Polylepis spp.

Microcosms is very pleased to include a contribution in this new section Polylepis by Ben Kamm, founder of Sacred Succulents (https://sacredsucculents.com/), a business that lovingly and knowledgably purveys rare and endangered plants and seeds from the Americas, with a specialty in the Andean countries, which Ben has explored extensively and found much to admire and share with others. 

Polylepis, the Andean Progenitors of Humanity

By Ben Kamm

It is estimated that forests of Polylepis, also known as Queñal, Kewiña, Keñua, once covered over 20% of the Andes up to 17,000’+. These forests were slowly cleared over millennia, massacred by human activity over the last 500 years and are now reduced to almost nothing. There’s an island (Titi’kaka –Aymara name; Isla del Sol in Spanish) in an improbable high mountain lake, more of a small freshwater ocean, stretching between snow-blanketed mountains that touch the heavens. The north side of this island, where the sun shimmers and scintillates on the shy, gentle waves lapping rocky shores, where toadlets hop about, having recently emerged from the lake’s primordial waters (in whose depths, among the waterweeds and ancient offering made of stone, ceramic, silver and gold, there lurks the toadlet’s close kin, the saggy-baggy aquatic frog). Further up the shore, past dwarf Baccharis shrubs and columnar, gold-spined Trichocereus cactus, there is a crag of rock, where, like amphibians from the water, the first people emerged blinking, sunstruck and in awe at the beauty of the bright world stretching out before them. The founders of the Incan dynasty were Manco Capac and Mama Ocllo, and this site is where the Pillkukayna was built, the so-called Temple of the Sun. The first to greet them, like welcoming kin, were small gnarled trees; rarely taller than the height of three men, their twisted and sprawling trunks flaking sheets of thin bronze-red bark, their dense canopy of white furred, green leaflets, dangling clusters of small yellow-green flowers. These tree-kin gave them welcoming shelter from the elements and nourishment from the fruits, birds and beasts which populated their forests, as well as fresh water from the crystalline springs which sprang from their roots, medicine from their multifold leaves and ever-shedding bark, utility and fire from their hard, dense wood. Perhaps, these very Polylepis trees are those first ancestors, Andean primogenitors of humanity. Very few of these trees remain, the nearby island of the moon is now blanketed with Eucalyptus — a favorite, along with Mexican pine, of NGOs which actually pay locals to reforest the Andes with these foreign species. None of the populations of P. incarum on Isla del Sol can be considered forest, only relictual stands. The same is mostly true for P. incarum growing on the edges of Titicaca and for much of the other 26 species of this unique high-altitude tree distributed along the Andes, from Venezuela all the way to Córdoba in central western Argentina. Except in the highest elevations, watersheds, and steep or inaccessible mountain slopes, the mark of contemporary man and his beasts is heavy in most areas where the tree still occurs. Polylepis are amongst the most enchanting trees I have ever encountered with their contorted trunks and peeling bark, not to mention their rebellious nature. This is a tree that actually dares to grow above the treeline. It has extremely hard wood that is excellent for construction and firewood. It is used medicinally for lung and kidney issues, the bark chewed for oral health. Additionally, it is a source of beige, pale-pink and green dyes. Polylepis were considered sacred during Incan times and associated with the ancestors: forests were venerated and protected. Propagation and reforestation of Polylepis is essential for sustainable development in the Andes. A eubiotic species, Polylepis forests are known to harbor the highest biodiversity of any ecosystem in the high Andes.

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