Have you ever seen a traveller's palm with perfect leaves? We used to have one but I never gave this a thought until a reader wrote to ask why his traveller's palm always had broken leaves. I told him it was due to wind damage but having since observed several trees in different places, I think there are more factors involved than just the wind.
a row of traveller’s palms. Even in sheltered locations the trees have torn and tattered leaves.
It is true that exposure to wind can result in torn and tattered leaves. But how would you explain why trees in sheltered locations, such as in gardens surrounded by tall buildings, also have torn leaves? I am convinced that even if you plant the tree in a conservatory to protect it from the elements, the leaves will still be torn because that is what happens naturally.
The leaves' arrangement could yet be another factor. The leathery, paddle-like leaves have long stalks which grow only in one plane, the bases overlapping but flaring out at the tips, like an open oversized fan at the tip of an unbranched woody stem. As the heavy leaves are held upright in different angles, something has to give to enable them to carry their weight without snapping from their stalks.
However, don't let the torn leaves put you off this beautiful tree that originated from Madagascar, a country known for the diversity of its flora and fauna. Ravenala madagascariensis, known in Thai as kluay phad, from the leaves' fan-like arrangement, is one of the curiosities of the plant kingdom. It has a trunk that resembles that of a palm, yet its leaves can be easily mistaken for those of a banana.
new leaves grow from the centre of the plant.
Despite its common name, ''traveller's palm'', it is not a palm but a giant woody herb. Because of its leaves it used to be classified as a member of the banana family (Musaceae), but because of the arrangement of its leaf stalks and flowers, it is now regarded more as a member of the family Strelitziaceae, which includes the bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae) and the giant bird of paradise (Strelitzia nicolai), whose flowers resemble a bird in flight.
Ravenala madagascariensis is the only member of its genus. Its trunk alone can reach a height of 30m, with leaves spreading over six metres long from tip to tip. In its native habitat the tree is always a welcome sight as its large leaf sheaths store rainwater, which is kept clean by the close way in which they fit together, providing an emergency source of drinking water for travellers in places where water is scarce.
Also known as traveller's tree, it bears white flowers that arise from large boat-shaped bracts between the leaf stalks _ a characteristic of plants in the Strelitziaceae family. The nectar attracts bats (and lemurs in the forests of wildlife-rich Madagascar), which effectively pollinate the flowers. Fruits are woody capsules containing blue-coated, edible nuts. In Madagascar, oil is distilled from the nuts for use in cooking.
Like the banana, traveller's palm is propagated by division of new shoots that grow at the base of the tree. It makes an attractive focal point so do not intermingle it with other trees and shrubs; let it stand alone to show off its extraordinary leaf arrangement. Plant it where it is sheltered from strong winds, and always keep the soil moist but not soggy when the tree is still young. It thrives best in well-drained soil and with full sun.
Traveller's palm is less susceptible to wind damage _ and looks more beautiful _ when it is compact and medium-sized rather than a sprawling giant, so reduce watering once it is established. Unless the soil is very poor, refrain from giving it fertiliser apart from a handful or two of well decomposed animal manure once a year.
Watch out for mealy bugs which may infest the underside of the leaves, especially along the midribs. Very sturdy and easy to grow, the tree however needs grooming. With a sharp knife and/or pruning shears, carve out the outer, dead stems from the sheath. New leaves grow from the centre of the plant, and removing the dead parts will enable the stems to spread, providing space for new leaves to grow.
PARCHED: The dried up flowers and bracts of the traveller’s palm. The boat-shaped bracts grow between the leaf stalks.
UPLIFTING APPEARANCE: The inflorescence of the giant bird of paradise, ‘Strelitzia nicolai’, resembles a bird in flight.
About the author
- Writer: Normita Thongtham