolitan cities of
Panama City and Colon.
On land, Panama is the southern-most portion of the Central
American bridge between North and South America, the crossroads of the Americas. Here the
plant and animal life of two continents has blended and diversified in an incredible
display. In The Botany and Natural History of Panama (1985), D'Arcy and Correa
estimate as many as 10,000 species of plants and 900 species of birds in Panama. They do
not take the opportunity to estimate the number of insect species but do note a study that
reported over 700 species of beetle trapped at a single site. In travel publications,
journalists gush over the lush wilderness of the Darien Gap in eastern Panama, the only
break in the Pan American Highway.
Culturally, Panama struggles to bridge another gap, one between a modern technological
community and the Amerindians who have a traditional tie to nature. Native populations in
parts of western Panama live in poverty unable to make a smooth transition to a modern
world while slowly losing their traditions. However, others seem to hold onto many of
their traditions while exploiting opportunities in the cities. Kuna Indians from the San
Blas Territory and the Darien Province can easily be found in Panama City, men working in
a variety of situations or women selling colorful molas (a native sewing craft) at tourist
destinations. Yet the Kuna seem to maintain many old traditions and are credited with
conserving the forests of the San Bias Territory where many Kuna live.
To the casual visitor, Panama offers luxurious hotels, drinkable tap water, a good road
system, and a wide array of local crafts as souvenirs. Ecotours are available from a
number of local tour companies for the adventurous. Just a few miles outside of Panama
City in the forests of Soberania National Park, one can see parrots, toucans, and monkeys.
Nearby, Summit Park offers a small zoo of native animals and a display of tropical plants,
many of which were brought to Panama by David Fairchild and other plant explorers in the
early part of this century.
Recently, five members of the International Palm Society (IPS) visited Panama to offer
assistance to Summit Garden and to spend a little time in the tropical wilderness. Paul
Craft, of the Palm Beach Chapter of the IPS, organized the details of airline, hotel, and
automobile reservations. Chuck Hubbuch, of the Dade Chapter of IPS and of Fairchild
Tropical Graden, provided travel experience based on a previous trip and attempted to
renew contacts at Summit Garden. Unfortunately, all efforts to reach previous contacts at
Summit proved fruitless. When Paul and Chuck met Palm Beach Chapter members Dale Holton,
Larry Dietrich, and Chris Wheeler at the airport in Miami on the long-awaited day of
departure, we still did not know what to expect at Summit, but had high expectations of
the planned expedition into the Darlen Province. Larry proved to be the most adept at
Spanish, by far, and was appointed our official translator.
On the morning after arrival in Panama City, the five of us headed for Summit Garden in
a subcompact car. This was our first little travel glitch. The four-wheel drive vehicle we
reserved from a major international car rental company would be promised to us repeatedly
over the next four days but would never arrive. The next problem was actually finding
Summit Garden using the rental company's simplistic map of the city. We toured the worst
parts of the city, searched for non-existent road signs, and tried to adapt to the heavy
traffic. For Paul, it was reminiscent of Los Angeles without the freeways. One of the
highlights of the grand tour was seeing a large number of Bentinckia nicobarica used
as street trees. The one road to Summit that Chuck knew was blocked by construction. We
finally learned that we could get into the road to Summit only by making a U-turn on a
busy four-lane highway or by driving across the Canal via the Bridge of the Americas and
back again. We never did find an easier route.
The new director at Summit Park, Carlos Sucre Graell, was very cordial and walked with
us through part of the Garden asking many questions about the plants. When we asked about
the botanical garden manager, we learned that a new person was also in that position, a
young biologist named Claudia Rumi Shibuta. Apparently, this is why earlier correspondence
remained unanswered. At this time, Claudia and Chuck have continued correspondence,
investigating ways for their institutions to work together. The director gave us passes
for the Garden, showed us a short orientation film about Summit Park, and told us to do
anything we could to help the plant collection. Over the next few days, we explored the
grounds and Chuck discussed future cooperative projects between Summit and Fairchild with
Claudia. Currently, Summit has few plant records and functions more as a park than as a
botanical garden. Its main focus seems to be providing the public with the opportunity to
see the native animals of Panama, including monkeys, birds, and large cats. Large groups
of school children toured the Garden every day. There are also playgrounds and open areas
where families get together for picnics and baseball. A small nursery produces plants from
the Garden's seeds to sell to the public. While this is all valuable to the people of
Panama, it seems to leave the plants in the background, particularly the native plants.
We spent one and a half days photographing, identifying, labeling, and mapping the
unlabeled or incorrectly identified palms. An interesting palm collection across the
street is not considered part of Summit Garden. Some Palm Society members may know this
area across the road where the Pelagadoxa henryana grows. Particularly impressive
displays at the Garden were a large Cyrtostachys renda, the red sealing wax palm,
at the entrance (Fig. 1) and a Corypha umbraculifera, the talipot palm, in full
bloom near the entrance (Fig. 2). In all, we identified approximately forty cultivated
palm species. Certainly, the climate is such that many palms that do not grow well in
Florida could thrive here.
In addition to the cultivated palms in the collection, we observed plants of Areca
triandra, Bentinckia nicobarica, Licuala spinosa, and Livistona saribus which
volunteered in adjacent forests. Also, we saw native Astrocaryum standleyanum, Elaeis
oleifera, a Desmoncus species, and Oenocarpus mapora in the forest.
The palms and other plants are well maintained in Summit Park. We hope that continuing
support by Fairchild Tropical Garden and the Palm Society will lead to a brighter future
for Summit as a scientific palm collection. We agreed that Summit has a tremendous
potential to showcase the diversity of plants native to Panama, to teach the public to
appreciate the importance of conserving their natural habitats, and to serve as a center
for conservation and research.
On our last day at Summit, we ran into Gary Outenreath of Moody Gardens in Galveston,