From Tolkien’s Imagination to Tropical Reality – The Tale of the Walking Palm

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Written By Lakeisha Ethans

Heritage Gardener with Grafting Expertise

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Home » Ancient & Remarkable Trees » From Tolkien’s Imagination to Tropical Reality – The Tale of the Walking Palm

In the lush heart of tropical Central and South America’s rainforests, there stands a rather remarkable tree, the Socratea exorrhiza – also known as the walking palm or cashapona.

This tree isn’t just any palm; it sports a unique set of stilt-like roots that have sparked the curiosity and debate of scientists for decades.

Imagine a tree that could “walk.”

Initially spurred by the unusual stilt roots of the Socratea exorrhiza, the early theories proposed that these roots could help the tree relocate, especially if displaced by another tree.

Long Stilt Roots on a Walking Palm (Socratea exorrhiza)
Long Stilt Roots on a Walking Palm (Socratea exorrhiza)

Though these trees don’t traverse the forest in the way one might imagine, the real dynamics of these roots are nonetheless compelling.

Echoing the slow-moving Ents from JRR Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings,” these trees can subtly shift their position on the forest floor.

As new roots grow and reach out for firmer, more nutrient-rich soil- sometimes extending up to 20 meters away – the trees gradually reposition themselves.

This slow migration, which can take several years, helps them capture better sunlight and stability.

Walking Palm Stilt Roots

Observations by Peter Vrsansky, a palaeobiologist at the Earth Science Institute of the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Bratislava, have confirmed such movements, as trees extend new roots to move up to three centimeters daily while older roots lift into the air.

Additionally, these stilt roots provide stability and allow the palm to grow taller and faster than its competitors, focusing energy on vertical growth in the dense, competitive rainforest environment.

This adaptation is especially advantageous in a habitat characterized by a cluttered forest floor, replete with debris and uneven terrain.

The walking palm is not only a marvel of adaptation but also a hub of biodiversity.

Its tall frame, covered in stilt roots, supports a myriad of life forms. From beetles that pollinate its flowers during the dry season to white-lipped peccaries that feed on its seeds, the tree plays a pivotal role in its ecosystem.

It also serves as a living apartment complex for various epiphytes—plants that grow on other plants.

Frond of the Walking Palm – Smartse, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Researchers found that older, larger palms are likely to host up to 66 different species of these companions, turning them into vertical gardens floating in the forest canopy.

Local peoples have found their uses for the walking palm as well. Its wood is ideal for constructing houses and crafting spears, while its roots have been used traditionally as an aphrodisiac.

Its fruits provide nourishment, and its leaves can be woven into roofs for shelters, blending the tree’s utility with its ecological role.

Thus, the Socratea exorrhiza, with its fascinating stilt roots and ability to foster life in numerous forms, stands not just as a tree but as a pillar of the rainforest community—a true marvel of nature’s ingenuity.

Walking Palms in the Rainforest

Want More?

If the Walking Palm tree has captured your imagination, you might also be enchanted by the stories of other remarkable trees worldwide.

Marvel at the Great Banyan in India, an immense tree whose vast root system mimics a forest.

Reflect on the ancient Olive Trees of Gethsemane, steeped in history.

Admire the iconic Lone Cypress, resilient against coastal winds, and the majestic Ombalantu Baobab, central to community gatherings.

Explore the sad story of the Sycamore Gap Tree and the historic Hundred Horse Chestnut.

Sources – Wikipedia & BBC

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Lakeisha Ethans

Heritage Gardener with Grafting Expertise

Lakeisha grew up in East Africa, literally surrounded by nature which sparked her interest in learning more about trees and plants from a very young age. She belongs to a family of gardeners, so for her, gardening is a way of life, a tradition she’s proud to uphold. As a self-taught gardener, Lakeisha has successfully grafted trees to produce hybrids for gardens and landscapes. When she’s not gardening, she’s writing about her experience with nature or watching baking fails!