The Traveler's Palm


This nifty looking tree is commonly referred to as the traveler's palm (Ravenala madagascariensis). In reality, it is not a palm at all but rather a close cousin of the bird of paradise plants (Strelitziaceae). It is endemic to Madagascar and the only member of its genus. Even more fascinating is its relationship with another uniquely Madagascan group - the lemurs. But first we must ask, what's in a name?

The name "traveler's palm" has two likely explanations. The first has to do with the orientation of that giant fan of leaves. The tree is said to align its photosynthetic fan in an east-west orientation, which can serve as a crude compass, allowing weary travelers to orient themselves. I found no data to support this. The other possibility comes from the fact that this tree collects a lot of water in its nooks and crannies. Each of its hollow leaf bases can hold upwards of a quart of rain water! Get to it quick, though, because these water stores soon stagnate.


Flowers are produced between the axils of the leaves and closely resemble those of its bird of paradise cousins. Closer observation will reveal that they are nonetheless unique. For starters, they are large and contained within stout green bracts. Also, they are considerably less showy than the rest of the family. They don't produce any strong odors but they do fill up with copious amounts of sucrose-rich nectar. Finally, the flowers remain closed, even when mature and are amazingly sturdy structures. It may seem odd for a plant to guard its flowers so tightly until you consider how they are pollinated.


It seems fitting that an endemic plant like the traveler's palm would enter into a pollination syndrome with another group of Madagascar endemics. As it turns out, lemurs seem to be the preferred pollinators of this species. Though black lemurs, white fronted lemurs, and greater dwarf lemurs have been recorded visiting these blooms, it appears that the black-and-white ruffed lemur manages a bulk of the pollination services for this plant.


Watching the lemurs feed, one quickly understands why the flowers are so stout. Lemurs force open the blooms to get at the nectar inside. The long muzzles of the black-and-white ruffed lemur seem especially suited for accessing the energy-rich nectar within. The flowers themselves seem primed for such activity as well. The enclosed anthers are held under great tension. When a lemur pries apart the petals, the anthers spring forward and dust its muzzle with pollen. Using both its hands and feet, the lemur must wedge its face down into the nectar chamber in order to take a sip. In doing so, it inevitably comes into contact with the stigma. Thus, pollination is achieved. Once fertilized, the traveler's palm produces seeds that are covered in beautiful blue arils.


All in all, this is one unique plant. Though its not the only plant to utilize lemurs as pollinators, it is nonetheless one of the more remarkable examples. Its stunning appearance has made it into something of a horticultural celebrity and one can usually find the traveler's palm growing in larger botanical gardens around the world. Though the traveler's palm itself is not endangered, its lemur pollinators certainly are. As I have said time and again, plants do not operate in a vacuum. To save a species, one must consider the entirety of its habitat. This is why land conservation is so vitally important. Support a land conservancy today!

Photo Credits: [1] [2]

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]


Why All the Lace?


All too often, botanizing is restricted to the land. Sure, there is the occasional foray to a marsh or bog but, for the most part, relatively few plant folk like to get wet in their quests to meet new and exciting plant species. There is an entire world of aquatic plants that don't get enough credit. One such plant is Aponogeton madagascariensis, the lace plant.

Anyone into planted aquariums has undoubtedly come across this species at least once. It is kind of a holy grail of aquarium gardening. Hailing from Madagascar, this is one of the truly aquatic Aponogeton species. Though there are a few different geographic variations, they are all easily recognized by the lacy appearance of their leaves. Known as "fenestration," the lacy structure is the result of programmed cell death during the development of the leaves. As interesting as that fact is in and of itself, the question remains, what is the function of fenestration?

There have been many hypotheses put forward to explain this phenomenon. Some believe it helps to reduce damage from turbulence wheras others believe it helps to increase movement around the leaves and helps avoid stagnation. The truth is, no one is entirely certain. However, a clue to the benefits of fenestration has come out of work done on an entirely unrelated terrestrial plant species.

The epiphytic arum commonly referred to as a Swiss cheese plant (Monstera deliciosa) also exhibits fenestrated leaves. Researchers at Indiana University in Bloomington have found that the holes in the leaves may actually help gather more light in a shaded environment. The understory of a rainforest and the underwater habitat in which the lace plant grows may be more similar in light availability than you would think. How would holes in the leaves allow the plant to gather more light?

As it turns out, a fenestrated leaf can grow much larger while still maintaining the same amount of surface area. By spreading out its surface area over a larger region, a fenestrated leaf is actually more efficient at gathering what limited light is available. More work needs to be done to see if this is truly the case for the lace plant but the idea is tantalizing to say the least. Sadly, like too much of Madagascar's wildlife, the lace plant is becoming quite rare in the wild due to habitat destruction. So, the next time you come across one of these in an aquarium store, make sure to give this plant the attention it deserves. 

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]