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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 Raphia fruit & nut
Raphia farinifera fruit Raphia 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 to nothing.
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 2007.


Serenje Craftmarket

Raphia farinifera
Raphia farinifera

Raphia farinifera
Raphia farinifera

Raffia basket
Raffia basket
 Updated: 14 April 2014
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