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THE RAFFIA PALM

 

Raphia farinifera (Gaertn.) Hyl.

[=Raphia ruffia (Jacq.) Mart.]

Etymology - Its generic name derives from Greek raphis = needle, sting with reference to its pointed fruits. Its specific name refers to a kind of flour obtained from the stem pith, extremely rich in starch.

Area of origin - Native to Madagascar, it can also be found along Africa's eastern coast, over woody marshlands or along river banks.

Botanical description - Quite peculiar palm, sucker-producing, characterised by multiple stems, 2-9 m tall, apically covered with the remains of the leafbases interspersed with long dark fibres.

Its leaves, the largest among Palms, are pinnate, up to 9-10 m long, at times reaching out as tall as 20 m, erect, apically recurved, borne on the stem top by large and rigid petioles bearing a margin extremely spiny at the base; the segments are linear-lanceolate, extremely acuminate, 1-2 m long, basal ones slender and very spiny, central ones large and less spiny, apical ones short and nearly completely spineless.

Flowers, unisexual on monoecious plants, develop on 40-50 year-old specimens just once; they are clustered in apical, conspicuously branched inflorescences apically bearing several male flowers, each set at the axil of a bicarinate bract, whereas they basally bear female flowers subtended, in their turn, by a bract.

Fruits are large, ovoid, as big as a henís egg, pointed and covered with hard, glossy, brown-reddish, imbricate scales.

This species, as any other belonging to the genus Raphia, is monocarpic, in that it flowers and fruits just once, then the stem withers and dies, although the plant itself keeps on living due to the development of new suckers.

 

Uses - In the areas of origin, its leaves are employed for the production of raffia, a fibre largely used, especially in floriculture and horticulture, to make very tough ties, as well as a number of woven articles (mats, baskets, hats, etc.).

Its tough and yet very flexible and resilient leaf petioles are employed, instead of bamboo, to build houses and make various kinds of furniture.

Sago, a kind of flour, is extracted from the stem pith which, before blooming, is extremely rich in starch.

Finally, its still undivided leaf segments contain a waxy substance employed by the natives to produce floor and shoe polish.