The Raffia Palm
The raffia palm (Raphia farinifera (Gaertn.)
Hylander) is one of about 28 species of the genus Raphia, but is
probably the best known, having a widespread distribution in tropical
Africa and Madagascar. It has the distinction of having the largest
leaves in the plant
kingdom, the record measuring 19.8m long, with the petiole 3.96m (D.J.
Mabberley, The Plant-Book, 2nd Edition, Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997).
A wetland species, it occurs in peat dambos and on banks of perennial
streams in frost-free zones. While it never stands in water, it grows
on banks and elevated areas, with most of the root system in the water,
but rooted into firm ground. The mature and juvenile palms can survive
relatively light burns, and fire, or more likely smoke, stimulates the
germination of the seeds.
Biologists resident in Lusaka are familiar with the famous "80-Mile
Dambo" on the Great East Road, a peat dambo surrounded by an
amphitheatre of hills, where there are several clumps of raffias. This
dambo is the source of the Nyabutaye (or Nyautai) River, a short
tributary of the Chakwenga.
When we first came to Zambia in the 1960s this was the only occurrence
of the palm known to us, in the province, although they are common
particularly in Northern Province. There was another small occurrence
at Kachalola, which was destroyed and replaced by a banana plantation.
We later heard of another near Chikuni in Southern Province. There are
single occurrences in Kwa-Zulu Natal and Zimbabwe.
As people settled in the area and opened it up, several more
occurrences were revealed, all consisting of a few small clumps in some
of the larger dambos, of the Mwapula (visible from the air), and of the
Lukwipa further east. I don't think, however, that any of these
occurrences are old, and it has become apparent that human impact has
created new habitats for the palm.
In 1983 we moved onto our smallholding on the eastern outskirts
ofLusaka and a year later, in April 1984, I planted a few seeds of
raffia collected from the Kapisha hot spring near Shiwa Ngandu. I
planted these along the overflow ofthe reservoir I built, which gets
topped up every day from the borehole.
|Raphia farinifera fruit
||Raphia fruit & nut
Nineteen years later, in March 2003, the
tree closest to the reservoir,
which always gets water first, began to flower, producing huge
pendulous spikes from the crown. Within a few months about 20 spikes
had formed, which probably had a combined mass of 2-3 tonnes.
It mystifies me where all that plant tissue had been stored, and that
it could be transformed into this huge mass of flowering spikes in such
a short period, almost like the metamorphosis of an insect. Palms are
generally wind pollinated, and raffia is no exception.
In this month, March 2007, we saw the first mature fruits falling. The
largest spikes have probably as many as 500 fruits, although in many of
these the seeds are aborted. No new leaves will grow, and during the
next few years as the fruits mature, the tree will gradually decline
and eventually fall, scattering the crop. Meanwhile two suckers have
grown from the base of the tree.
The highly ornate fruits are covered with glossy brown scales. One or
occasionally two nuts per fruit, have a thin covering of orange pulp,
which attracts dispersal agents, civets, genets, bushpig and the
palmnut vulture. Seedlings are not easy to transplant as the roots are
damaged in the process. Fresh nuts, however, germinate readily.
Although they typically occur in acid soils, our borehole water, which
is saturated with lime, does not appear to affect them adversely.
In the 1970s there were two pairs of raffias growing on the bank of the
stream in Munda Wanga gardens, 15 km to the south ofLusaka, no doubt
planted by Mr Ralph Sander, who established the gardens. The four trees
were of the same size and they all flowered and fruited simultaneously.
After the trees had died, two or three seeds germinated, but have come
All palms are put to many uses, and raffia is no exception. Raffia
fibre, stripped from the surface of the leaf segments, or the leaf
segments themselves, are much used in ornamental weaving, and
basketwork, beautiful examples of which are sold at the Serenje
junction. The midribs of the leaves are used as poles or they may be
cleaved into planks to make furniture, such as chairs and beds
(Mwinilunga), floats for lamps to attract fish (Lake Bangweulu), and
for roof thatching (not recorded in Zambia).
Mike Bingham, from Black Lechwe, Volume 15, Issue 2, second quarter