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Sunday, April 10, 2011

Wild Palms

I have read that Jorge Luis Borges translated William Faulkner's The Wild Palms,
as Las palmeras salvajes, in 1939.



The relationship of landscape to garden is a rich one. Apart from the visual spectacle of this place--wide hilltop views across a landscape of millions of palms toward the sea, the multitudinous black verticals of distant palm trunks sweeping across the distance like pencil marks on the green earth--seeing the new, the unusual can provide visual food for thought, suggesting models for emulation or interpretation in the garden, revealing new kinds of habitats that enrich understanding of how plants reproduce, grow, and develop in community with other plants (and animals, some helpful, some not). In my case, I see no direct connection to my garden, but the mental file cards (old image; should I say data set?) remain in the head, perhaps to coalesce into some useful insight  some day, in another time, perhaps not.

But it's certainly a surprising and beautiful landscape.


The Palmar in western Uruguay is a unique habitat for native palms, mostly Butia capitata and Syagrus*, covering a huge area of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of hectares.



Located near the town of Castillos, it is  more properly known as Palmar de Castillos. In mid-February Amalia Robredo, the Uruguyan garden and landscape designer who we recently visited in Uruguay, took Phil and me to visit her uncle, Martin, who lives on a grand hilltop in the the Palmar. It was near the end of summer, so the air was clear, the sun bright.

Martin's house has a magnificent 360 degree vista of the ancient rocky landscape, of the nearby Laguna Negro, a huge lake just inland from the Atlantic Ocean, and fields swept by a flood of millions of palms, grazing cattle, and an ostrich-like wild bird called the nandu (my keyboard can't make the tilde that should be over the first "n"). The landscape is a striking one, with a unique habitat I find hard to characterize, perhaps because it's so different from anything I know in my part of North America.
.
Here is a satellite view of part of the Palmar from Google Maps. Note the heavily vegetated rocky outcroppings.


This landscape feature is located to the left of the large lake, Laguna Negra, on the map below.


On the way to Martin's house, I asked Amalia to stop on the roadside so I could take some photos. While the palms were certainly beautiful, particularly en masse, the plant that had caught my interest was Eryngium pandanifolium which, like the palm, is native to Urugruay.


The tall Eryngium pandanifolium in the foreground echo the towering palms behind.


The flowers can be eight to ten feet up. I took this photo from a standing position.

At this time of year (late summer), most flowers have seeded and dried. Here is one inflorescence that was a "late bloomer."

The form of the Eryngium flower is obvious (to a lover of Eryngiums).

The basal leaves are large, approaching a meter in length.

After our roadside stop and a drive through the fields on a rutted dirt road, we arrived at Martin's hilltop house, where a large group of friends and neighbors had gathered for a magnificent lunch.




Following are a few images of the house and views from the surrounding lawn.












Another example of Martin's artistry. He used palm trunks to create this extraordinarily textured wall.












Martin is building this swimming pool using local stone. Quite a view!




Martin selects his rocks like an artist.

Returning to the house for lunch ...






Start of a walk into the woodland edge ...


Martin, Amalia Robredo, Gracie (a lunch guest), and Santino, Martin's grandson, probably discussing plans for the future.

The thorny Colletia paradoxa, which as a pioneer plant, typically grows in the woodland edge ...



Beautiful color, but no one could identify the flower ... we saw several ...




Another unidentified wildling ...




The bromeliad we call Spanish Moss ... I don't know whether it's native in Uruguay, but it certainly thrives in this location, indicating a moist, temperate atmosphere ...




The climate of the Palmar is unusual, at least to someone from the northeast US. It's obviously moist enough for many bromeliads and other moisture loving plants, yet some cacti thrive, though you might expect them to be subject to rot in a moist environment. But the soil is very sandy, and it's sunny and mild most of the year.




 The hillsides are covered with lush growth, in dramatic contrast to the hilltops and fields down below ...




A native geophyte, or bulb, called Habranthus, known in English as Rain Lily because they tend to bloom in response to rain ...




A native bromeliad (I didn't get the name) called "wild banana" because it has a fruit that tastes like banana.




Ferns at the edge of the wood ...




A parasitic tree that wraps itself around palms, eventually killing them ...




After lunch, Santino, took us for a short drive to get a better view of the area's rock formations and the Palmar.






A geologist recently told Martin these rock formations are two billion years old, about half the age of the Earth.








Phil, on a two-billion-year-old rock ...






A view toward the Laguna Negra, not too distant, and a short distance beyond the other side, the Atlantic Ocean.




Santino did a bit of rock climbing himself ... a big rock ...




Another view of Laguna Negra ...




After leaving, we encountered these nandu (with a tilde over the first "n") in the fields (also known in English as Rhea) ... Note the cow. Grazing cattle eat the seedling palms and will eventually destroy the Palmar. Amalia told us work is being done to find a way to save this irreplaceable natural resource. It seems horses do not eat the palms. If a way can be found to rotate use of the land, by grazing horses or some other agriculturally valuable animal for a few years, the palms could gain enough size to resist cattle grazing. (See Amalia's clarification in the comments to this post.) This situation is akin to the deer problem in the northeast US, where the heavy deer population is preventing the forests from regenerating.



This is the largest bird in the Americas, attaining a height of up to five feet.



* I am no expert on palms, so these identifications could be incorrect.

28 comments:

  1. The landscape is so extraordinary, it's as if it's outside our normal terms of reference. I think you've described it very well - I love your idea of the palms being like pencil lines.
    It's wonderful and yet alien - it was strangely comforting to see Martin's house and see that someone could tame the landscape and produce something beautiful. I especially liked the pool and the palm trunk wall.

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  2. Big country stuff.

    The palms have a pre-historic quality to them as do the ferns.

    I love the swimming pool and think the palm trunk fence is a gem. In fact creating natural fencing is occupying my thinking now, but that's another story.

    Big ol' birds those Rhea, they are Rhea aren't they?

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  3. Would this be a mediterranean climate? We don't have the wild palms, but otherwise shrubs and trees on higher rocky outcrops with agriculture on lower flatter fields - could be our fynbos on the mountain and wheatfields in the valley.

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  4. Amalia Robredo wrote:
    Dear James, the pictures are amazing! We had a great time!! Didn´t we? My uncles´s place is definitely one of a kind.
    I would like to emphasize James and Phil´s adventurous spirit as we were through really rough, virgin terrain.
    The name of the other palm is Syagrus romanzoffiana and it´s common name is Pindo. By the way, the giant bird is spelled √Ďandu and it is pronounced nee-han-doo.

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  5. Which planet did you say you visited? That landscape was so far from what is familiar to me and very other worldly. How come more pools aren't made to fit into the natural landscape better? The wall of palm trunks remind me of Charleston and Ft. Moultrie where they were used in the Revolution to repel British cannonballs. One last thing, do you know if the lagoon was full of fresh water?

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  6. Victoria,
    That landscape is certainly outside my terms of reference. It's quite other-worldly, very ancient, almost primeval in feel, yet a delightful place to be. I don't know what Martin does for a living (if that's even relevant to him) but he certainly has an artist's eye for the extraordinary. Amalia took us to another landscape where Martin used to live; it's extraordinary too.

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  7. Rob,

    Yes, big country stuff. I almost felt I was in Africa, at the dawn of time. The palms in the distant landscape do suggest something like a savannah. Yes, those are Rhea.

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  8. Diana,
    I suppose it's similar to a Mediterranean climate, but I understand the winters are quite wet, and the atmosphere may be more moist than the Mediterranean. Perhaps someone else can shed light on that. I've heard much about the fynbos, but I'm not at all familiar with its characteristics. I'd appreciate getting a lesson from you.

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  9. Amalia,
    Thank you for clarifying and thank you, also, for taking us to this extraordinary place. We did get lost, didn't we? But fortunately the cell phone rescued us. We weren't daunted by the dirt roads and lack of signs. Phil grew up in Maine and I in Mississippi, two very rural states, so we're used to that.

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  10. Les,
    We were definitely on planet Earth. That pool actually didn't easily fit into the rocks. Martin explained that the down slope side was not high enough. He had to bring in heavy equipment to build it up, then selected and placed rocks (boulders?) to recreate the natural appearance. He's still working on it. I didn't know palm trunk walls had been used in the Revolution, so thanks for sharing that piece of information. I would assume the water in Laguna Negra is fresh because it appears to be separated from the ocean, at least on maps. I'll ask Amalia if she knows.

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  11. What a fascinating place. Beautiful eryngiums, and I love the sparse palm tree landscape. The wide spacing of the trees really reminds me of parts of the Joshua Tree national park in California if you've ever been. It has a similarly prehistoric feel.

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  12. Apart from any lessons such a landscape holds for making gardens, it is thrilling to know such a place exists. I'd never once imagined that a landscape with indigenous palms would look like this. I have new respect for palms!

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  13. the palm plains have a certain beauty but is rather sad too..it is (or looks like) a landscape created by the heavy hand of colonial agriculture.

    Best Wishes

    William Waffles

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  14. Tom,
    I've never see Joshua Tree. I hope to travel to the national parks out west some day. Thanks for commenting.

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  15. Denise,
    I agree. I had never had much interest in palms until I saw the Palmar. Now I think of them in a different way.

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  16. William,
    What a perceptive comment. You may be right. I don't know. The landscape has certainly been changed, shaped by the hand of man. The palms are endangered by grazing cattle, which could destroy the Palmar. As Rick Darke says, all landscapes are cultural landscapes, they all have stories to tell about the past.

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  17. Amalia Robredo said...
    In 1603 Hernandarias introduced cattle to Uruguay and the landscape was changed forever. They were so unaware of all the ecological changes that it would produce (actually the consequences are still under study) in the plant communities. The economic growth of the country was the only variable considered.
    Nowadays Uruguay is doing a lot for studying and proposing new ways of preserving nature while also taking economic advantages (which is a more sustainable approach in the long run). There was this research done last year, funded by the Government with funds from the World Bank and GEF which showed that cattle only eat germinated palms during winter, when there is nothing else to eat (the palm is really hard and unpalatable), so If the farmers could send cattle to some other part of the land during winter and keep the horses in that area instead, then the palms would have a chance to regenerate. A management change which could be a hope for the future.

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  18. In my region of Victoria Australia early pasturalists cleared much of the eucalyptus from the plains and retained the majestic old specimens in a kind of antipodean 'Capability Brown' way..this landscape looks fantastic with cattle and sheep grazing what essentially looks like a European park with southern hemisphere trees replacing the 'oak' or similar. (or Palm in this landscape)Unfortunately despite living many 100s of years these gum tree's will die and rarely do agriculturalists have the foresight or will to allow regeneration..high costs etc etc.
    I have often thought that despite a couple of hundred years (and more)of European occupation of the new world we still retain what is essentially a European aesthetic in our preferences for landscape types.
    As a end note I must add that until European white settlement Australia's landscape had not known 'cloven' hooves and the impact of those hooves changed everything..including the fast tracking of water way degradation/destruction and massive soil loss from dust storms etc etc..four legged panzer tanks!

    William Waffles
    www.wigandia.com

    P.S. I grow a number of native plants from this area..Colletia/Eryngium..and that Palm!

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  19. Good to read this...

    Amalia Robredo said...
    In 1603 Hernandarias introduced cattle to Uruguay and the landscape was changed forever. They were so unaware of all the ecological changes that it would produce (actually the consequences are still under study) in the plant communities. The economic growth of the country was the only variable considered.
    Nowadays Uruguay is doing a lot for studying and proposing new ways of preserving nature while also taking economic advantages (which is a more sustainable approach in the long run). There was this research done last year, funded by the Government with funds from the World Bank and GEF which showed that cattle only eat germinated palms during winter, when there is nothing else to eat (the palm is really hard and unpalatable), so If the farmers could send cattle to some other part of the land during winter and keep the horses in that area instead, then the palms would have a chance to regenerate. A management change which could be a hope for the future.

    Unfortunately the 'nature'that is left in many agricultural situations is but a shadow of the pre cattle/sheep era and any 'preservation' of is essentially the preservation of an unhinged ecology..there is no turning back the clock from that ecological perspective..we tend to 'allow' only the vegetation we approve of!

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  20. William what a surprise that you grow some of our plants!!!! And what a delight to know!! Do you grow Colletia from seed? and which Eryngiums do you grow?
    Amalia Robredo

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  21. Hi Amalia,
    The Colletia was last 'fashionable' in botanic and large gardens in the 19th century in those wonderful Victorian era shrubberies. It is one of my favourite plants. A few years ago I noticed on my scoria topped paths (I live on an old volcano) many tiny seedlings I did not recognise..i disposed of them thinking a new weed had arrived! Later I discovered they were baby Colletia! The scent of the flowers is extraordinarily!
    I grow E. pandanafolia and had but lost E. agavafolia (of your region?) Also a couple of Broms which may or may not grow in your area (certainly Argentina) Fascicularia bicolor and Ochagavia sp..South American plants are the bees knees!
    William Martin
    www.wigandia.com

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  22. Another beautiful and moving post. Moving in the sense of seeing all those palms en masse like that.Good to see some old friends in the Colletia and Eryngium.
    Sure you are right that the lessons, if such is the right word, to be learnt from seeing such an extraordinary landscape do not find immediate use. Think they are most creative and often best when they emerge after a long time!
    Best
    R

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  23. Yes, it settles in and emerges later, perhaps, or perhaps not. I'd love to grow the Colletia, but I think the closest I'll ever come is a Poncirus trifoliata. Not the same at all, but a signature plant nevertheless.

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  24. This landscape shows similarities with the tablelands of south Brazil that have a fresh subtropical climate with no dry season,and no heat extremes. Some frosty nights, making it different from the mediterranean West Cape climate. I recognize a lot of this plants shown.The queen palms, the Parodia sp,the "barba-de-velho",all the fearn shown, etc.... The sandstone outcroppings are also very familiar. The difference is that here,besides Butia odorata also grows Butia eriospatha. The big spiny bromeliad is probably Bromelia antiacantha.

    ReplyDelete
  25. This landscape shows similarities with the tablelands of south Brazil that have a fresh subtropical climate with no dry season,and no heat extremes. Some frosty nights, making it different from the mediterranean West Cape climate. I recognize a lot of this plants shown.The queen palms, the Parodia sp,the "barba-de-velho",all the fearn shown, etc.... The sandstone outcroppings are also very familiar. The difference is that here,besides Butia odorata also grows Butia eriospatha. The big spiny bromeliad is probably Bromelia antiacantha.

    ReplyDelete
  26. I don't know the tablelands of south Brazil, but this area is only about 20 miles from Brazil's southern border on the Atlantic coast. Do you live in Brazil?

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  27. Yes I live in Brazil.

    This region of Uruguay is probably identical to the southern habitat of the State Rio Grande do Sul that borders with Uruguay.

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  28. It must be beautiful there. Apparently very different from the much more humid habitats farther north in Brazil. I've never been to Brazil, but the country is so huge, deciding where to start, other than in Rio, would be difficult. Of course, I'd want to see the work of Roberto Burle Marx.

    ReplyDelete

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