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Exploring the Characteristics of Zambian, Indigenous Palm Trees

Updated: Mar 14

Palms are common in most urban ornamental gardens across Zambia. There is a wide array of palm species grown across the country hailing from areas of Australia, Asia, north Africa, the Mediterranean and central/south America. There are approximately 180 genera and 2,500 different palm species around the world from giants growing up to 30 m or more tall or more dwarf species only reaching just over 1 m tall. There is much variation within the Palm family.

Locally, all parts of the palm have uses; from oil to using the leaves as thatch or wood for construction and furniture. Most people will be able to recognise at least three of the indigenous palm species growing in Zambia, but would be surprised to find out that we have seven palm species in total. The two fan palm species and our wild date palm are easily recognised and identified by most lay people and occur across a wide range within Zambia. The other four species are rarer and require very specific habitats in order to grow and thrive. Palm trees are a keystone species and play a pivotal role in establishing and maintaining the habitats to which they have adapted, including water regulation and preventing soil erosion.

Let's have a quick look at some of the rarer palms of Zambia before we talk about the much more common ones.

Surprisingly, Zambia has two species of climbing palm that grow in riverine forest and mushitu (swamp forest) habitats found in the far northwestern and northeastern areas of the country. Calamus deerratus G.Mann. & H.Wendl. and Eremospatha cuspidata (G.Mann. & H.Wendl.) H.Wendl. are very habitat specific only able to survive in damp forest where they have adapted their stems and leaves with spines that, in addition to providing protection from predation, help the stems climb the tree canopy. These two palms are very rare in Zambia and are vulnerable to habitat destruction so we need to protect these vulnerable habitats as best as possible lest we lose these two interesting palms and all those species dependent on the conditions within swamp forest.

The other two uncommon palms in Zambia grow in open wet areas, producing upright stems. Raphia farinifera (Gaertn.) Hylander is a large clustering species with large fronds (leaves) growing up to 20 m long and a trunk up to 60 cm in diameter. This species grows across Zambia where the wet conditions that it needs are right for them to thrive. Similarly, the African Oil Palm, Elaeis guineensis Jacq. also grows in open wet areas on flood plains and by rivers but produces a solitary stem and is confined to the far northwestern and northeastern parts of the country. Mature plants can grow up to 30 m tall and like the cultivated Oil Palm, the fruits are harvested and processed to extract the oil. It's not fully certain whether the Zambian specimens of the African Oil Palm are naturally occurring or were introduced by people long ago. Either way, the wet habitat in which both these species grow is still vulnerable to habitat change.

The multi-purpose Phoenix reclinata (Wild Date Palm)

Moving onto the common species, the African Wild Date Palm, Phoenix reclinata Jacq. is the most widespread occurring across Zambia growing along rivers at lower altitudes but in open woodland and even forest in higher rainfall areas. Its clustered habit is very distinctive amongst our Zambian palms and individual stems growing up to 10 m tall and 30 cm in diameter. Towards the end of dry season and start of the rainy season, each stem produces 1-several bright orange inflorescences with musky scented cream to white flowers which eventually ripen to small yellow-orange to dull red fruits. Though the fruits are edible, they rarely have much flesh around the seed and are rarely eaten. The African Wild Date Palm grows easily in urban gardens though it can be messy and mature plants can take up quite a bit of space.

The iconic Borassus aethiopum (African Fan Palm)

The Borassus Fan Palm, Borassus aethiopum Mart., is easily recognisable growing up to 30 m tall supported by the thick trunk up to 60 cm in diameter that is swollen approximately 10 m above the base. The large fan-shaped leaves can be up to 2 x 2 m supported by a spiny edged leaf stalk nearly 3 m long. Plants are dioecious, meaning that there are separate male and female plants, and only the female specimens produce the large dull orange-brown fruits that can be quite dangerous when they fall to the ground. The Borassus Fan Palm grows along rivers and in drier areas where there is a sufficiently high water table and are, on account of their large size and heavy fruits, only appropriate for large gardens planted far away from buildings and high traffic areas.

The Hyphaene Fan Palm

Finally, the Hyphaene Fan Palm, Hyphaene petersiana Mart., is the other fan palm in Zambia growing up to 20 m tall with trunk up to 35 cm in diameter, sometimes with a swelling in the middle of the stem. It is generally smaller than the Borassus Fan Palm in stem and leaf sizes but occurs in similar habitat in open areas with a high water table. The Hyphaeae Fan Palm is seldom cultivated in urban gardens but would be best planted far away from buildings and high traffic areas.

While palm oil has many potential commercial uses, and palm farming could assist greatly in sustaining livelihoods in lower income households, it is not widely grown as a commercial crop in Zambia although a palm plantation was started a few years ago in Mpika.

In developing palms as a crop, we should intentionally mitigate some of the negative effects of any large scale monoculture crop on the environment, especially as we can see the devastating effects of palm oil cropping in other countries where palm oil is harvested.

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