A Traveler's Palm
Note: This is a “classic” Interesting Thing of the Day article from over 10 years ago. It has not been edited recently, so it may contain broken links, outdated information, or other infelicities. We plan to eventually update or retire most classic articles, as time permits.

One of the reasons I like to travel is to be reminded how interesting seemingly ordinary things can be. On a trip to Costa Rica last year, I had many such opportunities. Just walking into a local market made my eyes widen when I saw Tang in no fewer than eight flavors (Lime, Mango, Apple, Peach, Mandarin, Pineapple, and Strawberry—in addition to the original Orange). To someone who sees this selection every day, it would seem completely normal, but to me the thought of Mango Tang was exotic and exciting.

Most of the interesting things I found in Costa Rica, however, were natural ones. In the middle of a long drive from San Jose to the Caribbean town of Puerto Viejo, our group stopped at a restaurant for lunch. In front of the building, just a stone’s throw from the edge of the rain forest, was a tall plant that caught my eye. It looked exactly like a fan, with each of its long branches terminating in a single broad leaf. Not only was it nearly two-dimensional, it was completely symmetrical. It looked so perfect I wasn’t sure it was real. Our guide told us it was called a Traveler’s Palm.

A Tall Drink of Water

Later, while visiting a botanical garden, a botanist shared some fascinating details about this striking plant. For starters, the Traveler’s Palm (sometimes called Traveler’s Tree) is not really a palm at all, although the trunk gives it that appearance. It’s closely related to bananas (as you might guess from the shape of the leaves) and in the same family as the Bird-of-Paradise Flower. It gets its name from two distinctive characteristics. First, the leaves collect water and channel it into the base of the plant, so a thirsty traveler could cut a hole in the soft trunk and get a significant amount of drinkable water—about one liter per branch. Second, Traveler’s Palms tend to grow in an east-west direction, with each new branch turning either toward or away from the sun. So it can also serve as a sort of compass, to put you back on track after quenching your thirst.

The Traveler’s Palm, which goes by the scientific name Ravenala madagascariensis, is native to Madagascar, but can be found in tropical and subtropical regions all over the world. If you live in an area with the right climate and enough space, you can even grow your own. Its major requirements are sunshine, water, and protection from freezing and high winds. The trees can grow to be as tall as 60 feet (18.3m), so they’ll be much happier outside than inside.

Open Your Palm and Make a Wish

A few Web sites claim that there is a saying, “If you stand directly in front of a Traveler’s Palm and make a wish in good spirit, it will come true.” As far as I can tell, that saying exists only on the Web—I haven’t been able to locate evidence that this is a genuine part of any culture’s folklore. On the other hand, a small biotech company called Shaman Pharmaceuticals investigated substances produced by Traveler’s Palm as a potential treatment for adult-onset diabetes, with very promising preliminary results. That would certainly be a wish come true for many people. Unfortunately, the company has now gone out of business, and as far as I know, no one has yet picked up where their research left off.

Whether or not Traveler’s Palms can grant wishes or stabilize your blood glucose level, they are beautiful plants with extremely useful yet hidden properties. Explorers who have lost their way in the rain forest may like to look at a Traveler’s Palm and think of the spreading fan shape saying, “West is this way.” I like to think of the branches as forming an arrow pointing inward and saying, “Interesting things inside.” —Joe Kissell

More Information

A thorough and easy-to-read article on Traveler’s Palms can be found on the Floridata Web site. This is one of several sites I found with the quote about the “make a wish” saying. You can learn more in this PDF file from the U.S. Forest Service.

An article on the medicinal uses of rain forest plants, including Traveler’s Palm, is found on the Point of Light Magazine Web site.

If you’d like to try growing your own Traveler’s Palm, you can buy seeds from TROPILAB Inc..

I found quite a bit of disagreement as to the maximum height of a traveler’s palm—with some sources saying as little as 25 feet and others as much as 60 feet. Likewise, there are differences of opinion as to how “Ravenala” is pronounced. I’ve seen rav-eh-NAY-luh, rav-eh-NAH-luh, and even ra-VEN-ah-la. I’m not sure which source to regard as definitive.

cover art

Art.com offers (via Amazon.com) a lovely Traveler’s Palm Fine Art Print by Kerne Erickson, 11×14 inches.