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The Apple of the Amazon: An Ethnography of Pijuayo – Part 4

Not a Peach, Not an Apple

Calling pijuayo the peach palm is an obvious misnomer because pijuayo bears little resemblance to the peach. Calling pijuayo the ‘apple of the Amazon’ is also a limited comparison deserving caveats. There are several ways in which pijuayo is very unlike an apple. Most apparently, in botanical terms pijuayo is a member of the palm family Arecaceae while apple is a tree’s tree from the family Rosaceae. In other words, no botanical relation. No less importantly, the apple’s wide distribution and success as an eating fruit has been based on its sweet taste – nothing like the starchy, oily taste and dietary value of pijuayo.

In Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon, pijuayo is sold in markets and on street corners accompanied by ají de cocona, an excellent hot sauce made with the aromatic, sour cocona fruit and hot peppers. Photograph by Camino Verde visitor and friend Andrew Schwarz.

To complete this roundup of the most important differences between the species, the ethnography of each fruit and the history of cultivation is also very much of interest. While it is clear that pijuayo has been grown, selected, and transported to new growing locations by humans for at least several thousand years, the propagation of this palm has always been seed-based. The genetic selection performed by humans undoubtedly helped emphasize attractive features (like tastier fruits or lack of spines on the trunk and leaves), but this was over a period of many hundreds of plant generations.

On the other hand, for thousands of years the selection and propagation of apples as we know them has relied on grafting. It is forgivable to believe that grafting is a modern plant propagation technique, but in fact we have clear documentation showing that the ancient Chinese and Greeks knew all about it. With a variety of tree species including apple, clones are taken in the form of twigs or budwood from the best producing or most delicious-fruiting trees and from there grafted onto rootstock – meaning plants from sprouted seed selected for hardiness and disease-resistance.

Sangapilla (Chamaedorea sp.) is a dioecious Amazonian dwarf palm. The flowers of the males emit a unique fragrance that can flood the senses of someone a hundred meters downwind, but sometimes cannot be smelled close up. Photo by Robin Van Loon.

For almost any fruit, grafting can provide a variety of benefits to the farmer: precocious production, because the budwood is vegetative tissue from a mature branch, not from a young sapling; for the same reason, trees stay smaller making harvest easier; and varieties that normally would not grow well in a region can be helped via hardy rootstock to tolerate unfamiliar soil conditions, climate, or pathogens. This can allow the grower to produce a greater range of varieties, diversifying market crop or family nutrition and potentially lengthening the growing season.

But an additional benefit of grafting or other clonal forms of propagation is that it ensures that new trees are genetically identical to the parents. Curiously and significantly, part of the reason why grafting is so important in the case of the apple is because of its exceptionally diverse genome. Normal sexual reproduction involving the trading of pollen by trees – or even via the ‘inbreeding’ of a tree with itself – will most likely produce fruits that are completely unlike the predecessor. In other words, planting an apple seed gives little or no promise of a tree producing similar fruit to the one from which the seed was plucked.

This means that all true Granny Smith apples are clones of one original apple tree. Despite millennia of propagation of pijuayo over a vast geographical region, you cannot make similar claims about the history of its cultivation.

Palms are remarkably useful and productive. The leaves of several species of the Peruvian Amazon are dried for roof thatch. Photo by Jason Edwards/ National Geographic at Camino Verde’s reforestation center.

Sacred Fruits

In many traditional and indigenous cultures in the Peruvian Amazon it is common to revere the pijuayo as a sacred plant. The resemblance of the seeds to small skulls is presumably not taken lightly – especially since this is such a unique feature in such a diverse forest. In fact, in some native communities the fable that explains why the seeds look like skulls is a high drama involving people who are selected by spirits and can converse with animals. The original skull planted, resulting in the very first pijuayo plant, was of a young man who was “chosen” by the Anaconda, probably the most spiritually significant animal in the Amazon for many communities. The fact that the peach palm “draws” lightening is also ostensibly not insignificant.

In a way that may seem to test Western ideas regarding the sacred and the profane, pijuayo is a plant that appears in Amazonian daily life in a variety of ways (as food, as tools, as bow and arrow) but is also considered sacred. The madre or mother (i.e., spirit) of the plant is often described as powerful.

Of course, the human understanding of staple food crops as sacred plants is nothing new. The mentioned example of Chavín de Huantar (with its carved representations of peanuts and cassava) dates back thousands of years. Corn was (and is) revered in Mexico. It is almost more sensible to argue for the near-universality of this principle of staple foods as sacred rather than to continue naming examples.

Certainly the development of what we now call Western priorities and sensibilities over the last millennia (but especially in the last 500 years) has distanced many of us from concepts of common food crops as sacred, as carriers of a rich interior or spiritual life to which humans may achieve access. But that certainly was not the case until recently, and we do not have to look far for a relevant example in the Western world.

We only have to look to the apple – a sacred plant that is surely significant as the first botanical species mentioned in the book upon which Western civilization as we now know it was founded. Though the story of Adam and Eve may not have been related to an apple at all (as some researchers posit), for Westerners reading the Bible closely, the apple is observed as having moral and spiritual significance. Perhaps modern culture no longer emphasizes these mysterious attributes of plants – but this may be more a statement about our era’s unique cultural trajectory than about our cultural roots, which seemingly spring from the same, nearly universal soil.

For the ch’unchus dancing at the foot of tropical glaciers with macaw feather headdresses, there can be no substitute for pijuayo as they crack their staffs together in homage to an ancient god. For the ‘mayors’ of Andean communities carrying silver-adorned chonta sceptres wrought from this jungle palm, there can be no substitute for pijuayo. And for the Amazonian people – indigenous and not, that see this fruit as a source of fruit and of game hunted or fished by arrow or lance – there can be no substitute for pijuayo. And so, as with other sacred plants, this special palm finds its way into the day to day – until we can no longer imagine life here without it.

Visitors to Camino Verde’s reforestation center harvest pijuayo fruits of a particularly delicious variety. Each rainy season (January through March), pijuayo is a staple for our farm team as well as a product we sell to the local market in Puerto Maldonado.

Coda: Varas de Chonta en la Costa

The author’s first experience with pijuayo was in the year 2000, in the form of a staff made from its beautifully jet black hammer-hard wood, or chonta. At the mercado de brujos or witches’ market in Chiclayo on the northern coast of Peru, one sees in three dimensions an unbroken lineage with the ancient sacred commerce of an impressive diversity of products, vegetal, animal, and mineral. Taxidermied armadillos top shelves cluttered with perfumes commercial and homemade, some boasting hilarious names. Along the back wall of cluttered kiosks, rice sacks of wholesale resin incenses stand at the ready to be spooned out into packets of cleverly folded paper. Clay figurines of Ekekos covered with little bags await offerings of lit cigarettes, and wooden saints carved from fragrant palo santo pay homage to obscure minor figures from the syncretic Christian pantheon, San Cipriano de Antioquia and San Hilarión.

Here it’s not uncommon for the vendors to look drunk or mildly entranced. Your product may be bathed in fragrant alcohol under a muttering of unbelievable prayers for your good fortune before it’s handed over to you, but don’t expect an official sales receipt. Nobody is getting rich off the very infrequent commerce in a dozen or more hallucinogenic plants available in the glass cases and hidden cubbies. Often you’ll be offered additional services, ready-made cures, or even the invitation to participate in all-night seances with the revered healer who is the same one now speaking to you with floral eloquence in the market stall.

The north coast of Peru has a shamanic healing tradition all its own, what you might describe as the creole grandchildren of the people who built some of the world’s oldest pyramids. Long before there were Inkas, there were Chimu, there were Moche, there were adobe temples with urban settlements surrounding them. In some of the oasis-like valleys in this stark desert coastline, the oldest evidence of cultivated areas is related to cotton. Before they grew food, they grew the fiber for fishing nets. It was one of the few examples in the world where monumental architecture was achieved without the development of an agricultural surplus of food, such as in Mesopotamia or China. The sea’s abundance was what allowed for complex civilization, complete with ornate jewelry and religiously stratified societies. Spondylus shells and fierce looking gods were everywhere in the artistic codes, the region’s spiritual motifs, diverse but surprisingly unified and consistent over a period of time surpassing the lifespan of Christianity.

As Chavin de Huantar pays homage to the jungles of the Amazon, similarly the coast’s spiritual traditions offer deep respect to the Andean highlands. Ancient coastal religious iconography bears an undeniable resemblance to Chavin’s complex patterns; and even today the coastal practitioners of folk healing make respectful pilgrimage to Motupe, Chaparri, and Las Huaringas in order to pull off difficult cures and recharge their spiritual connectivity with a living landscape. Since long before there was a Peru with three regions, the desert coast connected to the Andes and to the Amazon, and the result was a rich banquet of diversity.

So it shouldn’t surprise us when a short, older lady with bloodshot eyes extends toward us a black staff about a meter in length, declaring it to be perhaps just the thing we’ve been looking for. Esta vara de chonta, this chonta staff, shorter than a walking stick, can remove dense energies, the bodily equivalent of sin, and bring virtuous health to the afflicted. In many a ceremony, these thin, smooth staffs of pijuayo from the Amazon are rubbed harshly, painfully, across the arms and legs of patients hoping to be helped somehow, against all odds, while metallic sounding rattles paint rhythms in the darkness, accompanying a melody that tells stories about why the sick shall be sick no more.

For a specialist practitioner in the outskirts of Trujillo, of Tucumé, or Salas, the dark wood of chonta de pijuayo holds a marvelous magnetism. Like attracts like, so this dense absence of brightness pulls sorrows and some say tumors out as it passes over the patients. The ceremonies have incorporated Christian and Western elements, but the altars where healing occurs have deep roots in the past. Stone figurines literally dug out of ancient archaeological sites have not been here on the coast as long as the chonta staffs in whose shadow they sit. Can you imagine that many of these medicine men, these wizard-like herbalists, have never even tasted the pijuayo’s delicious fruit?


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