Raphia farinifera (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
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Raphia farinifera (Gaertn.) Hyl.


Protologue: Lustgården 31–32: 88 (1952).
Family: Arecaceae (Palmae)
Chromosome number: 2n = 32

Synonyms

  • Raphia ruffia (Jacq.) Mart. (1838),
  • Raphia pedunculata P.Beauv. (1806),
  • Raphia kirkii Engl. ex Becc. (1910).

Vernacular names

  • Madagascar raphia palm, Bamenda raphia, East African wine palm, raffia palm (En).
  • Raphia, palmier à raffia, palmier de Mayotte (Fr).
  • Mwale, muwala, rutoro (Sw).

Origin and geographic distribution

Raphia farinifera is distributed throughout the southern part of tropical Africa. It is frequently cultivated, for instance in Nigeria, Madagascar, the Seychelles, Réunion, India, the United States and the Lesser Antilles, and it has often naturalised.

Uses

Raffia fibre obtained from the upper surface of young leaflets is used worldwide as tying material for horticulture and handicrafts. In tropical Africa it is locally used for tying and for making a wide range of products, including mats, baskets, hats, wallets, shoes, bags, fishing nets, hammocks, curtains and textiles. The leaves are used for thatching, and the leaflets for plaiting. In Madagascar the midveins of the leaflets are used for making fishing nets and a range of articles for domestic use. The petiole and rachis are used for furniture, house construction, fences and ladders, and as poles. The rachis is locally made into sweeping-brushes. In Madagascar the dry petiole is cut into pieces of 40 cm long, which are used as floats for fishing nets. In Uganda strips from the petiole are used for basket weaving.

The stems of the palm are a source of starch. The young terminal bud (‘palm cabbage’) is eaten as a vegetable. The palm is tapped for sap to be fermented into palm wine. The wine is also distilled into a strong alcoholic liquor and can also be used as bakers’ yeast. The fruit and seeds are eaten, and the fruit pulp is fermented into an alcoholic drink. Oil from the mesocarp and seed is used as food (‘raphia butter’) and for the production of soap and stearin. The shells of the fruits are made into snuffboxes or buttons, and the fruits and seeds are used for decoration. A wax obtained from the lower surface of the leaflets has been used for floor and shoe polishes and for making candles. Raphia farinifera is planted as a wayside and ornamental tree.

In Madagascar the root is used against toothache, fibres from the leaf sheath are used for the treatment of digestive disorders, and a liquor obtained from the inflorescence is a drink as well as a laxative. In Mauritius a decoction of the fruit pulp is used against dysentery, and an infusion of the fruit is said to attenuate haemorrhages.

Production and international trade

Most of the raffia of international commerce is produced in Madagascar from Raphia farinifera. In the 1950s c. 5000 t of raffia fibre was annually exported from Madagascar, but in the 1980s and 1990s the average annual exports were only around 2000 t. Oil from the mesocarp has been exported to the European market as ‘bamboo oil’.

Properties

Raffia fibre is soft but strong. It is well suited to horticultural purposes, because it is supple and durable and it does not have sharp edges which might damage tender plant parts. The material is easy to prepare to desired widths as it is readily split. It is also easily dyed, making it suitable for the production of fancy articles. The average tensile strength of raffia fibre from Madagascar is 500 N/mm². The rachis is lightweight, easy to cut, strong and durable, making it very suitable for construction and furniture.

The fruit pulp contains about 24% oil, the seeds only 1%. The major fatty acids in seed oil from Madagascar are palmitic acid, oleic acid and linoleic acid. The main sterol is β-sitosterol. The fruit pulp has shown antibacterial activity against Staphylococcus aureus, but not against the Gram negative bacteria Escherichia coli, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Salmonella typhi bacteria; it also had no activity against the fungi Candida albicans and Aspergillus niger.

A crude extract of the stem bark caused significant mortality in vitro of adults and microfilariae of Onchocerca volvulus, which causes river blindness.

Adulterations and substitutes

Raffia fibre is also obtained from Raphia hookeri G.Mann & H.Wendl., occurring in West and Central Africa. The fibre faces competition from synthetic substitutes. Raphia hookeri as well as various other Raphia species are locally used like Raphia farinifera as a source of weaving material, construction material, palm heart, palm wine and oil.

Description

Monoecious, massive, clustering (in Madagascar often solitary) tree up to 25 m tall; trunk up to 10 m tall and 100 cm in diameter, the lower part with pronounced leaf scars, some remains of rotten leaf sheaths, and adventitious roots, the upper part covered with leaf-bases. Leaves pinnate, erect or slightly spreading, up to 20 m long, sheathing at the base, shiny above, waxy below; sheath unarmed, splitting opposite the petiole, sheath and petiole together c. 1.5 m long; petiole 12–20 cm in diameter, rounded in cross-section, unarmed; rachis unarmed, orange-brown or almost crimson, with 2 lateral grooves near the base; leaflets up to 150 on each side of the rachis, inserted in 2 planes, linear, stiff, up to 200 cm × 8 cm, single-fold, lower surface white waxy, upper surface sparsely waxy, margins and main veins with yellowish spines up to 4 mm long, main veins somewhat reddish. Inflorescence axillary, pendulous, up to 4(–6) m × 35 cm, branched to 2 orders; primary inflorescence bract c. 30 cm × 20 cm, tubular, partly enclosing the first and second order branches, peduncular bract 18 cm × 8 cm, tubular for 11 cm; second order prophylls 9 cm long; first order branches with 13–32 rachillae, up to 30 cm × 2.5 cm; rachilla up to 15 cm × 1.5 cm. Flowers unisexual; male flowers at apex of inflorescence branchlets, female flowers at base; male flowers up to 12 mm × 2 mm, enclosed in a bract, calyx with tube 4–5 mm long and 3 small lobes, corolla with basal tube 2–3 mm long and 3 lobes up to 10 mm × 2.5 mm, with segments slightly thickened near the tip, stamens 6(–9), inserted at the mouth of the corolla tube, filaments 2–3 mm long; female flowers enclosed in 2 bracts, calyx tubular, up to 8 mm long, corolla much shorter than calyx, with basal tube up to 2 mm long and lobes c. 3 mm long, staminodes 6, inconspicuous, ovary superior, 3-celled. Fruit ovoid to ellipsoid, 4.5–11 cm × 3–6 cm, with a beak up to 5 mm long, covered with scales in 12–13 rows, usually 1-seeded; scales convex, reflexed, up to 20 mm × 26 mm, bright orange-brown; mesocarp golden yellow. Seed ovoid to ellipsoid, 3–6 cm × 3–4.5 cm; mesocarp oily; endosperm sparsely to densely ruminate.

Other botanical information

Raphia comprises c. 20 species, mostly African, predominantly found in swampy areas. One species, Raphia taedigera (Mart.) Mart., is found in tropical America. Raphia farinifera in East Africa has often been referred to as Raphia monbuttorum Drude.

Growth and development

Raphia species have monocarpic stems, i.e. they flower and fruit only once, followed by death. Inflorescences are produced more or less simultaneously in the axils of the most distal leaves. Tapping for wine may damage the developing inflorescence, making flowering impossible and accelerating death. Raphia farinifera in Madagascar takes 20–25 years from seed to flowering and 5–6 years from flowering to ripe fruit, with all fruits maturing in the same year.

Ecology

In its natural distribution area, Raphia farinifera is widespread in gallery forest, freshwater swamp-forest and other moist locations, up to 2500 m altitude. In Madagascar it is common near villages at the edge of water courses, at 50–1000 m altitude.

Propagation and planting

Raphia farinifera is propagated by seed. Germination is slow, unless the outer layers of the seed are removed and the root is exposed. In Madagascar seeds have been reported to germinate after 4–5 months, and to be ready for planting out in the field at 1 year after sowing. Seedlings may also be collected from the wild and raised in a nursery before being planted out in the field. A normal spacing is 12 m × 12 m. Propagation by tissue culture techniques may offer potential for Raphia.

Management

Plantations are weeded during the first years after planting.

Diseases and pests

The rhinoceros beetle (Oryctes rhinoceros) attacks Raphia farinifera in Mauritius.

Harvesting

In Madagascar harvesting of leaves for raffia fibre usually takes place at the end of the rainy season, from trees at least 10 years old. Normally 2–3 leaves per year are harvested from each palm.

Yield

In Madagascar the yield of dry raffia fibre is about 3% of the fresh leaf weight.

Handling after harvest

To obtain raffia fibre in Madagascar, the harvested leaves are transported to a shaded area, where they are processed immediately. The leaflets are removed from the rachis and the upper epidermis is separated from the rest of the leaflet. Sometimes the midvein is removed before the epidermis is pulled off, leaving two half leaflets. After the epidermis has been removed, it is dried, which should be done properly to obtain fibre of good quality. To obtain oil, the fruits are crushed, and after adding water, boiling and cooling, the floating oil is skimmed off.

Genetic resources

In the 1950s the area covered by natural populations of Raphia farinifera in Madagascar was estimated at 50,000 ha. Although the species is not considered threatened, populations in Madagascar have declined due to over-exploitation, bush fires and conversion of their habitat into rice fields. No germplasm collections of Raphia are known.

Breeding

No breeding programmes of Raphia are known.

Prospects

Raphia farinifera is the main source of raffia fibre, which, despite the availability of synthetic substitutes, is still used worldwide as tying material for horticulture and handicrafts. Furthermore, Raphia farinifera is a very useful local source of a range of products, including construction material, palm wine, oil and traditional medicines. Its importance in the international market is unlikely to decline, although in Madagascar, the main producer, natural populations of Raphia farinifera are decreasing, and there is need to prevent over-explotation, protect the habitat and to encourage its planting.

Major references

  • Boiteau, P., Boiteau, M. & Allorge-Boiteau, L., 1999. Dictionnaire des noms malgaches de végétaux. 4 Volumes + Index des noms scientifiques avec leurs équivalents malgaches. Editions Alzieu, Grenoble, France.
  • Dransfield, J., 1986. Palmae. In: Polhill, R.M. (Editor). Flora of Tropical East Africa. A.A. Balkema, Rotterdam, Netherlands. 55 pp.
  • Dransfield, J. & Beentje, H.J., 1995. The palms of Madagascar. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and The International Palm Society, United Kingdom. 475 pp.
  • Gaydou, A.M., Bianchini, J.P., Rabarisoa, I. & Ravelojaona, G., 1980. Plantes oléagineuses endémiques de Madagascar. 1. Etude de la composition en acides gras et en stérols de quelques espèces de palmiers. Oléagineux 35(8–9): 413–415.
  • IPK, undated. Mansfeld’s world encyclopedia of agricultural and horticultural crops. [Internet] Leibnitz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK), Gatersleben, Germany. http://mansfeld.ipk-gatersleben.de/ pls/htmldb_pgrc/ f?p=185:3:8208035903155. October 2009.
  • Katende, A.B., Birnie, A. & Tengnäs, B., 1995. Useful trees and shrubs for Uganda: identification, propagation and management for agricultural and pastoral communities. Technical Handbook 10. Regional Soil Conservation Unit, Nairobi, Kenya. 710 pp.
  • Medina, J.C., 1959. Plantas fibrosas da flora mundial. Instituto Agronômico Campinas, Sao Paulo, Brazil. 913 pp.
  • Ruffo, C.K., Birnie, A. & Tengnäs, B., 2002. Edible wild plants of Tanzania. Technical Handbook No 27. Regional Land Management Unit/ SIDA, Nairobi, Kenya. 766 pp.
  • Rustiami, H. & Brink, M., 2003. Raphia P. Beauv. In: Brink, M. & Escobin, R.P. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 17. Fibre plants. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 211–217.
  • Sandy, M. & Bacon, L., 2001. Tensile testing of raffia. Journal of Materials Science Letters 20: 529–530.

Other references

  • Adjanohoun, E.J., Aké Assi, L., Eymé, J., Gassita, J.N., Goudoté, E., Guého, J., Ip, F.S.L., Jackaria, D., Kalachand, S.K.K., Keita, A., Koudogbo, B., Landreau, D., Owadally, A.W. & Soopramanien, A., 1983. Médecine traditionelle et pharmacopée - Contribution aux études ethnobotaniques et floristiques à Maurice (Iles Maurice et Rodrigues). Agence de Coopération Culturelle et Technique, Paris, France. 216 pp.
  • Bedford, G.O., 1980. Biology, ecology, and control of palm rhinoceros beetles. Annual Review of Entomology 25: 309–339.
  • Beentje, H.J., 1994. Kenya trees, shrubs and lianas. National Museums of Kenya, Nairobi, Kenya. 722 pp.
  • Byg, A. & Balslev, H., 2001. Diversity and use of palms in Zahamena, eastern Madagascar. Biodiversity and Conservation 10(6): 951–970.
  • Coates Palgrave, K., 1983. Trees of southern Africa. 2nd Edition. Struik Publishers, Cape Town, South Africa. 959 pp.
  • Gurib-Fakim, A. & Brendler, T., 2004. Medicinal and aromatic plants of Indian Ocean Islands: Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles and Mascarenes. Medpharm, Stuttgart, Germany. 568 pp.
  • Gurib-Fakim, A., Guého, J. & Bissoondoyal, M.D., 1995. Plantes médicinales de Maurice, tome 1. Editions de l’Océan Indien, Rose-Hill, Mauritius. 495 pp.
  • Jelager, L., Gurib-Fakim, A. & Adsersen, A., 1998. Antibacterial and antifungal activity of medicinal plants of Mauritius. Pharmaceutical Biology 36(3): 153–161.
  • Jumelle, H., 1945. Palmiers (Palmae). Flore de Madagascar et des Comores (plantes vasculaires), famille 30. Imprimerie Officielle, Tananarive, Madagascar. 180 pp.
  • Letouzey, R., 1978. Notes phytogéographiques sur les palmiers du Cameroun. Adansonia 18(3): 293–325.
  • Llamas, K.A., 2003. Tropical flowering plants: a guide to identification and cultivation. Timber Press, Portland, United States. 425 pp.
  • Moore, H.E. & Guého, L.J., 1984. Palmiers. In: Bosser, J., Cadet, T., Guého, J. & Marais, W. (Editors). Flore des Mascareignes. Famille 189. The Sugar Industry Research Institute, Mauritius, l’Office de la Recherche Scientifique Outre-Mer, Paris, France & Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 34 pp.
  • Mouranche, R., 1955. Le palmier-raphia de Madagascar. Bois et Forêts des Tropiques 41: 8–22.
  • Muhwezi, O., Cunningham, A.B. & Bukenya-Ziraba, R., 2009. Lianas and livelihoods: the role of fibrous forest plants in food security and society around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda. Economic Botany 63(4): 340–352.
  • Razafindratovo Ndriana, M., 2006. Une filière menacée : Raphia farinifera. [Internet] Conférences-débats sur des exemples de valorisation durable de produits forestiers. Antananarivo, 19 et 20 avril 2006. http://iarivo.cirad.fr/ doc/urp_fb/ffem060419/ 04_raphia.pdf. January 2011.
  • Robinson, B.B. & Johnson, F.L., 1953. Abaca: a cordage fiber. Agriculture Monograph No 21. United States Department of Agriculture, Beltsville, Maryland, United States. 130 pp.
  • Titanji, V.P.K., Ayafor, J.F., Mulufi, J.P. & Mbacham, W.F., 1987. In vitro killing of Onchocerca volvulus (Filaroidea) adults and microfilariae by selected Cameroonian medicinal plant extracts. Fitoterapia 58(5): 338–339.
  • USDA, ARS & National Genetic Resources Program, 2001. Germplasm Resources Information Network - (GRIN). [Internet] National Germplasm Resources Laboratory, Beltsville, Maryland, United States. http://www.ars-grin.gov/. October 2009.
  • Williamson, J., 1955. Useful plants of Nyasaland. The Government Printer, Zomba, Nyasaland. 168 pp.

Sources of illustration

  • Rustiami, H. & Brink, M., 2003. Raphia P. Beauv. In: Brink, M. & Escobin, R.P. (Editors). Plant Resources of South-East Asia No 17. Fibre plants. Backhuys Publishers, Leiden, Netherlands. pp. 211–217.

Author(s)

  • L. Jimu, Forestry Unit, Department of Environmental Science, Bindura University of Science Education (BUSE), P.B. 1020, Bindura, Zimbabwe

Correct citation of this article

Jimu, L., 2011. Raphia farinifera (Gaertn.) Hyl. [Internet] Record from PROTA4U. Brink, M. & Achigan-Dako, E.G. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. <http://www.prota4u.org/search.asp>.

Accessed 13 November 2018.