Pandanus utilis is a plant native to the Mascarenes, known under the vernacular name of vacoa as all species of the genus. Its supporting aerial roots are one of the peculiarities of this small tree, while its leaves are linear, thorny and arranged in spirals, old leaf scars resemble a corkscrew as they spiral around the trunk. Like other Pandanus, it can reach 6 meters high. Plants of this genus are monocotyledonous, the seeds of which contain a single embryonic leaf. It is a dioecious plant; individual plants are either male or female and produce either male or female reproductive parts. The female flowers are large, cream-colored pom-poms, that give fruit that look like pineapples or pine cones. The male flowers are tiny and fragrant, and are grouped in long spikes, that resemble a lamb’s tail. The tree has no secondary growth, and therefore does not produce wood to support the trunk, it develops instead pale brown aerial roots of 2.5 to 7.5 centimeters in diameter, which help support its structure.
Pandanus utilis is common in palm forests and on the coastal plains and can be found in windy and exposed areas. It is the preferred tree of native geckos that hide under its leaves to escape the Kestrel of Mauritius.
The species is native to the Mascarene Islands and is said to be of ‘minor concern’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Although its natural habitat is very small, Pandanus utilis has been propagated as an ornamental, forest and landscaping plant in the tropics. This species is consequently the most widespread in the world and is commonly used as an indoor ornamental plant and in landscaped gardens. This contrasts with other native and endemic Pandanus species that are considered rare.
P. utilis also grows very well on the coast and the structure of its roots can help control erosion.
It also has a historical and cultural interest as its dried leaves are used to make mats, rugs, bags, hats and other products of traditional local basketry.