Deep in the tropical rainforests of Central and South America, grows a palm tree that has intrigued generations of scientists. Its name is Socratea exorrhiza. Its particularity? It grows on stilt roots. (“exo” means “out” and “rhiza” means “roots”). The theory was not long to appear: these roots act like legs enabling the palm tree to literally walk in the forest.
Why would a palm tree would want to walk in the rainforest? As other trees grow around it, the palm tree would be able to escape the shade created by these other trees and grow where the light is the strongest. It would just need to grow new roots on a side and allow some roots on the other side to die. This was it would slowly move towards the side where the new roots are growing.
Tour guides love to tell this fascinating story to the tourists they lead in the forest. If it is your case, I am sorry to disappoint you but your tour guide lied! Studies have shown that this is a myth and this palm tree, like any other tree on earth, cannot walk.
A few roots growing on a side and some other dying on the other side will not change the fact that the palm’s step is rooted to one particular spot.
Researchers are still unsure of the role of these unique stilt roots. Some suggest that it allows the palm to be more stable on swampy soils, some suggest that it might bring more stability in case it is growing on a sloppy terrain, some others say that these roots allow the palm tree to grow easily on a soil that is covered with dead branches or logs. But none of these theories have really been confirmed and we still don’t really know what is the advantage(s) of these stilts roots for the palm.
One of the many, many mysteries that tropical forests hold!