Mauritia flexuosa (2)
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This is one of the most noble and majestic of the American Palms. It grows to a height of eighty or a hundred feet. The stem is straight and smooth, about five feet in circumference, often perfectly cylindrical, but sometimes swollen near the middle or towards the top, so that the bottom is the thinnest part.
The leaves spread out in every direction from the top of the stem. They are very large and fan-shaped, the leaflets spreading out rigidly on all sides and only drooping at the tips and at the midrib or elongation of the petiole. The leaves stand on long stalks which are very straight and thick, and much swollen at the base which clasps the stem. A full-grown fallen leaf of this tree is a grand sight. The expanded sheathing base is a foot in diameter; the petiole is a solid beam ten or twelve feet long, and the leaf itself is nine or ten in diameter. An entire leaf is a load for a man.
From the fruits a favourite Indian beverage is produced. They are soaked in water till they begin to ferment, and the scales and pulpy matter soften and can be easily rubbed off in water. When strained through a sieve it is ready for use, and has a slight acid taste and a peculiar flavour of the fruit at first rather disagreeable to European palates.
In the tidal districts about Para, the massive trunks of these trees are often used to form a raised pathway across the expanse of soft mud generally left at low water between "terra firma" and the water's edge. A smooth and slippery cylinder is certainly not the best thing that could be devised for this purpose, but as it is the most easily procured and the least expensive it is proportionately common, and on paying a visit to many a Brazilian country house, should you arrive at low water, you will have no other means of getting ashore. The Miriti is a social palm, covering large tracts of tide-flooded lands on the Lower Amazon. In these places there is no underwood to break the view among interminable ranges of huge columnar stems rising undisturbed by branch or leaf to the height of eighty or one hundred feet, a vast natural temple which does not yield in grandeur and sublimity to those of Palmyra or Athens. Of the age of these noble trees we have no knowledge, but it is remarkable how uniform they appear in size, there often being not a single young tree over a considerable extent of ground, particularly in places now flooded daily by the tide. One would therefore imagine that the present trees sprung up when the ground was more elevated than at present, and that it has since gradually sunk (or the waters risen) till the conditions have become unfavourable for the growth of young plants, though not hurtful to those which had already attained a certain age. Whether such is the true explanation of the phenomenon can only be decided by continued observation on the spot.
Palm Trees of the Amazon, Alfred Russel Wallace Pub: John van Voorst; 1853