Do ‘Walking Palm’ Trees Actually Roam the Rainforests of Latin America?

by Piya Sengupta12 months ago
Picture Do ‘Walking Palm’ Trees Actually Roam the Rainforests of Latin America?

Among all the magical creatures in the Lord of the Rings saga, the walking humanoid trees, or the “Ents of Middle Earth,” are quite incredible! But did you know there is a kind of tree in the rainforests in tropical Central and South America that is believed to really walk across the forest floor?

The “Walking Palm,” or the Socratea exorrhiza, or “cashapona,” can grow up to 80 feet in height and are said to move away from where they are rooted and slowly “walk” towards the sunlight.

But can they, really? And, if so, how? Let’s find out!

The Myth and the Legend of the Walking Palm Tree

Socratea exorrhiza
Socratea exorrhiza

The myth, or the legend, stems from the unusual stilt roots of these palm trees. The trunks of these trees usually split into multiple smaller roots that are long and sturdy. They are often seen a few feet off the ground, growing outwards from the base of the trees. This makes them look like magical trees with many little legs, walking with purpose across the forest floor.

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For any tourist visiting the rainforests, the “walking palm” is a primary attraction. The guides tell many stories about how these trees supposedly walk stealthily across the forest floor when no one is looking. They also say that these trees “walk” slowly from shade toward the sunlight by growing new roots and letting their old roots die if they interfere in their way toward the light. According to the stories, these trees can move up to a distance of 20 meters (around 65 feet) per year.

Socratea exorrhiza
Socratea exorrhiza roots. Image credit: Dr. Alexey Yakovlev/Flickr

Initially, scientists thought that their stilt-like roots were an adaptation to flooding in the rainforests. They explained that when the ground beneath these trees becomes saturated, their stilt roots stabilize them to prevent them from falling over. Also, some researchers believed that these tall roots help them to reach light without having to increase the diameter of the stems. Other scientists believe that their roots allow the trees to get a more stable ground as they grow in swampy rainforests with a lot of debris.

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A Hypothesis in 1980 Explained the “Walk” with Reason.

Walking palm
Walking palm. Image credit: Palmpedia.net

John H. Bodley, in 1980, gave a scientific explanation of the “walking palm” trees phenomenon. According to him, the unusual stilt roots of the Socratea exorrhiza allow the trees to right themselves if any other tree or plant collapses on them. The palm trees then start to grow normally, rooted in one spot. Then, another plant or tree suddenly falls and flattens the original stem. When that happens, new stilt roots start to grow from the old stem, and the old roots slowly start to die.

The palm tree then starts growing normally again but moves away from the original germination spot and starts growing from the new roots. This entire process makes the trees shift slowly from their original germination spot.

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Can the Walking Palm Trees Really Walk?

Cashapona tree
Walking palm a.k.a Cashapona Tree

Though most scientists disagree on this, Peter Vršanský, a paleobiologist from the Slovak Academy of Sciences, Bratislava, has claimed to have seen this marvel with his own eyes. In his words, when the soil erodes, these palm trees grow new, long roots that soon find an anchor on more solid ground. As the drama unfolds, these new roots slowly settle in the new soil. Consequently, to keep up with the legs, the palm tree bends slowly toward its new roots, and the old roots slowly lift into the air. Is that walking? According to Vršanský, this entire process of relocating to a new place with better sunlight and more solid ground can take a few years. But, none of the theories are confirmed.

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But, in reality, no one has seen these trees walk.

The Truth Is, the Roots Are Not Meant for Walking!

Walking palm roots
Walking palm roots

Biologist Gerardo Avalos, the director of the Center for Sustainable Development Studies in Atenas, Costa Rica, is one of the world’s top experts on the Socratea Exorrhiza, or the “walking palm.”

The Socratea palm
The Socratea palm roots.
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His analysis of the “walking palm” trees and their roots was published in 2005 in the journal Biotropica. It said that, contrary to popular belief, the walking trees definitely cannot walk because their roots do not move. He says a few roots may die on one side or another, but the tree trunks always remain rooted to the spot.

Walking palm roots closeup
Walking palm roots closeup

According to belief, these trees can move up to 20 meters per year, which is roughly 66 feet. If that were true, all the walking palms would have moved at least .6 miles in just 50 years. If that had happened, someone would have surely noticed.

Tourists observing Socratea exorrhiza palm trees
Tourists observing Socratea exorrhiza palm trees. Image credit: F Delventhal/Flickr

Avalos said that his paper proves that the walking palm is just a myth, mostly created by tourist guides in need of amusing stories to tell all visitors to the rainforests. The myths and the stories about the walking palms are still very much alive today. Scientists are still not 100% sure of the functions of their stilt roots and the advantage they provide to these trees.

But for sure, whatever they are meant for, it is not walking!

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Picture Do ‘Walking Palm’ Trees Actually Roam the Rainforests of Latin America?
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