Borassus heineanus from Papua New Guinea – A Haunted Palm?

Department of Systematic
Botany, University of Aarhus,
Nordlandsvej 68, DK-8240
Risskov, Denmark,
Every palm collector knows that when he stumbles across a rare population of palms, he must take action immediately – tomorrow the chance of collecting may have passed. But it is not always enough to put your own sweat, blood and money into the work; sometimes you also have to overcome the malevolent spirit that seems to follow the palm and bring bad luck to the collector. Reprinted with permission to post on from the Vol. 47, No 2, Palms (formerly Principes), Journal of the International Palm Society
© 2003 The International Palm Society,
All rights reserved
My story takes its beginning in a village named Maramba. It is remotely situated in a vast, swampy blackwater area, south of the Middle Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. It was one of the numerous localities I visited in my pursuit of data for my Masters thesis on the sago palm, Metroxylon sagu.

Already before my arrival at the village, my interest in palms was obvious, and my local companions had urged me to see a single palm individual, which grew in the centre of the village. The first couple of days my sago project kept me busy, but on the third day we ventured out to see the fantastic palm, which in the meanwhile had grown to monstrous dimensions in the stories of the village people. Working in PNG had taught me to hold my horses and not expect too much, so was ready for disappointment.

To my great joy and amazement, a majestic fan-leaved palm towered over the low stilt huts (Figs 1, 2). It stood more than 30 meters tall on a trunk with a diameter of about 45 cm. My first impulse was that I had encountered a species of Livistona far away from home. But on better inspection, the deeply split petioles revealed that I had an individual of the rare, but famous Borassus heineanus on my hands.

The palm held a number of apparently immature infructescences. The villagers told me that these fruits would fall off when they were still green and chicken egg-sized, and that all germination attempts had failed. Half joking, I suggested that we should cut it down for collection. Judging from the faces of the people, this was not a joking matter. They told me the story of the palm, which left me breathless.

About 60 years ago a couple of clans from a distant village decided to settle down in the swamps. With them they brought a single palm seed, which was planted in the middle of the settlement. The palm held great significance as a monument of the ties between the new and the old villages. When a new spirit house was recently built (the old one had been burnt down by missionaries), it was decided to use leaves of Borassus palms as thatch and wall material (Fig. 3). Further reading will reveal that the journey to the mother population is long and laborious. Nonetheless, more than 20 canoe loads of Borassus leaves were brought down the stream.

I organized an expedition to take me to the distant palm population the following day. Starting before sunrise, we had the obligatory one hour’s waiting for everybody to get ready. One and a half hour’s motor canoe ride brought us to our landing site on the northern banks of the huge main river. Ahead of us lay 15 km of walking through wide stretches of flat Kunai grassland with thick forest and sago swamps in the waterlogged depressions. The first 10 km of wandering in the merciless tropical sun put the sweat glands of my poor white skin on extra duty. The entry in a patch of forest brought shade and great relief to everybody. During a short rest, a few individuals of Arenga microcarpa were cut, and the palm hearts were devoured with great pleasure. Apart from a multitude of this often-collected palm, only a few other palms had found their way through the grassland to this patch of forest. A number of Gulubia costata, Ptychosperma sp., and a single individual of Licuala lauterbachii were observed – and, of course, thousands of individuals of the king of the swamps, the sago palm. This spiny and colossal palm completely dominates the wettest depressions and makes passage a nightmare.

A stretch of about 200 meters went through a swamp that was so deep that it was impossible to wade to the other side, but fortunately a large number of smaller and larger trunks had been laid out as bridges. Some of the trunks would stay on the surface when trodden on. Others would sink in the water until they reached support in the mud. Almost safely arrived on the other side I slipped and landed with a leg on each side of a slippery log. My first alarming thought was: NOTEBOOK !!, and within a split second I was on my feet again, fumbling in my pocket for the precious book. Luckily I had thought of putting it in a plastic bag and it was safe, a destiny unfortunately not shared by my now dripping cigarettes.

Soon we arrived at the village of Kamangauwi and hundreds of people gathered to see the white “Masta,” who was in town. After a short introduction we were allowed to search the lands and collect any number of palms we wished. Going west of the village, we soon encountered the first juveniles of the stand. Scattered with distances of 25–50 meters, we found a number of half-grown and full-grown individuals, but none in flower or fruit. The large group of young men, who followed us, had spread out in all directions looking for flowering material. Judging from my own walking distance and the distant negative reports from searching villagers, I estimated the size of the stand to be about 300 × 300 meters.

A positive report brought us to an individual with ripe fruits. It stood 12.5 meters tall measured to the base of the crown, which consisted of 20 bluish green leaves. Making scientific collections proved to be hard work, especially in liberating the infructescences, which were covered at the base by the leaf sheaths. The leaf sheaths did not form a crown shaft, but were split 50 cm along the backside. From the base to the end of the brown, fibrous petiole edges, the sheaths measured 1.3 m. Ignoring the warnings, I soon found myself with a blood dripping hand, caused by the very sharp edges of the 1.5–1.8 m long petioles.

Head-shaking, I looked at the 3 enormous leaf sheaths I had decided to collect, but ventured on with the collection of the even larger leaf blades. Measured from petiole to tip, the blade was 2.3 m long, of which the costa occupied 40 cm. The blade measured 3.2 m across, and consisted of a total of 78 segments. Between each segment were deep incisions and at the tips were short incisions (Fig. 4).

Turning to the infructescences, I realized what a task I had taken on my shoulders. The crown bore three infructescences, ranging from ping-pong ball sized green, immature fruits to ripe, black fruits, which were 11 cm long and 9 cm wide. The slightly triangular fruits contained 3 seeds (in some 1–2 seeds were aborted), which were contained in whitish husk, covered by a shiny, black skin. Each of the infructescences bore 30–40 fruits and had a rachis length of 50 cm and a peduncle length of 80 cm. All in all the collection of this one individual filled up 4 large plastic bags and weighed around 20 kg.

This could have been the happy end of a successful collection, but still many hours of travelling lay between me and my base in the National Herbarium in Lae. As mentioned already, this palm was apparently protected by a malevolent spirit, causing bad luck to its enemies. I had already cut my hand on the sharp petioles, and on our way back I did not manage to pass the deep swamp unscathed, but took a muddy and smelly dive from a rolling trunk. As I knew that I would soon enough dry in the burning sun in the grassland, I took it with a smile. Only I was not the only one to enjoy the sun on the dirt track, and only a quick performance of my later so famous “there is a two meter long snake between my legs dance” saved me from a poisonous bite.

When we arrived safely at the riverbank, our boat driver informed us that he had bought sufficient fuel for the five hour canoe ride to the district capital, Angoram. But after a few hours ride, the sound of a dying engine told me that the gallons you buy in that place apparently were much smaller than normal gallons. Left with only the weak current as drive, we spent the whole night drifting through the millions of mosquitoes that feasted on our blood. In Angoram, I was presented with the next challenge; palms of this size does not fit very well into standard newspaper sheets. Two hours were spent trying to make the various palm parts stay inside the sheets long enough for me to place them in plastic bags with methylated alcohol. The four-hour car ride on stony roads to the provincial capital, Wewak was strenuous but without major event. The arrival at this civilized town might again have brought an end to this story, but the malevolent spirit was still on my tail.

As my luggage already consisted of my field gear and three big bags of palm material, I had to make arrangements for some of the bags to be forwarded to Lae by air freight. Not very confident about this, I flew to Lae. The following day I received the depressing news that the aviation authorities had closed Wewak Airport for jet-size air-planes, and only small carriers were permitted to land during repair work to the runway. Now 300 km of tropical country separated me and my palm collection. Not until the next day, I had a new receipt for the airfreight of the package and a promise of arrival the following morning. Unfortunately the collection had to change air-plane midway, but I was confident that I had managed to shake off the malevolent spirit. I could not be more wrong, as the palm did disappear. After radioing five different airports, the official finally found it in the Highlands town Goroka. Two more days in anxiety went by, and the precious collection finally arrived in Lae. To dry the large fruits, I had to drill holes in each seed, but still it took a full week. The malevolent spirit finally seemed to have lost his breath.

1. A 30 m tall individual of Borassus heineanus towering over the village of Maramba: notice the villagers at the foot. The palm was grown from a seed planted about 60 years ago as a symbol of the ties between the old settlement, Kamangauwi Village, near the main population of Borassus heineanus, and the new settlement in Maramba Village.

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2. Close-up of the Borassus heineanus palm in Fig. 1, with several immature infructescences.

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3. The “Spirit House” in Maramba Village. More than 20 canoe loads of Borassus leaves were brought the long way down the Sepik River to built the house in the traditional ways of the ancestors. Large parts of the roof and the pale parts of the walls was constructed with Borassus leaves, and for the rest, sago leaves were used.

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4. Field assistant David Hambut with a leaf and an infructescence of Borassus heineanus.

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