Ravenala madagascariensis: Traveller’s palm

Family: Strelitziaceae
Common name: Traveller’s palm, Traveller’s tree, East-West palm

An architectural marvel of the plant world, Traveller’s palms can transform your garden with their fan-shaped arrangement of leaves. They can grow to a height of 20 meters with about 25 broad banana-tree-like leaves arranged on stout barks.

They are called Traveller’s palms since they orient themselves roughly in the east-west direction acting as a compass for travelers in the olden days. Their leaf sheaths are capable of holding about a liter of water, providing an emergency supply of water for weary travelers. Though this water could easily be polluted by mosquito larvae and debris.

Though they are called Traveller’s palm, they do not belong to the palm family of Araceae, but rather to the family of the bird of paradise plant, Strelitziaceae. They have typical broad leaves and flowers contained in sheaths, but there is no resemblance in the size.

Young Traveller’s palm trees look exceptionally beautiful since they do not have a trunk. The leaves look like a Chinese fan that has been planted on the ground, with beautifully arranged leaves. Once the tree grows, the trunk emerges and grows to a diameter of about 1 meter, with distinct scars where the older leaves fell off.

The leaves are 3-4 meters long and about a meter wide on top, with a stout long petiole or stalk that’s 4-6 meters long.

The name Ravenala means ‘forest leaves’ and Madagascariensis clearly denotes that they are originated in Madagascar. But they are now grown as ornamental plants in gardens, parks, botanical gardens and nature reserves, adding to the beauty of the landscape.

Traveller’s palm produces fragrant white flowers contained inside large sheaths, which has copious amount of nectar. This nectar is hidden inside tightly closed sheaths, and is difficult for normal insects and birds to access. But lemurs have a snout that’s capable of opening up the sheaths and drinking the nectar from inside, also helping in pollination during the process.

Once pollinated, these flowers produce beautiful blue seeds, which are edible, and are also used to produce seed oil. This oil in used in cooking and also as an antiseptic. Sap from the trunk can be used to extract sugars. Stem of Traveller’s palm is used to build bridges and floors. Leaves are used to thatch roofs and also as packing material for vegetables and fruits.

Traveller’s palms cannot tolerate cold winters and thrive well in tropical weather. If planted in areas with strong winds, the leaves will tear easily, giving the fronds a ruffled look. Make sure that the tree has enough aerial space to grow and spread out before planting them in your gardens.

Propagation is through seeds

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