|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,
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
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
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
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.