Raphia palm (Raphia regalis)

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Raphia palm fact file

Raphia palm description

KingdomPlantae
PhylumTracheophyta
ClassLiliopsida
OrderArecales
FamilyPalmae
GenusRaphia (1)

Raphia regalis is a large, distinctive palm, its massive, pinnate leaves being the largest in the plant kingdom (1) (3) (4). In common with other members of the genus Raphia, these leaves wither but remain on the plant when they die (3). Raphia regalis appears to be stemless, but in fact has a short, stocky trunk, under a metre in length, buried just below the ground; the leaves of the palm therefore rise up from near ground level (2). Each leaf typically bears 180 leaflets on each side of the central stem, or rachis. Each leaflet measures up to 6.5 centimetres across at its widest point, and is green above and greyish-white and waxy below. Most Raphia species bear small spines along the margins and midrib of each leaflet, but these are sparse and inconspicuous in Raphia regalis (2).

Size
Leaf length: up to 25 m (2) (3)
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Raphia palm biology

Flowering in Raphia regalis usually occurs only after a prolonged period of vegetative growth, perhaps lasting years, at the end of which a burst of growth causes the central axis of the palm to elongate to four metres or more in height. This is followed by the development of large, complex, branched inflorescences, which can reach an impressive three metres in length and which, unusually for this genus, are held erect. Raphia regalis is monoecious, meaning that male and female flowers, which are reddish in colour and have a sharp, prickly tip, are borne on the same plant (2) (3). The fruits of this palm are variable in size and shape, but are generally large, up to 9.5 centimetres in length, ovoid with a narrow base, and reddish-brown in colour (2). Each fruit is covered in symmetrical rows of large, shiny, overlapping scales, and contains a curved or spindle-shaped seed (2) (4) (6). Most Raphia palms shed large numbers of seeds, often leading to dense, uniform stands of the same species, although the fruits attract a range of animals which may aid in seed dispersal (2). Like all palms of this group, Raphia regalis flowers only once and then dies (2) (3).

Raphia palms have a wide range of uses, including as building materials, thatch, and in the production of palm wine (3) (7). The leaves are also widely used to extract a fibre known as ‘raffia’, which is used to make baskets, twine and other products, and is exported for use as garden twine and in weaving (3) (6).

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Raphia palm range

Raphia regalis occurs in western Africa, from Nigeria south through Cameroon, Gabon, Congo and Angola (Cabinda) (1) (5). However, the species is only currently known from less than ten highly fragmented locations (1).

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Raphia palm habitat

Mid-elevation rainforest, often on ridges and hill slopes, at elevations of between 500 and 850 metres (1) (3). Raphia regalis appears to prefer acid soils on low hills and rocky outcrops, though it is also found in wetter areas at the base of footslopes (2).

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Raphia palm status

Classified as Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Vulnerable

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Raphia palm threats

Raphia regalis is thought to be declining as a result of forest clearance for timber and agriculture. Selective felling for use in building and in palm wine production also poses a serious threat, particularly in Nigeria (1).

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Raphia palm conservation

A full survey of Raphia regalis populations has been recommended throughout its range, in order to better assess its conservation status. It has also been suggested that local people should be encouraged to use the more common species Raphia hookeri in building and palm wine production, in preference to Raphia regalis. Although the species is likely to have been under-recorded, and population surveys may lead to the discovery of more Raphia regalis sites, it is thought that this spectacular species of palm may be more threatened than currently indicated by its IUCN Red List status (1).

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Find out more

For more information on palm species and their conservation see:

 

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Authentication

Authenticated (09/06/09) by Dr Bill Baker, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
http://www.palmweb.org,
http://www.eunops.org.

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Glossary

Genus
A category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ Latin species name; the second part is the specific name.
Inflorescence
The reproductive shoot of a plant which bears a group or cluster of flowers.
Leaflets
The individual ‘leaf-like’ parts of a compound leaf.
Pinnate
In plants, a compound leaf where the leaflets (individual ‘leaves’) are found on either side of the central stalk.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2008)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Tuley, P. (1995) The Palms of Africa. Trendrine Press, St Ives, Cornwall.
  3. Uhl, N.W. and Dransfield, J. (1987) Genera Palmarum: A Classification of Palms Based on the Work of Harold E. Moore, Jr. Allen Press, Lawrence, Kansas.
  4. Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden: Raphia (December, 2008)
    http://palmguide.org/genus.php?family=ARECACEAE&genus=raphia
  5. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew: World Checklist of Selected Plant Families: Raphia regalis (December, 2008)
    http://apps.kew.org/wcsp/namedetail.do?accepted_id=176743&repSynonym_id=-9998&name_id=176743&status=true
  6. Henderson, A., Galeano, G. and Bernal, R. (1997) Field Guide to the Palms of the Americas. Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ.
  7. Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO): Non-Wood Forest Products 10 - Tropical Palms (January, 2009)
    http://www.fao.org/docrep/X0451e/X0451e00.HTM
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Image credit

Raphia palm  
Raphia palm

© Martin Cheek / Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Richmond
Surrey
TW9 3AB
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 208 332 5000
Fax: +44 (0) 208 332 5197
info@kew.org
http://www.rbgkew.org.uk

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