Tuesday, May 26, 2009

ravenala madagascariensis - The Traveller's Tree

One of the most distinctive plants you will see around the Caribbean is the Traveller’s Tree, which stands in a splay of massive leaves up to fifteen feet long. They point vertically, rolled like a parchment to begin with, but they soon unfurl and gradually point off the vertical, like the hands of a clock, as each new leaf takes the previous one’s place. The most particular characteristic of the traveller’s tree, though, is that the leaves grow in a single plane, giving it the appearance of a huge fan.

Sometimes it is called the Traveller’s Palm, but this is in fact incorrect as it is not a palm at all. The source of the confusion is clear as it grows in a similar way, but it is actually more closely related to the banana. The leaves are distinctly bananery to look at and when the tree fruits it drops a proboscis with an extraordinary fruit like a series of lobster claws (very similar to the lobster claw heliconia). Its botanical name, ravenala madagascariensis, gives a clear indication where it originates, but it is now all over the tropical world.

So, why the name? It has often been said that the fan stands aligned east–west, thereby helping travellers to know their direction. This, it turns out, is not true, as they grow aligned in other directions as well. However, they are useful to travellers as they are a reliable source of water. At the base of the fan, between the stems of the leaves, is a sort of cup in which water collects as it runs down the stem. Stick a straw in there, or more likely drill a small hole, and you can find water.

For more information about Caribbean plants and flowers, see the Definitive Guide to Caribbean Gardens and Flowers.

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