Tropical plants provide some of the most interesting conversation pieces due to their vibrant colors or unique shapes. The Travelers Palm aka Ravenala madagascariensis (ra-VEN-ah-la mad-uh-gas-KAR-ee-EN-sis) is a perfect example of both.
Known best by the common name traveler’s palm, this fan-shaped broadleaf evergreen isn’t actually a true palm, but a member of the Strelitziaceae family aka White Bird of Paradise.
Other common names are traveler’s tree and east-west palm (in the US, the common names may have the alternate spelling of travellers palm or traveller’s tree).
The names refer to its use by travelers as a source of fresh water, who gather rainwater from the leaf bases and bracts.
As its scientific name suggests, this tree hails from the rainforests of Madagascar. There are four subspecies, which are generally referred to in botanical circles by the local names.
- Bemavo is the largest and most natively common variety.
- Hiranirana is found wherever breaks in the rain forest occur.
- Malama is the rarest of the four
- Horonorona is the smallest and is commonly cultivated as an ornamental perennial.
Travelers Palm Care
Size & Growth
Horonorona, the variant most commonly cultivated, achieves an average adult height of 30 to 50’ feet tall. By comparison, its largest kin, Bemavo, may achieve a height of 100’ feet. The central trunk of this species can measure up to 12” inches in diameter and lacks branches.
The fan comprises of a single, vertical plane of petioles ending in 20 to 30 banana-like leaves. The leaves measure 5′ to 10’ feet long and 2′ to 3’ feet wide, with the petioles matching or exceeding the leaf length.
The cupped bases of each leaf stalk are able to retain as much as a full quart of water, creating a source of drinking water for passers-by.
While young, the trunk is subterranean, leaving the fan at ground level. When it finally emerges, it sheds the lowest leaves, resulting in leaf scar rings. At the base of the trunk, new shoots appear, with the leaves tightly curled up inside. Numerous suckers will sprout at different times from around the trunk’s base.
Being slow to develop, traveler’s palm won’t flower until it’s ten years old. Once flowering begins, it will bloom mainly in summer, but may produce flowers throughout the year. The resulting seeds are edible, giving this plant quite a few practical uses.
Flowering and Fragrance
During the summer months, travelers palm produces continual white or chartreuse blooms, the nocturnal inflorescence opening every 2 to 3 days.
The exact number of open blooms will vary, with the three-petaled flowers emerging from boat-shaped spathes, giving them a similar appearance to the famous bird-of-paradise.
This Bird of Paradise relative produces large amounts of nectar, which not only attracts pollinators, but is an important food source for the native lemurs. Once fertilized, the flowers give way to 3 ½” inch wooden capsules filled with seeds covered in bright blue arils.
Light & Temperature
This tree loves a sunny spot, faring best when exposed to full sun. It can tolerate partial shade, however.
East-west palm has a narrower temperature tolerance, and should only be grown in USDA hardiness zones 10 to 11. Temperatures dipping below 60° degrees Fahrenheit will begin to stress the tree, and anything below 40° degrees Fahrenheit can kill it.
Watering and Feeding
The Travelers palm needs soil that remains consistently moist due to its rain forest origins. However, you should be careful not to overwater the plant.
While some variants have been known to grow in poor soil, adding a nitrogen-rich fertilizer during the growing season will result in a healthier and faster-growing tree.
Soil & Transplanting
A rich, loamy soil with neutral to mild acidity works best for this plant. The soil should be able to retain some water without becoming too wet.
Grooming And Maintenance
This tree doesn’t require a lot of maintenance. However, root suckers will create clusters of foliage if not removed, distorting their trademark shape.
How To Propagate Ravenala Madagascariensis
Traveler’s tree may be propagated by both seed and division. The quickest method is to locate rooted suckers, which grow near the main stem. Separate these at the beginning of the rainy season and plant them to get a head start on new growth.
The seeds require a little more effort. Plant them in a moist, sandy soil and keep them at around 68° degrees Fahrenheit. Germination is a slow process for this plant.
Once the seedlings have reached two months of age, they may be transplanted into a rich, loamy soil. Make sure they have full sun, and add some moss or other organic matter when transplanting to help ensure their roots stay moist.
Travelers Palm Pest or Disease Problems
Due to the frail nature of the leaves, this plant should be sheltered from high winds. It also fares poorly in drought conditions.
The plant is non-invasive, but has been known to host Colletotrichum gloeosporioides, and is susceptible to various forms of leaf spot and root rot. Spider mites may also infest this tree.
While some parts of the Travelers Palm plant are edible, other parts are poisonous if consumed. Individuals with bee allergies should use caution around this plant, which attracts pollinators.
Suggested Uses For The Travelers Palm
Beyond the obvious visual appeal, traveler’s palm’s high nectar production attracts a wide range of pollinators. This not only includes nectar-feeding birds and insects, but some species of bat.
The bright blue seeds are edible and have a mealy consistency, while the arils have no flavor. Oil extracted from the seeds and their arils can be used for cooking and is midway between coconut butter and palm oil in composition.
Additionally, the plant’s ability to catch rainwater makes it a useful source of extra drinking water. Finally, the sap may be used to create sugar.
Parts of this plant have had a range of uses beyond the obvious ornamental value. The seed oil is considered to be antiseptic, while the leaves have been used in both roofing and as a packing material.
The petioles and midribs are also used in construction as wall materials, while the bark makes good flooring for traditional huts.
Traveler’s palm is too large for the average garden, but make great accents for larger landscapes where it may be the central showpiece. Growing as a container plant will help limit the tree’s size, but cannot be easily moved for overwintering.