The Emperor’s Tree, Freed by Slaves

One of the things I love about life in Brazil is that there are plenty of public holidays. Next Tuesday is the ‘Proclamation of the Republic’ holiday and seeing as it lands on a Tuesday, many people will get Monday off work too. Four days off work just as the summer is getting going? Yes, I’m pretty happy about that. Of course the weather forecast is showing 4 straight days of thundery rain, but right now the sun is shining and I’m heading off to Jardim Botanico, Rio’s botanic gardens. 

The Imperial Palms of Jardim Botanico.

The huge Imperial Palms (Roystonea oleracea) of Jardim Botanico are hard to miss, having been planted in great avenues lining many of the paths. These long-lived palms form a fascinating part of Rio’s history. 

Brazil’s first Imperial palm was brought to the country in 1809 and was planted in the botanical gardens. Being a native of the Antilles, this first palm was seen as something very special and was even given a name – Palma Mater (the mother palm). All Imperial palms in Brazil are descended from this one specimen. At that time, possession of one of these distinctive, elegant palms was seen as an important status symbol to be restricted to those with close links to power. 

This is Palma Mater – the first of it’s kind in Brazil.



Twenty years after it was first planted, Palma Mater flowered and fruited. This was seen as a threat to the palm’s exclusivity and the director of the gardens ordered that the fruits be removed and burned.

However, that night, slaves climbed the palm, collected the fruit and secretly sold them. And this is how these palms came to spread across Brazil, available to all. 

What a great story! For starters, if you have seen an Imperial Palm, you have to share my admiration for whoever climbed up to collect the seeds – those things are massive! I guess a 20 year old palm may not be quite so huge as the fully grown specimens, but still, who here has climbed a palm tree? And somehow it seems fitting that it was slaves who were instrumental in the dispersal of this plant that had been restricted to the rich and powerful. 

As a rather touching footnote to this tale, Palma Mater lived on until 1972 – 163 years after it was originally planted. It had reached 38.7 metres (127 feet) when it was struck by lightning. Its trunk was preserved and is still kept in the Jardim Botanico museum. They took a seedling of Palma Mater and planted it in the same place – this one is named Palma Filia (daughter palm) 

Palma Filia – the daughter of a very important tree.
3 replies
  1. Tom Le Mesurier
    Tom Le Mesurier says:

    Hi Amanda! How nice to hear from you! It really is a great story isn't it? When I started writing today's post it was going to be a more general description of Jardim Botanico, but the more I read and learned about these palms, the more I said to myself "this story deserves a post of it's own!".

  2. Erika
    Erika says:

    Hello Tom

    I am Erika from TravelerVoice, a new social network for travel bloggers.

    I just found your blog and I really like how you described your stories in Brazil with beautiful pictures and assertive comments! It's exactly the kind of writing we are looking for our Living abroad section, so please feel free to register :)

    I am looking forward to hearing from you :)



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