Many travelers to the tropics are totally amazed when they see a “tree” that looks as though it were designed for a Star Trek movie. Its full name is traveler’s palm tree of Madagascar, and with, its gigantic flat fans of banana-like leaves perched atop tall palm-like trunks, it is indeed an awesome sight. This is a plant that is famous in tropical gardens throughout the world, but you do not have to travel as far as you might think to see one. Although some reports over the years have turned out to be merely legendary, there are big specimens of this plant in Southern California that you can visit. And if you do, your travels will be rewarded.
Often called either traveler’s palm or traveler’s tree, Ravenala madagascariensis is definitely both palm-like and tree-like but is actually a gigantic relative of the more familiar bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae). Native to rainforest areas of Madagascar, it is the only species in its genus. Although it is sometimes trained to a single trunk for dramatic effect, the evergreen traveler’s tree naturally forms a clump of tall, unbranched, woody trunks that are topped with massive crowns of ten- to twenty-foot long leaves shaped like those of bananas (Musa). Its most distinctive feature is the unique two-ranked arrangement of these long-stalked leaves; the result is a dramatic, flattened fan of foliage held against the sky. Flowering is spectacular too, with white, pointed flowers emerging in summer from large clusters of eighteen-inch long, green, boat-shaped bracts that are produced near the center of the foliage crowns. Fruits, when produced, are three-inch long woody capsules containing many seeds that are covered with fleshy blue arils.
A common misconception is that traveler’s tree is so named because its fans of foliage always face a certain direction and may be used as a compass by travelers—a good story but, unfortunately, not true. The real reason for the name is that both its flower bracts and leaf bases capture and hold large amounts of rainwater and so may be used as a source of potable water by travelers in remote areas.
Traveler’s tree is highly sensitive to cold and does best in Southern California in a frost-free site not far from the ocean. Although it appreciates good air circulation, its large leaves tear easily, and it looks best when protected from strong winds. Regular watering and fertilizing are helpful, but established plants seem to thrive with a minimum of care. New plants are produced by seed and division.
In the tropics, traveler’s tree can grow to thirty to forty feet tall and form clumps as much as twenty-five or thirty feet wide, but large specimens are rare in Southern California. Tropical plant enthusiasts love this plant and are always on the prowl for “the big one.” Sometimes, reported sightings are false, since untrained observers often mistake the related and commonly grown giant bird of paradise (Strelitzia nicolai) for a traveler’s tree (once you have actually seen a real traveler’s tree, you will not make that mistake again). But specimens like the one pictured (growing in front of a house in Del Mar, near the coast north of San Diego) prove that the “big ones” are out there, and that we can grow this dramatic tropical plant. It is worth a little traveling just to see one!
Ornamental Trees of San Diego: Mediterranean Climate Trees for Your Garden
Steve Brigham, photographs by Don Walker
The San Diego Horticultural Society, in collaboration with the San Diego Natural History museum, has completed work on this important new book, chapters from which have been adapted for the series Trees of San Diego, which has appeared in recent issues of Pacific Horticulture. Full descriptions are provided in the book for 230 trees, along with color photographs, useful tables and charts, sources, a bibliography, and indexes of common and botanical names. All the trees were photographed at sites easily accessible to the public in the greater San Diego area, and the location for each tree photographed is provided.
The book can be ordered directly from the San Diego Horticultural Society for $34.95 plus $5 per book for postage and handling. Send orders to: Book Order, PO Box 231869, Encinitas, CA 92023-1869. The books will be available in December 2003.