The Wax Palm and Why it is a Must to See When Visiting Colombia

According to the World Biodiversity Ranking, Colombia ranks third in the number of palm species (Arecaceae Family). The Andean region presents the richest flora of the palms in the country, with 43% of the total species of Colombia. Among all the palm species found in Colombia, the Wax Palm is the most special. Here I will tell you why.

Palm trees have been linked to the life of man and his feelings since immemorial times, principally because of their graceful appearance and the innumerable benefits they bring.

For this reason, the term palm is not only applied to palms but also has a connotation of triumph, victory, and applause; it is also used as a title of honor for the great ones of a kingdom.

Colombia is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of palms, with 289 species, 47 of which are endemic.

The Wax Palm Ceroxylon quindiuense (Karsten) Wendl

The Wax Palm under its natural view

The first news about the existence of wax palms is due to José Celestino Mutis. It was found by him in the Andean Mountains, in the passage between Quindío and Tolima departments.

He found them distributed between 2400 and 2900 meters (7930 – 9700 ft) above sea level , within cloud forests composed mainly of native pine trees (Podocarpus) and oaks (Quercus granatensis). The species was validated by a description published in 1808.

Other remarkable explorers and naturalists, Alexander Von Humboldt and Aimé Jacques Alexandre Bonpland, re-discovered the wax palm in 1801, and just like Mutis, they were also fascinated by this plant. Humboldt described the spectacle as one of the most moving of all his journeys:

“The forest upon the forest, where tall, slender palms penetrate the leafy veil that surrounds them”.

Alexander Von Humboldt
The Forest upon the Forest

William Purdie, a Scottish Botanist from that time, also described the characteristics and features of our national tree in these terms:

“The haughty, noble trunk of this tree is covered with a layer of resinous wax, which gives it a whitish marble appearance, providing a lively distinctive feature to the very peculiar scenery of the Quindio moor, where the palm abounds in extraordinary degree without causing any damage to the subordinate forest under its pleasant shade.

To obtain the wax the tree is felled and I was informed by my guides that each tree provides up to 25 pounds… The wax is used mixed with tallow to make candles… to offer to the saints and the Virgin… it is in considerable demand but is abundant and easy to obtain”.

William Purdie

These chronicles and descriptions show the importance of the wax palm since ancient times. Some historians even claim that it was used by indigenous people for the extraction of gold.

Wax Palm Facts

Each Each palm can produce up to nine bunches simultaneously, each with 4,000 fruits or more. ©Makalu Pixabay
  1. Its stem is covered by a layer of wax that can be used to make candles.
  2. It can live up to 200 years.
  3. A seedling takes around 50 years to reach the adult phase.
  4. The wax palm can reach 70 meters in height.
  5. It lives in an uncommon habitat for palms, above 3000 meters above sea level, with low temperatures that are unusual for a palm to resist.
  6. The seedling is shadow dependent, so fragmentation and deforestation are killing these palm populations.
  7. Each wax palm can produce about 24,000 fruits per year.
  8. Each palm can produce up to nine bunches simultaneously, each with 4,000 fruits or more.
  9. Despite the number of seeds and seedling a wax palm produces, less than 8% survive at the end.
  10. In the wax palms, there are females and males, as in humans. This implies that for its reproduction the palm needs some mechanism to carry the pollen from the males to the females.
  11. Wax palm pollination is carried out by several species of tiny beetles of the genus Mystrops.
  12. Pollinators, in turn, depend on the wax palm for their survival, since the adults feed exclusively on its pollen and the females lay their eggs in the small flowers of the palm, where the larvae that are born feed on the tissue of the petals.
  13. The wax palm attracts its small pollinating beetles by the aroma of its flowers, which have volatile chemical compounds specially designed to conquer them. It is a system as precise as a key in its lock.
  14. A well-conserved population of palms can produce more than two billion mature fruits each year, which represents an extraordinary source of food for the fauna.
  15. It is home and refuge of the Yellow-eared Parrot (Ognorhynchus icterotis).
  16. It is an ‘umbrella species’ since its conservation is key to the survival of many others, or of entire ecosystems.
  17. Each stem ring represents a year of growth.

Colombia’s National Tree

The Wax Palm was proposed by the colombian botanist Armando Dugand as the national tree of Colombia. He was the director of the Institute of Natural Sciences of the National University of Colombia and a recognized specialist in palms. In July of 1949, Dugand proposed it as such to the organizing committee of the Third South American Congress of Botany.

The Wax Palm, Ceroxylon quindiuense (Karsten) Wendl, was proposed by Armando Dugand as the national tree of Colombia.

Dugand highlighted the wax palm as a true aesthetic heritage of Colombia and as its most typical plant, not only because it is an outstanding and characteristic element of the Andean landscape, but also because of the wax it produces and the extraordinary nature of its habitat, which goes far beyond the geographical and altitudinal limits common to the palm family.

He also described it as the most beautiful and most developed among the palms, since it can surpass 50 meters in height. Due to the characteristic of these plants to take a long time to decompose and take up to 200 years to complete its life cycle, they were thought to symbolize the capacity to persist and last.

Since then, the wax palm has been considered the national tree, and so it appears in many writings, minutes, documents, and postcards.

Colombia stamp with the Wax Palm
The Cocora Valley and the Quindio Wax Palm, honored in the 100 thousand peso bill issued by the @BancoRepublica on August 8, 2014 and put into circulation on March 31, 2016.

Additionally, in 1985, the Congress of the Republic of Colombia adopted the Quindío wax palm, C. quindiuense, as the national tree with the Law 61 of 1985. It is so valuable and so representative of our country that this law stipulates in its article 3:

“The felling of the wax palm is forbidden under a criminal sanction applicable in the form of a fine, convertible into an arrest, for the benefit of the municipality where the infraction has been committed”.

Law 61 of 1985

Palms as a Sign of Scientific and Botanical Values, as well as Biological Diversity.

Some historians affirm that in the 19th and 20th centuries, palms were planted around patriotic places as a sign of scientific and botanical values and to emphasize that Colombia is biodiverse. The preferred palm was always the Wax Palm.

In Bogotá, you can find wax palm gardens in places such as Universidad Externado de Colombia, the botanical garden of Bogotá José Celestino Mutis, the El Dorado Avenue (26th street) in Bogotá, which is a temple of the wax palm, and the Eje Ambiental in the center of the city.

Wax Palm at the botanical garden of Bogotá José Celestino Mutis

All the important buildings that frame the El Dorado Avenue and the Eje Ambiental in Bogota have in their facilities, or very close to their facades, a wax palm. These are, on El Dorado Avenue: The National Administrative Center (CAN), the Military Forces, the National Registry Office, the Government of Cundinamarca, the Bogotá Police Hospital, the Bank of the Republic of Colombia, the National Health Institute, and RTVC-Public Media System. In the Eje Ambiental, the Colombian Academy of Language, the Icetex, the Icfes, and the monument of the Templete de Bolívar.

The Wax Palm at the botanical garden of Bogotá José Celestino Mutis

The Wax Palm in Risk of Extinction

But it has not been worth so much recognition, nor that many people wrote poems or songs to this plant. The Colombian Wax Palm is under serious risk of extinction, initially due to its exploitation by religious interests, and later by changes in land use such as deforestation for agriculture and livestock.

The Colombian Wax Palm is under serious risk of extinction, among the causes are deforestation for agriculture and livestock.

Recently, it is the cultivation of the Hass avocado that has endangered the survival of the Wax Palm. The situation is worrisome because the area declared as a Coffee Cultural Landscape by UNESCO is beginning to change due to the displacement of the traditional coffee cultivation by the Hass avocado.

This has also led to the endangerment of a species of bird endemic to the Colombian Andes, the Yellow-eared Parrot. The Wax Palm is the plant where it builds its nests and on which it feeds.

Valle del Cocora
Valle del Cocora
Yellow-eared Parrot flying over the Yellow-eared Parrot Bird Reserve in Jardín, Antioquia

Wax palms have special protection because several investigations determined a few years ago that they are dying of old age and the new plants take more than 50 years to grow!

Tourism is one of the most promising conservation strategies for this species. On the other hand, rural communities prefer it over agriculture, livestock, and mining.

If you want to know where to go for visiting the most emblematic landscape of the Colombian Andes, read our entry The Unique Wax Palm Forests Destinations in Colombia.

If you want to schedule your visit to Colombia, do not hesitate to contact us, and plan your trip with us!


References


About the author

Sara Colmenares

Current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism – environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.