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Ravenala madagascariensis Sonn. 1782
pronounced: ruh-VEN-ah-luh mad-uh-gas-KAR-ee-EN-siss
(Strelitziaceae — the bird-of-paradise family)
common name: Traveller’s Palm
This species is, as the name suggests, from Madagascar; the name Ravenala is from the Malagasy name for the plant, and means ‘leaves of the forest’. The tree is a Strelitzia, and not a palm. It is called Traveller’s Palm because the stems hold rainwater that can be used as an emergency drinking supply. The nuts are also edible, and the leaf stalks yield a refreshing drink of clear, watery sap. The enormous paddle-shaped leaves, up to 3 m long and from 25–50 cm wide, are borne on long petioles in a distinctive fan shape aligned in a single plane. Young plants have a subterranean trunk which, in an adult plant, emerges above the ground, elevating the symmetrical crown to heights ranging up to about 18 m. The green palm-like trunk grows to about 30 cm in diameter and displays distinctive trunk leaf scar rings. Multitudes of small creamy white flowers form an inflorescence up to 30 cm long. A mature traveller’s palm may bloom the year round. It produces brown fruits that contain light blue seeds.
Ravenala madagascariensis is the sole member of its genus, and is closely related to the southern African genus Strelitzia and the South American genus Phenakospermum. Some older classifications place all of these in the banana family (Musaceae).
I have always suspected that the water stored in this plant might encourage the breeding of mosquitoes, and was interested to find on the internet an article telling how the traveller’s palm was losing popularity in Singapore due to the fear that it might be allowing dengue-carrying mosquitoes to breed. The plant is somewhat of an ikon in Singapore, being a feature of the garden of Raffles Hotel, and found in every park and almost every private garden there.
It would appear that the water stored in between the sheaths of the frond stems is sealed from entry by mosquitoes until the frond drops or dries up, at which point the sheath opens up and the water is a potential breeding site. The national Parks Board of Singapore tries to prune away the fronds as soon as they become liable to breed mosquitoes, but has also removed many of the plants located in residential areas and in places where accessibility poses a problem for frequent inspections. Quite a few private houses have taken their cue from the Board and removed the traveller’s palms from their gardens.
Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2008, 2010
Page last updated 2nd February 2017