- History and Culture
Ravenala madagascariensis a tree native to Madagascar is the single species of its genus. Known as traveller's tree or traveller's palm it is actually not a palm tree. It is part of a monocotyledonous flowering plant family, Strelitziaceae, which also includes the bird of paradise plant Strelitzia reginae. It is distinguished by its large fanned paddle-shaped leaves. It is believed that the plant was introduced to Mauritius around 1758 when Princess Bety of the Betsimisarak tribe of Madagascar came to settle in Mauritius.
The enormous paddle-shaped leaves are borne on long petioles, in a distinctive fan shape aligned in a single plane. The large white flowers are structurally similar to those of its relatives, the bird-of-paradise flowers Strelitzia reginae and Strelitzia nicolai, but are generally considered less attractive, with a green bract. These flowers, upon being pollinated, produce brilliant blue seeds; possibly the only blue seeds found in nature. In tropical and subtropical regions, the plant is widely cultivated for its distinctive habit and foliage. As the plant grows older, it progressively loses the lowest or oldest leaves and reveals a sturdy grey trunk. Of the four forms, varieties or subspecies, the largest is the "Bemavo", from the hills of eastern Madagascar, which can be 100 feet (30 meters) in height with a trunk 2 feet (60 cm) thick. The foliar fan consists of 20 to 35 leaves, each as much as 36 feet (11 meters) in length.
It has been given the name "traveller's palm" because the sheaths of the stems hold rainwater, which supposedly could be used as an emergency drinking supply for needy travellers. However, the water inside the plant is murky, black and smelly and should not be consumed without purification. Another plausible reason for its name is that the fan tends to grow on an east-west line, providing a crude compass.
The scientific name Ravenala comes from Malagasy ravinala meaning "forest leaves".