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The Zamias and Chiguas of Colombia
By Alvaro Calonje Daly

Colombia is best known as the producer of the world’s finest coffee, but is also infamous for cocaine and heroin production and the violent warfare it has helped engender. The violence and widespread corruption which have plagued Colombia for over 30 years have mainly been the result of conflicts of interests among drug dealers, weapons merchants, rebel Marxist guerrillas, paramilitary groups, and the Colombian government.

It is hard to believe that such an ugly conflict could be staged in such an incredibly beautiful and biodiverse country. Colombia enjoys both Atlantic and Pacific Ocean coastlines, and one-third of the country is covered by the Amazon jungle. In addition to this, the Andes mountain range splits into three distinct ranges in southern Colombia, allowing for many different ecosystems which house an astonishing biodiversity. With over 55,000 plant species, Colombia contains 10% of the world’s biodiversity, second only to Brazil, a much larger country.

Ten percent of Colombia’s land mass is part of the National Park System, and some of these parks are occupied by guerrilla units or paramilitary groups, thus impeding access to these areas and the opportunity for research.  This has contributed to the mystery surrounding the Colombian Zamias.

Colombia has about 18 species of Zamias and Chiguas occurring in different habitats that range from tropical rainforest to high elevation cloud forest. Colombian Zamias are somewhat mythical because some species were discovered last century  by Wallis and Braun and only rediscovered by Bernal and Stevenson this century. Some species have hardly ever been seen, others occur only in small areas that are of difficult and dangerous access, while others grew in areas which have been flooded for the construction of large hydroelectric projects.

The different habitats where Zamias and Chiguas occur are savanna in the Northern coast, which has well-defined rainy and dry seasons; rainforest in both the Amazon and the Choco areas; high tropical dry forest in the east of the country; and cloud forest formation in the northwest.

Zamia wallisii

The cloud forests of Antioquia contain two of the rarest and most endangered species of any Zamias in the world: Zamia montana and Z. wallisii. Montana is the highest elevation cycad in the world, found at 2700 mts above sea level and Z. wallisii is the Zamia with the largest leaflets.  Both are endangered because of heavy logging in the area. The Urrao cloud forest, one of the most beautiful cloud forests in the world has already been decimated. Many of the prime cloud forests of Colombia have been cut for opium poppy cultivation for the manufacturing of heroin.

Zamia encephalartoides

The high elevation tropical dry forest of Santander contains one species of rare beauty. Zamia encephalartoides is a trunked Zamia which grows to six meters tall, has a black female cone, and thrives in dry areas of two distinct localities in the Chicamocha canyon. These plants are very resistant to salts and drought and don’t seem to like wet tropical conditions. I have seen them growing outdoors in Southern California.

Chigua restrepoi

The savannas of Cordoba in Northern Colombia house Chigua bernalii and C. restrepoi, two species of a newly described genus that are truly exquisite in their architecture. Their leaflets have a protruding midrib vein. These species are found growing together and further studies may confirm that they are only one species. Zamia muricata, which also grows in scrubland, is a smallish zamia with sharp teeth in its leaflets. Zamia ulei is found in the eastern savanna of Colombia as an under-story plant as well.

The Amazon and Choco rainforests hold a bounty in different species of Zamias.  Zamia amazonica occurs in both areas in disjunct populations. Zamia roezlii is common, while others such as Z. disodon are extremely rare and possibly extinct.

Z. roezlii Z. chigua Z. amplifolia

Zamia roezlii, which grows to a height of 10 meters, is the largest of all the Zamias and is found near mangrove swamps in the Pacific coast; it tolerates high salts and is quite a beautiful Zamia, with high phenotypic variability.  In the Calima Valley near Buenaventura one can find Z. chigua, Z. roezlii and Z. amplifolia, with Z. amplifolia being more elusive and rare. Zamia chigua is a rather peculiar-looking Zamia, with very fine, closely spaced leaflets. I believe that these three species possibly produce natural hybrids because of the different forms to be found.

Zamia manicata

In the Choco one can find Zamia manicata, which has beautiful bronze emerging leaves and is one of two species of  Zamias with collars in their leaflets. The other is a newly found one, Zamia macrochiera.

Zamia obliqua

Another species is Zamia obliqua, a tall Zamia that can grow to eight meters and is found as an under-story plant. It has very nice apple-green leaflets and can have up to six leaves at a time.  This species occurs also in Panama.

Zamia amazonica is one of the most attractive Zamias, with its gorgeous red emerging flushes and deep, dark, glossy leaves.  This one has great horticultural potential because of its beauty.

There are several smaller Zamias in the Choco and the Amazon and they are Z. poeppigiana, Z. melanorachis and Z. lecontei.

The state of conservation of Zamias in Colombia shows some promise by the work of the botanical garden in Medellin and a private arboretum near Cali.  Unfortunately the Pacific rainforest has been targeted as a prime coca leaf growing area and has been logged and planted.. The Colombian rainforests have always been exploited for their wealth of natural resources; they have been a target for collection of gold, platinum, hardwood, as well as their unique flora and fauna. It seems so durable and resilient yet it is actually very frail. Hopefully the conflict affecting Colombia will deescalate to negotiations and botanists from all over the world will be able to visit this beautiful and diverse country.

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