Borassus flabellifer

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Asian palmyra palm, at Angkor Wat, Cambodia, 1965.
Borassus (bor-RAHS-sohs) flabellifer (flah-BEL-lif-er)
CUBA: Soledad, Atkins Garden.
Scientific Classification
Genus: Borassus (bor-RAHS-sohs)
Species: flabellifer (flah-BEL-lif-er)
Borassus flabelliformis, Borassus tunicatus, Borassus sundaicus.
Native Continent
Habit: Solitary
Leaf type: Palmately compound
Sun exposure: Full Sun
Survivability index
Common names
Asian Palmyra palm, Toddy palm, Sugar palm, or Cambodian palm. Kerigi (Soqotra), Mak tan kok (Lao), Panna-maram (Tamil, Sri Lanka), Taan, Than or T¯an (Thai). There are many other names applied to this widespread species (see Kovoor 1983), but the name palmyrah (or palmyra), derived from the Portuguese palmeira, has become the internationally familiar vernacular name. (R.P. Bayton. 2007)/Palmweb.

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Habitat and Distribution

Bangladesh, Cambodia, China South-Central, India, Jawa, Laos, Lesser Sunda Is., Malaya, Myanmar, Socotra, Sri Lanka, Sulawesi, Thailand, and Vietnam. South and Southeast Asia. Determining the ‘natural’ distribution of Borassus flabellifer is essentially impossible as it is a widely planted crop plant. It is largely restricted to areas with seasonal rainfall and ranges from western India through Indochina to the Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia. Populations in China, Malaysia and Pakistan may be introduced (Whitmore 1973; Malik 1984; Pei 1991). Borassus flabellifer was noted to occur in Queensland, Australia by Bailey (1902). A seedling was collected from a small population of mature palms and cultivated in the garden of Frank L. Jardine in Somerset on the Cape York Peninsula of northern Queensland. Jones (1984) noted that the palm was still present in the garden of Jardine’s abandoned house, but the original population was never located and the natural occurrence of Borassus in Australia is doubtful. The Borassus palms on the island of Soqotra have tentatively been assigned to B. flabellifer. Soqotra is geographically closer to Africa and the palms were identified as the African B. aethiopum by Miller & Morris (2004). The available herbarium material does not allow for a conclusive identification (the diagnostic fruits and petiole spines are missing), but a photograph presented by Miller & Morris (2004) shows a mature plant without a ventricose stem. This suggests that the palms, which were introduced to the island, are B. flabellifer. It is difficult to determine the original habitat of B. flabellifer as its distribution is so heavily influenced by man. It occurs between sea level and 800 metres, though is more abundant at low altitude and is particularly common in coastal areas with sandy or alluvial soils and in areas with permanent soil moisture such as flood plains and river valleys. It is commonly grown along the margins of rice paddies forming one of the most distinctive landscapes of Southeast Asia. (R.P. Bayton. 2007)/Palmweb.

Native to South and Southeast Asia, in the Indomalaya ecozone. It's a palm tree of the Sugar palm group, is found from Indonesia to Pakistan.


Stem to 20 m tall, trunk diam. over a meter at its widest point (a prominent flair in the trunk half way up), grey with well-defined leaf scars, not ventricose, but often enlarged at the base, branching occasionally when damaged. Leaves, 40 - 70 per crown, leaves petiole and sheath 150 – 180 cm long; petiole 4 – 6 (– 7) cm wide at midpoint, robust, bright yellow, margins black with short (0.3 – 1.3 cm) black erose teeth; costa 60 – 110 cm long; adaxial hastula conspicuous, abaxial hastula rudimentary; lamina radius to 150 cm maximum, dense adaxial and abaxial indumentum on the ribs of some juvenile leaves, leaflets ~62, 4.2 – 9.5 cm wide, apices acute and entire or splitting longitudinally with age, shortest leaflet 13 – 39 cm long, leaf divided to 30 – 100 cm; commissural veins 11 – 18 per cm, leaf anatomy isolateral. Staminate inflorescences branched to two orders, upper subtending branches terminating in 1 – 3 (– 4) rachillae; rachillae green to brown and catkin-like, 23 – 50 cm long and 1.8 – 2.5 cm in diameter, sometimes with a mamilliform apex, rachilla bracts forming pits containing a cincinnus of 4 – 7 flowers. Pistillate inflorescences usually spicate (branched inflorescence pictured in the lectotype), flower-bearing portion 12 – 85 cm long with 5 – 20 flowers arranged spirally. Staminate flowers exserted from pits individually, 0.24 – 0.6 cm long, bracteoles 0.4 – 0.7 × 0.1 – 0.3 cm, calyx 0.3 × 0.15 cm and shallowly divided into three sepals, petal lobes 0.1 × 0.1 cm; stamens 6 with very short filaments, 0.2 × 0.03 cm, anthers, 0.05 × 0.03 cm; pistillode minute. Pollen monosulcate, elliptical, 48 – 95 μm long, aperture 40 – 95 μm long, polar axis 30 – 89 μm long; tectum perforate, sparsely covered with supratectal gemmae. Pistillate flowers 3 × 3 cm; bracteoles large, 2 cm in diam., sepals 1.5 × 2 cm, petals 1 × 1.5 cm. Fruits massive, 8.5 – 13 × 7.5 – 16.5 cm, yellowish black, ovoid and rounded or flattened at the apex; produced inside persistent perianth segments; epicarp coriaceous, mesocarp pulp yellow, pyrenes 1 – 3, 6.1 – 10.8 cm × 4.4 – 8.5 cm × 3.1 – 4.6 cm, somewhat bilobed; most pyrenes with one or two external, longitudinal furrows; internal flanges absent. (R.P. Bayton. 2007)/Palmweb. Editing by edric.

A number of nomenclatural problems were uncovered while investigating the synonymy of B. flabellifer. The account of Borassus flabelliformis L. in Systema Vegetabilium (Linnaeus 1774) matches exactly that of B. flabellifer in Species Plantarum (Linnaeus 1753), and the epithets are similar, suggesting that the former is an orthographic variant of the latter. It could be argued that the change in epithet was intentional, but this would render B. flabelliformis illegitimate, as both names are based on the same type material (Challis, pers. comm.). When describing Lontarus domestica, Gaertner (1788) cited the same material as Linnaeus (1753) plus an un-named Banks specimen, which could not be located after a thorough search of the Banks collection at BM (Vickery pers. comm.). Pholidocarpus tunicatus is attributed to Wendland (1878: 235) in a number of publications including Govaerts and Dransfield (2005). However, Wendland did not make the combination, but rather, states under Borassus tunicata Lour., “vide Pholidocarpus” (Merrill 1935: 92). The name does not appear in the account of Pholidocarpus, nor in the index; the combination is therefore attributed to Jackson in Index Kewensis (1894: 502). No original material could be found in the Loureiro collection at BM to typify Borassus tunicata (Vickery pers. comm.). Borassus sundaicus was placed in synonymy with B. flabellifer by Govaerts and Dransfield (2005), though not noted as a new synonym. The diagnostic characters cited by Beccari (shape of perianth segments, endocarp crest size, seed shape) are largely continuous when examined across the Asian material. The only qualitative characters cited are leaf scales (present in B. flabellifer and absent from B. sundaicus), and the arrangement of perianth segments in the fruit (imbricate in B. sundaicus, but not in B. flabellifer). In most Borassus species, leaf scales and indumentum are present on immature leaves, but they erode as the leaves mature. In addition, a degree of overlap can be observed in the perianth segments of most Borassus species. Therefore these characters are not taxonomically informative. Pollen from an Indonesian specimen of B. flabellifer (Fox s.n.) was significantly larger than that from either the Thai or Sri Lankan specimens. A sample of ten pollen grains was measured from each specimen; the Indonesian pollen was 70 – 95 μm long (mean 84.8 μm) while pollen from Sri Lanka was 45 – 65 μm long (mean 53.6 μm) and pollen from Thailand was 51 – 72 μm long (mean 60 μm). There were no noticeable structural differences between the pollen samples. Given the rather limited sampling of Indonesian Borassus, it is difficult to determine whether this aberration is distinctive or whether it fits within the range of variation exhibited by B. flabellifer across Asia. However, after examination of images of the type specimen of B. sundaicus, I can find no additional morphological characters to distinguish this taxon from B. flabellifer. (R.P. Bayton. 2007)/Palmweb.


Borassus flabellifer has a growth pattern, very large size, and clean habits that make it an attractive ornamental tree, cultivated for planting in gardens and parks as landscape palm species. Hot, sunny, well drained position. Drought tolerant, cold sensitive. The seed is best germinated in its final position, since it very much resents being moved once established.

Comments and Curiosities

Borassus flabellifer is a robust tree and can live more than 100 years and reach a height of 30 m (98 ft), with a canopy of green-bluish, leaves several dozen fronds spreading 3 meters (9.8 ft) across. The very large trunk resembles that of the coconut tree and is ringed with leaf scars. Young palmyra palms grow slowly in the beginning but then grow faster with age. The Borassus flabellifer plant and fruit is known as Tala in Oriya, Tnaot in Khmer, Thot Not in Vietnamese, Tari in Hindi, Tal (তাল) in Bengali, Tale Hannu or Tateningu in Kannada, Nungu(நுங்கு) in Tamil, Pana Nangu in Malayalam, Thaati Munjalu in Telugu, Munjal in Urdu, Lontar in Indonesian, Siwalan in Javanese, Ta'al in Madurese, Ton Taan in Thai, Akadiru by the East Timorese, Tao in Divehi, Tadfali (pronunciation variations are Tad-fali or Taadfali) in Gujarati, Targula in Konkani, TadGola (ताडगोळा) in Marathi and sometimes Ice-apple in British English. The fruit measures 4 to 7 inches in diameter, has a black husk, and is borne in clusters. The top portion of the fruit must be cut off to reveal the three sweet jelly seed sockets, translucent pale-white, similar to that of the lychee but with a milder flavor and no pit. The jelly part of the fruit is covered with a thin, yellowish-brown skin. These are known to contain watery fluid inside the fleshy white body. These seed sockets have been the inspiration behind certain sweets Sandesh called Jalbhara (জলভরা) found in Bengal. The ripened fibrous outer layer of the palm fruits can also be eaten raw, boiled, or roasted. Bengali People have perfected the art of making various sweet dishes with the yellowish viscous fluidic substance obtained from a ripe palm fruit. These include Mustard oil fried Taler Bora (তালের বড়া), or mixed with thickened milk to form Taalkheer (তাল ক্ষীর). Palm shoot is cut and the juice is traditionally collected in hanging earthen pot. The juice so collected before morning is refreshing and light drink called Neera (नीरा) in Telugu also in Marathi and "Pathaneer"(பதநீர்) in Tamil, has an extremely cool sensation, and sugary sweet taste. The juice collected in evening or after fermentation becomes sour - is called Tadi (ताडी) in Marathi. Tadi is consumed by coastal Maharashtra mostly by villagers as raw alcoholic beverage. A sugary sap, called toddy, can be obtained from the young inflorescence, both male or female ones can be used. Toddy is fermented to make a beverage called arrack, or it is concentrated to a crude sugar called jaggery or Taal Patali (তাল পাটালী) in Bengali. It is called Gula Jawa (Javanese sugar) in Indonesia, and is widely used in Javanese cuisine. In addition, the tree sap is taken as a laxative, and medicinal values have been ascribed to other parts of the plant. Sprouts: In the states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, India, and in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, the seeds are planted and made to germinate and the fleshy stems (below the surface) are boiled or roasted and eaten. It is very fibrous and nutritious, known as Panai Kizhangu or Panamkizhangu in Tamil, and Thegalu or Gaygulu or Gengulu (especially in Telangana areas) in Telugu. The germinated seed's hard shell is also cut open to take out the crunchy kernel, which tastes like a sweet water chestnut. It is called "dhavanai" in Tamil. The white Kernel of the ripe palm fruit after being left for a few months has other uses. It is used as an offering in Lakshmi Puja in various parts of Bengal and is also eaten raw. Leaves: The 'Borassus flabellifer leaves are used for thatching, mats, baskets, fans, hats, umbrellas, and as writing material. In Indonesia the leaves were used in the ancient culture as paper, known as "lontar". Leaves of suitable size, shape, texture, and maturity are chosen and then seasoned by boiling in salt water with turmeric powder, as a preservative. The leaves are then dried. When they are dry enough, the face of the leaf is polished with pumice, cut into the proper size, and a hole is made in one corner. Each leaf will make four pages. The writing is done with a stylus and has a very cursive and interconnected style. The leaves are then tied up as sheaves. The stem of the leaves has thorny edges (called "karukku" in Tamil). Fence can be constructed from these stems by nailing it together. Skin of the stem can be peeled off and it can be used as rope. In some part of Tamilnadu, a variety of rice flour cake (called "Kolukattai") is prepared using the leaf. Trunk: The stalks also produce a strong, wiry fiber suitable for cordage and brushes. The black timber is hard, heavy, and durable and is highly valued for construction. In Cambodia, the trunk are also used to make a canoe. The young plants are cooked as a vegetable or roasted and pounded to make meal. Crown: When the crown of the tree is removed, the segment from which the leaves grow out is an edible cake. This is called thati adda in Telugu or pananchoru in Tamil.

Cultural symbolism: The palmyra tree is the official tree of Tamil Nadu. Highly respected in Tamil culture, it is called "karpaha Veruksham" ("celestial tree") because all its parts without exception have a use. Palmyra tree is also symbol of South Sulawesi province (Indonesia). The Asian palmyra palm is a symbol of Cambodia. It grows near the Angkor Wat temple and is a very common palms, where it found all over the country. This palm is also common in Thailand, especially in the northeast or Isaan provinces, where it is a prevailing part of the landscape. This plant has captured the imagination of Bengalis in the words of Rabindranth Tagore whose nursery rhyme 'Taal Gaach ek Paye daariye' (তাল গাছ এক পায়ে দাড়িয়ে..) in Sahaj Path (সহজ পাঠ) is a staple reading material in most schools in West Bengal.

Etymology: The epithet ‘flabellifer’ translates as ‘producing fans’ and refers to the palmate leaves. (R.P. Bayton. 2007).

Conservation: Least concern. Borassus flabellifer is widely distributed and is common in cultivation. The abundance of products extracted from it will effectively ensure its continued survival. (R.P. Bayton. 2007).

Uses: Almost every part of the palmyrah palm can be used. The wood is thought to be termite resistant and is used for construction (houses, canoes, fence posts etc.). The leaves are used for thatch, weaving and for making containers for some foodstuffs. The leaflets of B. flabellifer (together with those of Corypha umbraculifera L.) are traditionally used as a writing surface. They are marked using a hot metal stylus with the parallel veins providing a convenient line upon which to write (Sankaralingham & Hameed Khan 2001). Palmyrah provides a variety of foods; the fruits, undeveloped endosperm and apical bud (palm cabbage) are consumed and the inflorescences are tapped for the sweet sap. This can be fermented into palm wine or the sugar can be crystallised. On some Indonesian islands, this sugar is the primary source of carbohydrates (Fox 1977). For a review of the uses of B. flabellifer, see Kovoor (1983) and Morton (1988). (R.P. Bayton. 2007)/Palmweb.

External Links


Phonetic spelling of Latin names by edric.

Special thanks to Geoff Stein, (Palmbob) for his hundreds of photos, edric.

Special thanks to, Dr. John Dransfield, Dr. Bill Baker & team, for their volumes of information and photos, edric.

Glossary of Palm Terms; Based on the glossary in Dransfield, J., N.W. Uhl, C.B. Asmussen-Lange, W.J. Baker, M.M. Harley & C.E. Lewis. 2008. Genera Palmarum - Evolution and Classification of the Palms. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. All images copyright of the artists and photographers (see images for credits).

Bayton, R.P.2007. A revision of Borassus L. (Arecaceae). Kew Bulletin 62: 561-586.

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