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Fairchild’s tropical garden column: The incredible ‘Corypha’ palms

Palms follow some basic rules. They have one crown of folded leaves per trunk. Some palms branch at the base and are multi-stemmed, like our native Acoelorrhape wrightii (paurotis palm). Other palms branch aerially (Hyphaene spp.). All of these palms have inconspicuous flowers that are borne on large axes (an inflorescence). These inflorescences are formed throughout the lifetime of the palm. Most palms flower multiple times, ensuring successful reproduction.

However, there is a genus that only flowers once, waiting until the end of the plant’s life. At this time, the palms put all their energy into flowering. A huge inflorescence is borne at the top of the stem as the leaves fall away — a big-bang reproduction. At the end of this magnificent display, the palm will die. The Corypha palms are a remarkable group of palms that truly put all their eggs in one basket.

Corypha will flower between the ages of 30 to 80 years. Since the palm can only flower once, it will wait until the environment seems to be perfect. Corypha palms get one shot at passing on their genetic information. If they miscalculate and do not successfully reproduce, they have lost their only chance to pass on their DNA. That’s a lot of reproduction pressure. But, it is this passing down of genetic information, specifically when to reproduce, that ensures successful reproduction.

In the wild, they grow in mono-stands — large, open spaces dominated only by them. When the environment is just right, and they are at the right age, they will all reproduce together. They are all keyed in to the same environmental cues that tell them to flower. The entire stand will drop their leaves and send out huge inflorescences. They will reproduce and then they will all die. Hopefully, they have produced millions of seeds that blanket the forest floor. These seeds will germinate and grow up, in the same forest as their parents, and attempt reproduction another 30 to 80 years later.

While there are six recognized species, two are widely known, Corypha umbraculifera (talipot) and Corypha utan (gebang). Corypha umbraculifera boasts the largest inflorescence in the plant kingdom. The fruit stun fish. The pith is edible as a starch. The seeds are used as beads or buttons. The sap from the palm is used to make palm wine. The leaves are used for thatching and writing. The palm received its name — umbraculifera — because the leaves are used to make umbrellas. The gebang palm is not as large as the talipot but has a larger geographic range. All other Corypha palms are restricted to Southeast Asia. The talipot extends its range to Malesia and Australia.

The horticulture of these incredible palms is satisfyingly simple. They have low fertilizer requirements, and low water requirements. All they need is a sunny place to grow. Since these palms flower only once, it is very difficult to get seed. For this reason, they are not horticulturally available. Fortunately, a Corypha utan at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden is currently in full flower. Hopefully, the palm will successfully produce seed and distribution is a possibility.

The Corypha appear to be like all other palms but reproduce in a magnificent and unique way. This big-bang reproduction is remarkable, but these palms are also of cultural and economic importance. The Corypha are also horticulturally easy to take care of. If you have the chance to plant (or just see) a Corypha, do not miss the opportunity. These palms are truly brilliant.

Sara Edelman is palm and cycad manager at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden.

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