Flowering Talipot Palms at Singapore Botanic Gardens
17 May 2005
The flowering Talipot Palms have been the focus of attention for the past few months at Singapore Botanic Gardens. It is a majestic sight and a lifetime treat to see the massive flowering structure.
In August 1920, Talipot seeds were introduced from the Calcutta Botanic Gardens, India. The seedlings were planted in the Palm Valley in 1925 and now after 79 years, two Talipot Palms (Corypha umbraculifera), flowered from October 2004 to January 2005.
This palm flowers only once in its lifetime, producing the biggest inflorescence in the flowering kingdom. The palm grows for 30 to 80 years, storing up energy and strength in its trunk to send out this massive inflorescence. After flowering and fruiting the plant will die.
The tough and flexible young leaves of the Talipot Palm, like those from the Palmyra Palm (Borassus flabellifer), have been used since ancient times as paper. A great deal of the original Buddhist scripture was recorded on the leaves of the Talipot Palm. Almost all parts of the plant are useful. The timber is used for construction, the leaves for thatch and weaving and buttons may be made from the hard endosperm of the seed. Wine can be tapped from the emerging flower stalk, sago starch harvested from the trunk and the palm heart can be eaten.
Widely cultivated in southern India and Sri Lanka, it is the national tree of Sri Lanka. This giant solitary palm is the largest of the fan palms and will grow up to 25 m tall with a 1m diameter at the base. The huge fan-shaped leaves may reach 5 m across. The upper part of the trunk is typically covered with persistent leaf bases.
The flowering stalk grows to 6 m tall and may bear over 20 million tiny cream flowers. The golfball-sized dull green fruits will take almost a year to mature. Gradually, all the food reserves accumulated in the trunk over the decades would be used up and the plant dies. This mode of life is called monocarpic which mean "once fruiting".
A flowering Talipot is truly a rare and impressive sight. To see two massive palms flowering simultaneously is a once-in-a-lifetime treat. The Talipot Palm has flowered in the Gardens before in 1984 and 1996.
In India and Sri Lanka, more than a year after flowering, hundreds of thousands of fruits will be ripe and begin to rain down. By then all the leaves will be dead and drooping. However, in SBG, after the last massive flowering, only a handful of fruits were produced suggesting that the right pollinator is absent in the Gardens.
Botanists have suggested that the advantage of flowering once in a lifetime is that such a large quantity of fruit produced all at once cannot possibly all be eaten by predators so that plenty of new plants will survive and replace the mother plant.
We owe it to our predecessors who had the foresight to plant these majestic palms. In the same way, we should be planting more for the next generation.
Gardenwise: Newsletter of the Singapore Botanic Gardens 24:22-23
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