Raphia palma-pinus (PROTA)

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Plant Resources of Tropical Africa
List of species

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Geographic coverage Africa Fairytale bookmark gold.svgGood article star.svgGood article star.svgGood article star.svgGood article star.svg
Geographic coverage World Fairytale bookmark gold.svgGood article star.svgGood article star.svgGood article star.svgGood article star.svg
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Raphia palma-pinus (Gaertn.) Hutch.

Protologue: Fl. W. trop. Afr. 2: 387 (1936).
Family: Arecaceae (Palmae)


  • Raphia gracilis Becc. (1910).

Vernacular names

  • Thatch palm (En).

Origin and geographic distribution

Raphia palma-pinus is distributed in West Africa, from Senegal and Gambia eastwards to Ghana


Piassava fibre, mainly obtained from the petiole and leaf sheath of Raphia hookeri G.Mann & H.Wendl. and the petiole of Raphia palma-pinus, is used locally for making weather-resistant coarse ropes, belts for climbing oil-palms, and brushes, and is exported for the production of hard brooms and brushes. Piassava fibre is also used to make exceptionally strong paper. The leaves of Raphia palma-pinus are commonly used for thatching. The petiole and rachis are used as poles for making furniture items, such as chairs and beds, and in construction. The pith of the petiole and rachis is made into mats. In Senegal the fruits are considered a strong poison.

Production and international trade

African piassava from Raphia spp. has been exported to temperate countries (mainly Europe) for the production of brooms and brushes since the end of the 19th Century, when the supply of South American piassava (from Attalea funifera Mart. and Leopoldinia piassaba Wallace), used in Europe for brooms since the middle of the 19th Century, could no longer meet demand. The trade reached its peak in the 1950s and 1960s (7000 t exported from Sierra Leone, the main exporting country, in 1964; 5300 t from Nigeria in 1966; there was also trade from Guinea), after which it declined with the advent of plastic brooms. The particular qualities of African piassava for broom-making are such that it still enters the international market. The main types of African piassava fibre in trade are ‘Sherbro’, ‘Sulima’ and ‘Calabar’ (‘Opobo’). Sherbro and Sulima are obtained from the petiole, the former from Raphia hookeri and the latter from Raphia palma-pinus, often with an admixture of Raphia hookeri fibres, whereas Calabar is extracted from the leaf sheath of Raphia hookeri. The sheath of Raphia palma-pinus is too short for extraction of sufficiently long fibre. Most of the raffia fibre of commerce is produced in Madagascar from Raphia farinifera (Gaertn.) Hyl.


Piassava fibre is water resistant, hard-wearing, and has the right balance between stiffness and elasticity to give a firm stroke to a broom and sufficient spring action to make the broom self-cleaning. The best piassava fibre is cylindrical with a firm wall and a soft core and a diameter of 1–1.5 mm. It is obtained from the sides (‘wings’) of the petiole, whereas fibre from the upper and lower surfaces is of only reasonable quality. Mature leaves yield higher quality piassava fibre than younger leaves.


Monoecious tree, often clustering, with a trunk usualy 1–3 m tall, sometimes more, and covered with persistent leaf-bases. Leaves pinnate, 2–4(–8) m long, sheathing at the base; sheath short; petiole 0.5–1(–2.5) m long, channeled above, rounded below, smooth; rachis unarmed; leaflets linear-lanceolate, 50–80 cm × 2–4 cm, single-fold, acuminate at the apex, green-yellow, not shiny, lower surface waxy, margins and main veins with spines. Inflorescence axillary, pendulous, branched to 2 orders; flowering second order branches lax, rounded, 5–10(–20) cm long, with flowers in 4 ranks. Flowers unisexual; male flowers with tubular calyx with lobes half as long as tube, corolla lobes elliptical, stamens (8–)9–12, inserted on the corolla, free to the base; female flowers with tubular calyx, corolla campanulate, c. 12 mm long, with 3 lobes, staminodes 8, ovary superior, 3-celled, stigma sessile. Fruit ovoid to ellipsoid, (5–)8–9.5 cm × 3–4 cm, with a beak c. 5 mm long, covered with scales in 8–9 rows, 1-seeded; scales emarginate, fimbriate.

Raphia species have monocarpic stems, i.e. they flower and fruit only once, followed by death.

Raphia comprises c. 20 species, mostly African, predominantly found in swampy areas. One species, Raphia taedigera (Mart.) Mart., is found in tropical America.

Raphia gentiliana De Wild. (synonym: Raphia gilletii (De Wild.) Becc.) occurs in the Central African Republic and DR Congo. The leaves are used for thatching, fibres from the rachis are used for making mats, bags, textiles and carpets, and the rachis and petiole are used for construction, furniture, beehives and toys. The tree is tapped for palm wine, and the apical bud is eaten as a vegetable. A leaf decoction is taken against asthenia.

Raphia laurentii De Wild. is a palm with a stout trunk up to 6 m tall, occurring in the Central African Republic, DR Congo and Angola. Its leaves are used for thatching. It is also recorded to yield piassava and raphia fibre. The tree is tapped for palm wine. The fruit pulp yields c. 38% oil, which is used in food and as a protective and disinfectant skin ointment in traditional medicine. The main fatty acids in the oil are palmitic acid, linoleic acid and oleic acid.

Raphia regalis Becc. is a massive, stemless or almost stemless palm with leaves up to 25 m long, the largest leaves known in the plant kingdom. It occurrs in upland forest in Nigeria, Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, Congo and Cabinda (Angola). The leaves are used for thatching and mat making, and provide pulp for paper making. The palm is tapped for palm wine. In Gabon unspecified plant parts are used against fever and worms. Raphia regalis is classified as vulnerable in the IUCN Red list, due to its fragmented occurrence and decline of its habitat.

Raphia sese De Wild. is a palm with a trunk up to 11 m tall and up to 50 cm in diameter, occurring in Congo and DR Congo. The leaves are used for thatching, and the rachis is made into furniture, mats and arrows. Sap from the stem is fermented into palm wine. The fruit pulp yields 44% oil, which is used like that of Raphia laurentii in food and as a protective and disinfectant skin ointment in traditional medicine. The main fatty acids in the oil are palmitic acid, linoleic acid and oleic acid.


Raphia palma-pinus occurs in thickets in swamps with fresh or slightly brackish water, often in swamps behind mangrove areas. It can form substantial populations.


Raphia palms are generally propagated by seed. The traditional practice of piassava fibre extraction from the petiole is to split the petiole along the longitudinal axis into 3 or 4 splits, which are tied into bundles and immersed in water. The retting period varies from a few weeks to 2–3 months. After retting, the fibres can be stripped off relatively easily. Retting influences the appearance of the fibres. Sherbro and Sulima piassava, somewhat pale coloured at harvest, turn brownish on retting. Material retted in fresh running water tends to be pale brown, whereas material retted in stagnant swamp pools develops a reddish-brown tinge, which is attractive and leads to higher prices. The extracted fibres still have a coating of decomposing background tissue which has to be removed. In the case of Sherbro and Sulima, the retted strips are usually flogged over and drawn through a comb of pointed sticks. Fibres may also be separated and cleaned by hand. The cleanliness of the fibre has a large impact on quality and market value. Cleaned fibres may be spread out to dry in the sun for a few days. Further drying may occur under the eaves of houses or above fireplaces. Fibres which are not properly dried become mouldy and brittle and can be a fire hazard in warehouses and ships. Fibre length is an important attribute as long fibres provide more opportunities for further processing. It is also important that bundles consist of fibres of uniform length. High quality Sherbro and Sulima fibres show little variation in length and are about 1.5 m long. Although shorter fibres are acceptable, they should not be shorter than 25–30 cm. Sherbro and Sulima fibres are normally packed in bundles of 25 kg. Traditionally, bundles of fibres of differing lengths are transported to local markets, where they are weighed and priced. The buyer then mixes fibres from different sources before trimming and tying them into uniform bundles of 70–100 cm diameter.

Genetic resources

Raphia palma-pinus is widespread in the western part of West Africa, but it is widely exploited and its habitat is threatened by many factors, including loss of wetlands for crop farming, and drought. The level of harvesting is increasing and the palm population is believed to be decreasing. However, according to the IUCN Red list more information is needed on the population decline and impacts of threats before the conservation status of the species can be fully assessed.


Raphia palma-pinus will remain a useful local source of thatch, rope, brushes and material for furniture and construction. The importance in international trade of African piassava fibre has declined sharply following the advent of plastic substitutes, but there is still demand for natural brush-fibres. This demand may even increase in the future as environmentally friendly, traditional products gain popularity.

Major references

  • Burkill, H.M., 1997. The useful plants of West Tropical Africa. 2nd Edition. Volume 4, Families M–R. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, Richmond, United Kingdom. 969 pp.
  • Ouedraogo, L., 2008. Raphia palma-pinus. In: IUCN. 2010 Red list of threatened species. Version 2010.4. [Internet] http://www.iucnredlist.org. January 2011.
  • Russell, T.A., 1965. The Raphia palms of West Africa. Kew Bulletin 19(2): 173–196.
  • Tuley, P., 1994. African bass/piassava – a historical perspective. Principes 38(1): 36–46.
  • Vanden Berghen, C., 1988. Flore illustrée du Sénégal. Monocotylédones et Ptéridophytes. Volume 9. Monocotylédones: Agavacées à Orchidacées. Gouvernement du Sénégal, Ministère du Développement Rural et de l’Hydraulique, Direction des Eaux et Forêts, Dakar, Senegal. 522 pp.

Other references

  • Darbyshire, I., 2004. Raphia regalis. In: IUCN. 2010 Red list of threatened species. Version 2010.4. [Internet] http://www.iucnredlist.org. January 2011.
  • Goteni, S. & Silou, T., 2011. Valorisation des huiles de palmiers Raphias sese et laurentii du Congo-Brazzaville. [Internet] ] 16 pp. http://www.gp3a.auf.org/ IMG/pdf/ Goteni_publi.pdf . February 2011.
  • Koni Muluwa, J. & Bostoen, K., 2008. Les plantes et l’invisible chez les Mbuun, Mpiin et Nsong (Bandundu, RD Congo) : une approche ethnolinguistique. Sprache und Geschichte in Afrika 21: 95–122.
  • Latham, P., 2004. Useful plants of Bas-Congo province, Democratic Republic of the Congo. DFID, London, United Kingdom. 320 pp.
  • Letouzey, R., 1978. Notes phytogéographiques sur les palmiers du Cameroun. Adansonia 18(3): 293–325.
  • Lubini, A., 1994. Utilisation de plantes par les Yansi del’entre Kwilu-Kasai (Zaire). In: Seyani, J.H. & Chikuni, A.C. (Editors). Proceedings of the 13th plenary meeting of AETFAT, Zomba, Malawi. Volume 1. National Herbarium and Botanic Gardens of Malawi, Zomba, Malawi. pp. 53–74.
  • Neuwinger, H.D., 1998. Afrikanische Arzneipflanzen und Jagdgifte. Chemie, Pharmakologie, Toxikologie. 2nd Edition. Wissenschaftliche Verlagsgesellschaft mbH, Stuttgart, Germany. 960 pp.
  • Purseglove, J.W., 1972. Tropical crops. Monocotyledons. Volume 2. Longman, London, United Kingdom. 273 pp.
  • Russell, T.A., 1968. Palmae. In: Hepper, F.N. (Editor). Flora of West Tropical Africa. Volume 3, part 1. 2nd Edition. Crown Agents for Oversea Governments and Administrations, London, United Kingdom. pp. 159–169.
  • Van der Veen, L.J. & Bodinga bwa Bodinga, S., undated. Une société traditionnelle noire africaine et ses plantes utiles : les Éviya du Gabon. Dénomination, catégorisation et utilisation des plantes. [Internet] Editions Raponda-Walker, Libreville, Gabon. 140 pp. http://www.ddl.ish-lyon.cnrs.fr/ fulltext/Van%20der%20Veen/ Van%20der%20Veen_%C3%A0%20para%C3%AEtre_a.pdf. January 2011.


  • M. Brink, PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands

Correct citation of this article

Brink, M., 2011. Raphia palma-pinus (Gaertn.) Hutch. [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 12 November 2020.