International Palm Society LogoSearching for Palms in Eastern Panama

Reprinted with permission from the July 1995 issue of Principes, Vol 39, No 3
Journal of the International Palm Society

1995 The International Palm Society, all rights reserved


Fairchild Tropical Garden, 11935 Old Cutler Road, Miami, Florida 33156 and
Palm Nuts Nursery, 16652 Velazquez Boulevard, Loxahatchee, Florida 33470

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, Texas...

This excerpt is just the first half of the article that originally appeared in the July 1995 issue of Principes.  Several photos in black and white accompany the article.  Back issues are available through our online shopping cart while supplies last.

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