Wainscott, L - Panama Hat Palm, Carludovica palmata



Biological Aspects of the Panama Hat Palm


Despite the name, the Panama hat palm did not originate in Panama, but rather Ecuador.  Ecuadorians began manufacturing renowned sun hats out of Panama hat palm leaves about 300 years ago, exporting them out of the Panama isthmus. This perennial herb can currently be found throughout Latin America ranging from Mexico to the southern part of Bolivia. Outside of their natural habitats, humans have redistributed these plants for decorative purposes. But nowhere has conditions better than Ecuador’s coastal lowlands (Miller 18).


            I chose this plant initially because I saw it at Franklin Park Conservatory. I was casually walking through the exhibits and stopped at a plant with great fan-like leaves. The plant was not tall, standing only about six feet with seemingly nothing more than a stump for a trunk. I could not see a designated name label till I lifted up one of the leaves close to the soil. That is where I read Panama hat palm, Carludovica palmata.




Panama hat Palm



I had previously known about the Panama Hat Palm through reading the novel, The Panama Hat Trail by Tom Miller. This book is a required reading for the study abroad program to Cuenca, Ecuador. For ten weeks this spring, I will be traveling throughout this biologically diverse Latin American country.


In the lowlands of Ecuador, tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests are great for the plant’s regeneration. This is due to the fertile ground, which is moist but not entirely saturated. Here, taller plants provide shade for the Panama hat palm (Miller 18). Carludovica palmata is a leafy palm-like plant that reaches an optimal height of eight feet. Within seven years after planting a seed, the first leaves can be harvested (EcoCrop). It takes six leaves, each between 50-80cm long, to weave one Panama hat (Miller 16).


The structure of the Panama hat palm is very distinct, almost like a trunkless fan-palm. According to Botany Global Issues Map, the C. palmata has a milky sap in each of its “deeply lobed” leaves due to its membership to this family of monocots. The petioles, the small stalk attaching the leaf blade to the stem, “sheath at the base” of the palm-like leaves (FashionTrends).  









The flowers on the plant are unisexual, which means that they are both male and female. There are groups of flowers, inflorescences, tightly arranged on a common axis. Weevil beetles pollinate these flowers of the Panama hat palm. The relationship between the plant and the pollinator is symbiotic, providing mutual benefits to both partners. In this relationship, the weevil feeds on the inflorescence as well as uses it as a site for shelter and mating (Fashion Trends).


The Panama hat palm is a member of the Cyclanthaceae family, a close relative of the Palmae family. However, C. palmata is not considered to be a palm at all. In fact, members of the Cyclanthaceae family are represented by an array of herbs, shrubs, and epiphytic lianas, otherwise known as climbing woody vines (Fashion Trends).


As an important tool for Ecuador’s economy, the leaves from the Panama hat palm continue to be stripped, bleached, dried, and woven into hats. After a long process, finished products are then distributed throughout the world. Unfortunately though, due its misnomer, few people know the plant originated in Ecuador and serves as a large source of economic value. When I travel to Cuenca, Ecuador (where hats are still being woven by indigenous women,) I anticipate studying this famous plant more intimately in its natural habitat.





Panama Hat







The Habitat of the Panama Hat Palm 



The Panama hat palm, (Carludovica palmate,) is found in warm regions with high levels of rainfall. These areas are great for productivity and biodiversity, consequently serving as the primary designation for tropical rainforests (Introduction).


The greatest threat to the Panama hat palm is the destruction of its habitat in the tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests.  This deforestation occurs greatest in habitats which particular tree species are native. Large destructive operations such as forestry, wood-chipping, mining, agricultural conversion, etc. continue to pose major threats to Ecuador’s forest regions. Urbanization also continues to serve as a habitat disturbance in industrializing countries such as Ecuador. 


Within tropical rainforests, individual palm species can be tall enough to form the canopy while the shorter trees will make up the understory. The shorter species are obviously more adapted to shadier conditions as they are protected by the taller trees hovering over them. When considering forest degradation, it is the understory species which often times do not survive as a result (Tropical). For example, although the Panama hat palm may not be cut down and left alone during these operations, it cannot function or reproduce due to the drastic aftermath. Consequently, many tree species have been pushed to the brink of extinction (Introduction).


            The Ecuadorian coast forest, where the Panama hat palm thrives, is diminishing in addition to the extremely biodiverse Amazon rainforest. There are very few remnants of the forest due to the increase in plowing. Essentially, the country continues to be stripped of its natural biodiversity for the sake of economic growth. Agricultural produce, logging, and oil are three of the most important export industries to the country. Consequently, their economy depends on the sales of these primary products. Latin America is relentlessly finding itself at crossroads due to the tradeoffs between economic growth and deforestation of tropical rainforests. 


            Paja taquilla (the straw that comes from the Panama Hat Palm,) coffee, oranges, and sugar cane are all very important exports which Ecuador sells to demanding industrial countries. The industrialized states will continue to purchase primary products in which countries like the U.S. manufacture and sell for a higher price. This domination of Latin America from the developed states will not cease any time soon, nor will the plowing that is undergone for agricultural transformation.  If Ecuador puts a halt to their export trade, they will have nothing left to keep their economy growing.

            Panama hat palms will also continue to be cut and stripped of their leaves for the sake of making a profit. The Panama hat palm leaves (paja taquilla) are cut by men, women, and children who venture into the forests in pursuit of the only fiber which Panama Hats are made from.  These families rely on this daily routine for income.  Families are interested in both preserving their surrounding natural environment but also providing better lives for themselves through the sales of paja taquilla.


            There are also less obvious contextual factors which threaten forests. Among these include the corruption in Latin America, poor enforcement of environmental laws, inconsistency in international organization policies, fluctuations in the market, etc. These factors are not easily combated.


            The effects of deforestation are infinite. The diminishment of the forest has exposed the soils to the effects of wind and rain. The erosion has provoked the loss of the top organic soil layer and the deterioration of its productive capacity. With deforestation, the forest is losing its function to gather the small amount of humidity available and its ability to hold water.


            Looking at a larger scope, the selective extraction of tree species has affected the flora composition of the forest remnants. Fragmentation continues to increase gaps in the forest which impede the genetic interchange between populations. To a large extent, it affects the habitat’s capacity to sustain animal populations.  For example, there are two monkey species which continue to be threatened by the deforestation in Ecuador’s coasts, Aloutta palliate and Cebus albifrons (Manejo).


            Clearly, deforestation is a catastrophic event, especially in tropical regions. In the past century, tropical forests covered more than ten percent of the earth’s surface. Now, that amount has been cut down by more than a third. However, attempts are continuously being made to combat these threats.


            Aggressive logging corporations have been battled with stronger regulations such as limiting the log size, direction and location of felling, and limitations on equipment movement. Regulations such as these have been implemented to decrease acts of reckless logging in rainforests such as those in Ecuador, trying to preserve species such as the Panama hat palm.


            According to GreenPeace.org, other ways which we can remedy deforestation is with more boundary marking. If we must use timber, then it should be cut from selected areas. There should be larger regions of land under environmental protection laws which inhibit any human interaction. The answer is more protected areas and national parks (Solutions).


            There are less obvious contextual factors which threaten forests. Among these include the corruption in Latin America, poor enforcement of environmental laws, inconsistency in international organization policies, fluctuations in the market, etc. Environmentalists around the world continue to fight and act for the preservation of what little biodiversity we have left.









Sources Cited



"Carludovica palmata." EcoCrop. 2007. Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN. 17 Feb 2008 <http://ecocrop.fao.org/ecocrop/srv/en/cropView?id=4233>.



"Carludovica palmata." Pacific Island Ecosystems at Risk. 12 Oct 2006. Institute of Pacific Islands Forestry. 12 Feb 2008 <http://www.hear.org/Pier/species/carludovica_palmata.htm>.



"Fashion Trends from Ecuador: The Panama Hat Story." Botany Global Issues Map. Apr 2000. The McGraw-Hill Companies. 12 Feb 2008 <http://www.mhhe.com/biosci/pae/botany/botany_map/articles/article_18.html>.


"Introduction." Virtual Palm Encyclopedia. 2006. Palm and Cycad Societies of Florida, Inc.. 27 Feb 2008





"Manejo y Comercializacion de la paja taquilla en dos pueblos de la costa ecuatoriana." Genero y Ambiente. 2004. IUCN. 27 Feb 2008 <http://www.iucn.org/places/orma/documentos/Equidad/pajatoquillaes.pdf>.



McBeath, Jerry. "Perspectives on Deforestation." Global Governmental Politics. 2003. The Massachusets Institute of Technology. 29 Feb 2008 <http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/global_environmental_politics/v003/3.3mcbeath.html>.



Miller, Tom. Panama Hat Trail. New York City: Random House Inc., 1986.


"Solutions to Deforestation." Greenpeace. Greepeace. 29 Feb 2008 <http://www.greenpeace.org/australia/issues/deforestation/solutions/>.



"Tropical Palms." Forestry Deparment . FAO Corporate Document Repository. 28 Feb 2008 <http://www.fao.org/docrep/X0451e/X0451e03.htm>.