Although Robinson Crusoe was a fictional character, his story may have been based on that of Alexander Selkirk, a Scottish buccaneer who was marooned on one of the Juan Fernandez islands off the coast of Chile in 1704. He survived four years and four months alone by eating feral goats and edible plants, probably including the cabbage tree (Dendroseris litoralis), which apparently was native only to that particular island.
A member of the sunflower family, the evergreen boasts huge rubbery leaves and drooping orange flowers which resemble oversized dandelion blooms. Those goats eventually almost did it in, since the species once was down to a grand total of three trees before botanists took note and began propagating it elsewhere.
As for Selkirk, it was his hot-tempered and mutinous nature which almost did him in. Suspecting that the ship which he was navigating was no longer seaworthy, he complained that he would rather stay on the island where its crew had stopped to recoup after a battle. The captain took him at his word and left him there.
Though Selkirk had plenty of opportunity to regret his sharpness of tongue, he was right about the ship, which eventually went down off the coast of Columbia—where the men who didn’t drown ended up in a Spanish prison. So the surly Scotsman probably was better off on Aguas Buenas (“good waters”), where he turned temporarily reflective and religious.
His newly mild nature didn’t last long after his rescue and he eventually would die of yellow fever on another ship. But Aguas Buenas was renamed Robinson Crusoe Island after the fictional character Selkirk may have inspired.
Here’s hoping that the endangered cabbage tree, too, will prove to be is a survivor! It prefers locations with moderate climates and cool nights, no freezing temperatures but no extremely steamy ones either. It also reportedly likes well-drained soil and plenty of water, with sun in the morning and shade in the afternoon.
The seeds I purchased last year didn’t look fresh and only one eventually germinated—about four months after it was planted! That seedling wasn’t strong enough to survive, but other gardeners have had more luck with the plant and report that it can sprout within four or five days.
If you are successful in starting or purchasing it, watch out for blackspot and/or aphids, as cabbage tree reportedly is prone to both. Wild animals, such as deer and rabbits, probably will want to nibble the leaves as well. Judging from the comments I’ve seen posted on blogs, the tree can take a while to get around to blooming too, when grown in a container.
There are a number of other Dendroseris species which are similarly imperiled, including nerifolia and pruinata--which both have narrower foliage and almost white flowers-- as well as berteroana, gigantea, macrantha, macrophylla, marginata, micrantha, mollis, pinnata, and regia. Most of them are native only to Robinson Crusoe Island or to the more westerly Alejandro Selkirk Island, previously known as Mas Afuera, in reference to its being further out in the ocean.
If you get the chance to grow any of these plants, please do so. The more specimens there are, the greater their chance of surviving their own most difficult years.
The THe Dendroseris marginata is from PlantFiles, Dendroseris litoralis photos are by James Gaither and the Dendroseris pruinata and nerifolia photos by Jardin Botanico National, courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons and this license. The antique Dendroseris macrophylla image is from an 1878 issue of Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, courtesy of plantillustrations.org. The link to the license is https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/