In the uniquely diverse forests of southeastern Peru that we help to protect through our conservation and ecotourism initiatives, among the most fascinating and biodiverse ecosystems are the areas known in Spanish as “aguajales”, which can be translated as “palm wetlands”.
In the forests of South America’s Amazon basin, palms are among the most common trees, accounting for six of the ten most abundant species, and they are up to five times more numerous than those palms found in Asian and African tropical and subtropical forests.
With their extensive wetlands and areas of floodable forest, the diverse ecosystems of the Tambopata area where our eco-lodge is located offer ideal conditions for the creation of palm wetlands. So-called “aguajales” are areas within the forest dominated by a single palm species, the aguaje (Mauritia flexuosa), better known in the English speaking world as the moriche palm. These large palms can grow up to 35 meters (115 feet) in height, with their long, slender trunks topped by a rounded crown of big leaves.
The moriche palm grows exclusively in and around marsh and wetland areas. It produces yellowish flowers and the fruit, which usually appears between December and June, is brown like a chestnut and covered in smooth scales. The yellow flesh of the nut surrounds a hard seed. This seed floats, and in the wetland or floodable forest habitats favored by the moriche palm, this property functions as a perfect method for propagation, resulting in the characteristic high density palm wetland concentrations of moriche known as “aguajales”. According to some studies, an average of around 265 moriche palms grow in every hectare (2.47 acres) of palm wetland.
The waters of aguaje forests and the tasty fruits of the moriche palm combine to attract many species of rainforest fauna. Several species of birds, including macaws, flycatchers and orioles, favor the moriche palm for nest building, as well as relying on its fruit as an important part of their diet. Mammals such as monkeys, tapirs and peccaries also feed on this palm’s fruit, as do some species of fish. Each palm produces its first fruit after around eight years, and will continue to produce fruits for between forty and fifty years.
The moriche palm is also exploited by humans. The fruit is rich in vitamins A and C, as well as beta-carotene. In Peru, the fruit is popular and is used to make juices, jams, ice cream and even wine. In addition, the tree’s flower buds can be eaten as a vegetable, and the sap can be drunk. The highly nutritious oil produced from the moriche palm fruit is reddish in color. Traditionally, rainforest communities use this oil as a dye, while also using fibers from the moriche palm to make rope or thread.
The palm wetlands of the Amazon basin are also important carbon sinks, functioning far more efficiently in this regard than the surrounding non-floodable forest. In recent years, however, scientists have begun to understand that palm wetlands are extremely sensitive to climate change, and that their carbon cycling role should therefore be considered as under threat.