Licuala spinosa, the mangrove fan palm, known in Malay as palas, is common in open coastal areas.

by Angela Hijjas

From The Malaysian Naturalist, vol. 53 no. 1.

Of all tropical plants, palms are the most mysterious. Their appearance indicates a primeval history that predates the usual trees and flowering shrubs that comprise the bulk of most garden planting. Their form and structure are exotic and offer the focal point or essential contrast that gives a garden character. Palms make excellent avenues or solitary specimen plants, and the smaller clumping varieties can be combined with others for contrast.

One of their great advantages is that growth habits and dimensions are entirely predictable; a species can be chosen with a particular requirement in mind, and assuming growth conditions are satisfactory, it will behave exactly as expected.

Malaysia is blessed with an unmatched variety of palm species that have inevitably caught the imagination of landscape designers and gardeners. Different varieties can fulfill all roles for plant mass or shape, texture and contrast, but like all plants they must be used in an appropriate fashion.

Johannesteijsmannia magnifica, the most beautiful palm in Malaysia’s forests, has leaves up to 3 meters long and a silvery, or glaucous, back to the leaves.

The palms I remem ber from my Melbourne childhood filled me with an unpromising distaste for the plant: huge, bulky varieties of Phoenix (date) palms that completely filled a suburban front garden and permanently blocked any welcome sun, but in that climate I suppose the owner regarded this as an achievement rather than a liability.

The first thing I planted in my garden was a roadside avenue of the red clumping palm, Cytostachus renda, a plant I had long admired. It was possibly the delight they provided that persuaded me to restrict my plant choice to indigenous species, although some irregularities have crept into my palm collection, often from faulty identification when the plants were young.

A second avenue that was to have been a variety of Corypha, seeds suppose dly collected in the forests of Pangkor, turned out to be a central American Sabal instead, and of course there were the Latanias I put in when I was tempted to gerrymander my geographic boundaries to include the Indian Ocean. The rhinoceros beetles resolved the indiscretion by rendering them so unsightly that it wasn’t hard to give them a final nudge.

It was not so easy with another blunder. My architect husband loves colour and form, and one of the few plants he can recognise is the Travellers ‘palm’. Closer to a banana and certainly not a palm, its leaves create a generous gesture of welcome or farewell, so they now occupy the main entrance avenue, to my continued annoyance. However, one gets one’s way eventually: They are now getting so leggy and ragged, few having suckered, that it may be possible to eliminate them, one by one, and he will never notice.

Right at the front gate are three Corypha elata that will flower just once before they die. The inflorescence is the largest of any flowering plant in the world, made up of millions of bisexual flowers in a single crowning pannicle towering about 7 meters above the top of the palm, not unlike a huge regal umbrella; these flowers could well be the original prototype for the bunga mawar, used to escort the bridal couple at a Malay wedding.

The inflorescence of the common coconut Cocos nucifera is a spectacular and fragrant cut flower.

The flowers of most palms are spectacular but not readily seen. The humble coconut has the sweetest fragrance and the whole inflorescence makes a spectacular cut flower. Most palms have separate male and female flowers on the same plant (monoecious) but others have male and female on separate plants (dioecious). Where both sexes exist in the one flower they are known as hermaphrodite. Borassus flabillifer, the lontar plam, is an example of a dioecious palm, so for fertile fruit (used for making drinks and kueh) one needs several plants as the sex cannot be determined before it flowers. The flower stalk, or inflorescence, can be bound tightly, bruised and cut while still on the tree to yield a sweet juice (up to 20 litres a day for months) that can be fermented into toddy or reduced for gula melaka (jaggery). Otherwise, they are a great food source for insects and birds.

The usual species for making sugar in Malaysia is Arenga pinnata, the huge kabong that looks spectacular as a gothic avenue but less attractive as it fruits and thins. Perhaps one of the most beautiful palms amongst the Arengas is the clumping A. undulatifolia, with its lustrous blue-green fronds (silver underneath) that have wavy margins, a spectacular addition to any garden.

Licuala is another popular landscaping genus with many species, all with large fan shaped leaves. Licuala saribus has a solitary trunk with impressive undivided and pleated leaves, while Licuala spinosa, common in more exposed areas on the east coast, has divided leaves in a clumping form.

One of Malaysia’s most familiar palm fruits is known as pinang, although it belongs to the Areca genus. The Pinanga genus applies to a completely different group of palms. In the early days of taxonomy, the genus of Areca was apparently a “dumping ground for many palms which are now placed in other genera” so the result is that a particular palm’s local name now applies to another genera. In fact the name Arecaceae (or Palmae) applies to the entire palm family, just to make it more confusing.

Pinanga disticha, one of the most common understorey palms in the forest.

The members of the Pinanga genus are mostly understory forest palms that need complete shade and high humidity. The leaves are sometimes mottled in different shades of green, giving them landscaping potential for very shaded areas. By contrast Areca catechu (Malay name pinang) is the tall slender palm that provides the slightly narcotic fruit for chewing, and many other varieties in the same genus provide useful medicines in kampongs throughout Southeast Asia.

Collecting and learning about palms is a fascinating hobby if one has space to plant them. Otherwise, the best public collection can be seen at Rimba Ilmu, the botanic garden in the grounds of Universiti Malaya, where most of the plants are labeled. I constantly refer to a publication by the Smithsonian Institution Press, Palms of the World, by David L. Jones, and look forward to MNS producing a definitive guide to the palms of Malaysia.