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Palm Family

Socratea exorrhiza (Mart.) H. Wendl., a canopy palm, showing the habit of the palm, with stilt roots, a close-up of the spiny root, and a seed with its characteristic netted pattern. Una palma del dosel. El dibujo muestra su forma de crecimiento, con raices adventicias, una muestra de la raíz espinosa, y una semilla con su patrón característico similar a una red.

Description: Arecaceae have leaves that are simple, or pinnately or palmately compound, always with strongly parallel venation. They are trees or shrubs with unbranched trunks (sometimes acaulescent, i.e., stemless), and one (Desmoncus) is a liana. They can be confused with cyclanths, but there are easy ways to tell the families apart (see the description of Cyclanthaceae). Arecaceae are an important component of tropical forests worldwide. In old-growth forests of the Zona Norte, palms are common in both the understory and the canopy.

Economic uses: Palms are used for construction material throughout the tropics, both as thatch and as structural timbers. The dense wood of the stilt palms Iriartea deltiodea and Socratea exorrhiza is used in the construction of balsa rafts in the Amazon: sharpened stakes of palm wood are driven through the soft balsa logs (Ochroma pyramidale, Bombacaceae) to fasten them together. Palms are also an important source of food, both for their fruit and for their soft apical meristems (heart of palm, or palmito). Many palm fruits are a crucial source of oil in the generally low-fat diets of native people, both in Africa and the Neotropics. Coconuts (Cocos nucifera), as well as edible fruit, provide chemicals that are used in the manufacture of products ranging from soap to industrial lubricants.

Descripción: Las Arecaceas tienen hojas simples o compuestas, palmadas o pinnadas, siempre con las venas paralelas. Son árboles o arbustos con troncos no ramificados (a veces sin troncos), y un género (Desmoncus) es un bejuco. Las palmas se puede confundir con las Cyclanthaceas, pero hay unas características que se puede usar para distinguirlas fácilmente (vea la descripción para las Cyclanthaceas). Las Arecaceas son un componente muy importante en los bosques tropicales de todo el mundo. En bosques madurosde la Zona Norte, las palmas son comunes tanto en el sotobosque como en el dosel.

Usos económicos: En las zonas tropicales de todo el mundo, las palmas se usaron tradicionalmente para construir casas y techos de paja. La madera densa de las “palmas que caminan,” Iriartea deltiodea y Socratea exorrhiza, se usa en Amazonas para fijar los palos de balsas: se martillan estacas afiladas de la madera de palma a través de la madera suave de la balsa (Ochroma pyramidale, Bombacaceae) para unir los palos. Además, las palmas son fuentes importantes de alimento. Se come la zona meristemática (palmito), y también los frutos. Muchos frutos de palmas son una fuente imprescindible de grasa en las dietas de los nativos en Africa y la zona neotropical, que muchas veces carece de grasa. El coco (Cocos nucifera) es comestible y también provee quimicos que se usan para elaborar jabón, lubricantes industriales, y otros productos.

Genera/species at La Selva: 18/34: Understory palms (palmas del sotobosque): Asterogyne (1), Astrocaryum (2), Bactris (6), Calyptrogyne (1), Chamaedorea (4), Geonoma (6), Pholidostachys (1), Reinhardtia (2), Synechanthus (2) Climbing palms (trepadoras): Desmoncus (1) Canopy palms (palmas que crecen al dosel): Cocos (1), Cryosophila (1), Elaeis (1), Euterpe (1), Iriartea (1), Prestoea (1), Socratea (1), Welfia (1).

A Key to the Palms of La Selva enables users to identify most palms to the level of genus or species. The user-friendly key is accompanied by an image gallery showing characteristics of most of the palm species found at La Selva.

FIELD MARKS – leaves fan-like (palmate), feathery (pinnate), or fishtail shaped.

Palms are a common feature of the understory in the La Selva forest. A few speices will reach the subcanopy, but most will spend their entire lives in the understory, never growing more than 2-3 m in height.
Understory palm Synecanthus warscewiczianus is distinguished by sigmoid leaflets of various sizes.
The subcanopy palm Welfia regia is one of the most common trees at La Selva and is readily distinguished by long antler-like inforescences that bear an unsettling resemblance to snakes after they fall to the ground. Worse yet is the fact that mice consume the fruits that fall to the ground, thereby attracting bushmasters (real snakes) to the areas around these palms.
Understory palm Asterogyne martiana is distinguished by a branching infloresence and leaves that feel like thin sheets of stiff plastic.
Understory palm Asterogyne martiana is distinguished by a branching infloresence and leaves that feel like thin sheets of stiff plastic.
Asterogyne with orange tint to the youngest leaf.
Prestoea decurrens leaflets suddenly taper to a narrow point. A 180° rotation where the leaflet narrows results in the formation of a small pocket.
Stilt roots of Socratea exorrhiza, the “walking palm”. The roots of Socratea come off the tree between shoulder and waist height and it is possible to see through the cluster of roots. Roots of the other common stilt palm, Iriartea deltoidea, come off the trunk at knee height and in a very dense cluster. (Remember that Socrates was a smart guy and defintely not dense.


  • Araus, J.L., Hogan, K.P. 1994. Leaf structure and patterns of photoinhibition in two neotropical palms in clearings and forest understory during the dry season. American Journal of Botany. 81: 726-738.
  • Avalos, G., Salazar, D., Araya, A.L. 2005. Stilt root structure in the neotropical palms Irartea deltoidea and Socratea exorrihiza. Biotropica. 37: 44-53.
  • Chazdon, Robin L. 1986. the costs of leaf support in understory palms: economy versus safety. The American Naturalist 127: 9-30
  • Chazdon, Robin L. 1991. Effects of leaf and ramet removal on growth and reproduction of Geonoma congesta, A clonal understory palm. Journal of Ecology 79: 1137-1146
  • Chazdon, Robin L. 1992. Patterns of growth and reproduction of Geonoma congesta, a clustered understory palm. Biotropica 24: 43-51
  • Clark, D.A., Clark, D.B., Sandoval, R.,Castro, M.V. 1995. Edaphic and Human Effects on Landscape-scale Distributions of Tropical Rain Forest Palms. Ecology. 76: 2581-2594.
  • Zotz, G., Vollrath, B. 2003. The epiphyte Vegetation of the Palm Socratea exorrihiza – Correlations with Tree Size, Tree Age and Bryophyte Cover. Journal of Tropical Ecology 19: 81-90.

< < Previous family: Araliaceae
Next family: Aristolochiaceae > >
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