In 1991 Rodrigo Bernal, a botanist who specializes in palms, was driving into the Tochecito River Basin, a secluded mountain canyon in central Colombia, when he was seized by a sense of foreboding.

Two palm experts were in the car with Dr. Bernal: his late wife, the botanist Gloria Galeano, who worked alongside him at the National University of Colombia in Bogotá; and Andrew Henderson, visiting from the New York Botanical Garden. They were chasing the Quindío wax palm, the tallest of the world’s palms.

Wax palms have long intrigued explorers and botanists for their remarkable height, with some reaching 200 feet. Until the giant sequoias of California were discovered, wax palms were believed to be the tallest trees on earth. A thick wax coats their trunks, something not seen in other palms, and they live where palms aren’t supposed to: on the chilly slopes of the Andes, at elevations as high as 10,000 feet. This has made them notoriously hard to collect and study. “They were these huge, iconic palms no one knew much about,” Dr. Henderson said recently.

The Quindío wax palm — the species predominant in Colombia — was named the country’s national tree in 1985, but the distinction came with little protection. Dr. Bernal and Dr. Galeano warned, in paper after paper, that wax palms were in danger. Many were marooned in pastures and vegetable fields, remnants of forests past. Wax palms cannot reproduce outside a forest: Their seedlings die in full sun, or are eaten by cows and pigs.

In Colombia’s largest known stand of the palms, only a couple thousand remained. But the scientists had heard that there were hundreds of thousands tucked away in the Tochecito River Basin — making it the world’s biggest wax palm forest, if the rumor proved true. The trouble was that no one could reach the place safely.


The entire canyon, Dr. Bernal knew driving in, was controlled by guerrillas with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC. As a field scientist who often found himself in lawless corners of the country, he had encountered armed groups and come away unscathed. But now with Dr. Henderson in the car — a foreigner, an easy target for kidnapping — the solitude became terrifying. “I put the car in reverse so quickly I damaged it,” he recalled.

But they had ventured far enough to see and to photograph lush stands of the palms cascading down mountaintops, their pale wax-covered trunks extending like matchsticks from the dark understory. This was the same view that Alexander von Humboldt, the 19th-century German explorer, had absorbed in 1801. He later described the vista as among the most moving in all his travels: “a forest above a forest, where the tall and slender palms pierce the leafy veil around them.”

Dr. Bernal decided that if he couldn’t study Tochecito’s palms, he would have to forget them, “to erase them from my mind.” The Colombian conflict had that effect: it created spaces forbidden even to think about, blank spots on maps and in minds.

To the scientists’ surprise, they were able to return to Tochecito in 2012, after the Colombian army had driven out the FARC. In the guerrillas’ absence, they found, the last giant stands of wax palms faced new and dire threats. Now Dr. Bernal and his colleagues are trying to save the palms, and study them at the same time.

By the time Tochecito became safe to visit again, the scientists had a new collaborator: María José Sanín, now a botanist at CES University in Medellín. To Dr. Sanín, a generation younger than her mentors, Tochecito had been no more than a tantalizing photo they’d snapped on their aborted 1991 trip. “It was always described to me as a place you couldn’t go,” she said.

Most of what is known about wax palms comes from Dr. Bernal, Dr. Galeano and Dr. Sanín, collaborating with one another or with outside researchers. Dr. Galeano died of cancer in 2016; since then, the research team, once a trio, has mainly been a duo.

Dr. Bernal, now an independent scientist, has long worked on palm taxonomy, ecology and conservation. Last year he, Dr. Sanín and Blanca Martinez, a forestry student at the National University in Bogotá, reported that a handful of Tochecito’s wax palms had switched sexes, a phenomenon rare in nature.

“We’d been following one female palm for a year, and all of the sudden she’s got a male cluster” of flowers, Dr. Bernal said. Aberrations like this can’t be observed if you have only a small stand of palms to study, “much less some dried fruits and leaves in an herbarium.”

Dr. Sanín began her career with a sweeping monograph on Ceroxylon, the wax palm genus, characterizing a dozen species from Bolivia to Venezuela. Lately she has taken up questions of biogeography and genetic diversity in wax palm forests, for which samples from Tochecito have proven key.

In 2016 Dr. Sanín and her colleagues showed that wax palms developed their curious tolerance to cold some 12 million years ago, as the Andes rose. Now she is using molecular studies of the palms to create more precise estimates of when different parts of the Andes began their ascent — enlisting a living species to help solve a geological puzzle.

In colonial times, a road called the Quindío Pass crossed through Tochecito, and fragments of it can still be seen today. When Alexander von Humboldt came through in 1801, he encountered no way stations or farmhouses, just wax palm forests and mule trails.

Some 75 years later, the French botanist Édouard André came to Tochecito to conduct a detailed study of the palms Humboldt had described. He stayed at a property called Las Cruces, whose house was entirely constructed of wax palm trunks, its roof thatched with their leaves. The candles illuminating it were made from the palms’ wax.

Las Cruces is now the site of a rustic brick-and-mortar guesthouse where Dr. Bernal and his colleagues stay on their visits. Its proprietors remember with horror the gun battles that transpired a decade ago as the army fought the guerrillas.

The porch at Las Cruces opens to a wide expanse of mountains alternately cleared and forested. On a recent morning, the crowns of the wax palms could be seen breaching the cloud line as a host of bird species — toucans, parrots, jays — made for the trees’ red-orange fruits. Small birds pick at the fruits and large ones swallow them whole, then regurgitate the seeds onto the ground.

Behind the farmhouse, a steep cow pasture ascended into a forest of white waxy trunks. As Dr. Bernal and Dr. Sanín hiked into the forest, they talked nonstop about a project they were working on: an update of a guide to Colombia’s palms, whose first edition was published by Dr. Galeano and Dr. Bernal. They are adding 28 species, many recently identified in former conflict regions.

Dr. Bernal stopped at one tree and used a coin to scratch wax from a trunk. It crumbled into a powder as it fell, exposing a smooth green stem. Once the wax is removed it is gone forever, although the palms appear to suffer no harm. Dr. Bernal said he has long wondered if this was the wax that pre-Columbian peoples of the region used in casting their gold figurines: “Why would you go through the trouble of cultivating bees when you only had to climb a tree?”

As Dr. Sanín and Dr. Bernal entered a clearing, they encountered some letters etched in the wax of a trunk: “Death to the FARC.” They stood there for a moment, assessing the palm’s height and the dusting of lichen surrounding the message. They guessed that it was written some 10 years ago, when the army came through.

For all Dr. Bernal and Dr. Sanín have contributed to the science of wax palms, conserving them remains an elusive goal.

Colombia’s only established wax palm sanctuary lies near the coffee-growing town of Jardín. It is run by a bird conservation group that aims to protect the endangered yellow-eared parrot, which nests in wax palm stems. The problem: The palms must be dead.

“That population of palms is geriatric and massively dying,” Dr. Sanín said. “So it’s good for the parrots and the bird watchers, but terrible for botanists.”

In 2012 the scientists mounted an effort to protect some 2,000 wax palms near the town of Salento, in a place popular among tourists, but where there is also heavy cattle grazing and the constant threat of mining. They briefly helped make Salento’s wax palms a cause célèbre. But their detailed conservation plan drew little interest from local authorities and landowners.


They soon turned their efforts to the newly accessible Tochecito, which had about half a million palms growing on private land, and fewer owners to win over. The valley had been spared the expansion of grazing and mining that would likely have occurred had the FARC not isolated it for so long.

In 2016, some 13,000 members of the FARC demobilized after a peace agreement with the Colombian government. Although other armed groups, including some made up of dissident FARC members, remain a threat, the accord opened up whole swaths of the country for agriculture, mining and conservation — with each faction scrambling for priority.

That year Dr. Bernal and Dr. Sanín proposed a government-backed palm sanctuary that would protect the entire 32 square miles of the river basin. But after 18 months of “meetings in Bogotá, meetings with proprietors, meetings with the ministry of the environment,” Dr. Bernal said, most of the Tochecito landowners walked away from the table, feeling that their activities would be too restricted.

Cows aren’t the only threat the palms face; a South African company still hopes to create an enormous open-pit gold mine on the other side of the valley. A local referendum halted work on the project in 2017, but many doubt that it can withstand legal challenges, especially given the firm’s deep pockets and support from Colombia’s national government.

In recent years, a number of rural communities in Colombia have rejected large-scale mining, opting to rely instead on farming and, increasingly, tourism.

Dr. Bernal said that in the first years of his return to Tochecito, he saw no visitors. The road that runs through it did not appear on digital maps; impassable for so long under the guerrillas, it had been all but forgotten.

Now Jeeps full of young adventurers, most of them European, travel this road every day. Cycling outfitters haul clients and bicycles to a hilltop farm, allowing them to enjoy dramatic forest views as they descend.

On an overcast morning in August, Michael Pahle and Teresa Lüdde, from Berlin, rested on a grassy bluff, taking in a misty mountainside dense with palms as part of their cycling tour. Mr. Pahle later said he thought the more famous palms near Salento appeared “rather scattered and sad” by comparison.

A few landowners have reinvented their properties as wax palm reserves. One charges a modest admission of $1.50 for its views, and serves snacks. Another is phasing out its cattle herds and receiving tourists and researchers.

Even still, the specter of mining is never far off. As the scientists drove out of the valley, Dr. Sanín noticed holes carved by a backhoe in the high earthen bank flanking the road: evidence of recent prospecting.

Dr. Bernal said he believes that the best hope for Tochecito lies in land purchases to create a contiguous chain of private sanctuaries. Just two large tracts harbor a quarter of the palms, he said. With four, most of the forest could be saved.

He stopped his car briefly at the base of the valley, where the FARC encampment used to stand. There was virtually nothing left of it, just remnants of a garden the guerrillas once maintained, in a clearing they’d used as their dance hall.

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