Notes on the Mangrove Palm Nypa fruticans Wurmb. in Queensland:
Nypa fruticans Wurmb, the mangrove palm, is one of the most extraordinary palms to be seen in the wild state in Australia, where it is confined to a few small populations on the north-east and north coasts. In Queensland, it occurs between the Herbert River (18° 10'S) and the Wenlock River (11° 40'S), and in the Northern Territory on Cobourg Peninsula and Melville Island (10° 50'S). In Queensland, the range is discontinuous with several wide tracts of coastline devoid of habitats suitable for Nypa. Outside of Australia, the palm has a wide distribution throughout coastal and estuarine areas of south-east and east Asia, extending from Sri Lanka east to the Solomon Islands and north to the Ryukyu Islands (ca 25° N).
Figure 1. N. fruticans
The first taxonomic mention of Nypa in Australia was that by Mueller (1881), of plants collected from the Herbert River. Mueller placed the species in Pandanaceae, but added that it was transitional between the pandans and palms;... "qu o transitus a Pandanaceis, quibus riorum et fructuum structura aptius pertinet, ad Palmaceas formatur..." . He also commented on the different spellings of the generic name and noted an occurrence, which apparently no longer exists, on the Daintree River.
Bailey (1888) publishcd a subspecies, Nipa fruticans Wunnb var. Neameana Bail. (sic) also placing it in the family Pandanaceae, describing it as..."stem s short, thick, from a stout creeping rhizomc, which is flattened and about 1 ft. broad, with a thickness of about 6 in., rooting from the under surface only, the upper surface quite smooth. Leaves averaging about 6 or 7 to a plant, 4 usually living, and 2 or 3 decaying, pinnate, 25 to 30 ft. long, the base very stout and clasping the very short erect stem....". Bailey's description of the subspecies is virtually identical to that which he gave for the species (1883). Bailey also noted..."Hab. : Herbert River, Arthur Neame, 1880. Mr Neame states that the Herbert River natives make use of the seeds when in an unripe state for food, as is done in other countries where Nipa is indigenous. "
Mueller (1889), in a census of Australian plants, relocated the species from Pandanaceae into the obscure monotypic family of Nipaceae which had been created by Brongniart in 1843.
Bailey (1909) again mentions the palm, but places it in the family Palmae. He recorded the aboriginal names 'ki-bano' of the Cardwell natives and 'tacannapoon' of the Pascoe River natives.
As far as we can ascertain, Bailey's variety is still valid but should be subsumed with the species as there is insufficient reason to maintain any taxonomic distinction.
Nypa is not a mangrove in the strict sense, as it does not exploit truly littoral environments nor can it tolerate inundation with undiluted sea-water for extended periods.
Casual observation of most Nypa populations will reveal the limited adaptiveness of the palm. It occurs most commonly in areas where brackish water occurs, extending far upstream into permanent fresh-water areas where tidal-influenced water-level fluctuations are able to carry and deposit the seeds. Secondarily, it can occur on low flats and depressions near or far from the main water bodies, at the base of eroding slopes and cliffs, or on sandy ridges or embankments. It can tolerate infrequent inundation, so long as the substrate in which it grows does not dehydrate for too long a period. The palm grows as an undershrub, infrequently as a tree, or can dominate in mixed forest. The species' 'ecological climax' appears to be in pure stands on islets in the main channels or low flats on the inside of river meanders where fine, rich silt deposits occur. These deposits are replenished frequently by floods or wet season run-off from nearby rivers.
Apart from temperature, the most critical environmental condition for Nypa is the percentage dilution of the sea-water by seaward flowing fresh-water. Nypa does not require saline conditions at all as the luxuriant stands in pure fresh-water indicate; the palm is tolerant of an average low salinity, the salt-water tides being crucial for seed dispersal and deposition of silt.
One of the authors (JD), during visitation to colonies in the Herbert River delta, immediately north of Lucinda, Queensland, noted the unexpected complete absence of seedlings and juvenile plants in the populations. The uniformity of the size-class structure within these colonies suggests that reproduction and expansion of these particular colonies has been by clonal means rather than by recruitment of new plants by seed.
Figure 2. N. fruticans in habitat at Kuala Selangor, Peninsular Malaysia.
This site is under great threat as it has recently been taken back by the state
for tourism purposes, having previously been managed by the Malaysia Nature Society.
Nypa in the Fossil Record:
Nypa fruticans is one of the few palm species which is recognisable in the fossil record, with specimens considered attributable to it dating back to the Paleocene and possibly earlier, some 60 to 70 million years old. Fossil Nypa pollen has been found throughout the world; from the London clays, the Bass Strait sediments, the deserts of Asia minor and South America. One of the reasons for the abundance of Nypa fossils could be explained by the very nature of its habitat, where recurrent flood and sedimentation, events which predispose the species to the formation of fossils, occur. The extant distribution of the species is now confined to the hot tropical regions. Through inference, it is suggested that where Nypa once occurred was also hot at the time that it occurred there, presuming that its ecological requirements have not altered during the last 60 million yeas. The association of a plant's climatic requirements can offer circumstantial evidence for estimating the climate at a particular place and time in geological history, through the medium of fossils.
Nypa as a Cultivated Plant:
Nypa may seem to be a particularly difficult palm to accommodate in the average palm collection, but our experiences with it indicate that this is not necessarily so. It may never grow into the handsome giant one sees in the wild but a perfectly acceptable, if smaller, specimen can be easily achieved.
Fruits with small sprouts which have not been dehydrated are easiest. They should be planted horizontally in a 150-200 mm container with the apical end nearest the pot side and the short end facing the centre. The soil can be a peatmoss/sand mix or a peatmoss/loam mix. Coarse gravel or sand is not necessary nor desirable. The medium should be resilient and soft. The pot should be kept continually wet, placed in a deep saucer-like container or bucket, with the water-level maintained to immerse the lower 1/3 of the pot. Unless the water becomes foul, there is no need to change it more than weekly.
The young plant should be given a very light shade at the most. This encourages faster growth (because of the warmth) and shorter petioles which are less vulnerable to wind damage. The growth is rapid in a warm tropical climate.
When well established it can be planted out into a prepared site where the soil has been loosened to a depth of 1 m and at least 3 x 5 m in an oval-shaped bed. Plant the palm at one end, facing the shoot towards the other. Make a small levee to hold in water. Ideally the site should be only lightly shaded, to give a more compact and sturdy growth. Keep the plant wet and feed it with any general fertiliser when it looks deficient. As the procumbent trunk advances more space will have to bc made. Keep in mind the branching habit when choosing the site.
Alternatively, a specially built up pond-like structure could be made and filled with a soft, non-compactable mixture of loam and peatmoss or humus. There is no need to add salt to the water. The Nypa palm would make a dramatic feature in ornamental lakes in tropical areas.
Bailey, F.M. (1883). ORDER CXXXV Pandanaceae. pp. 566-568 in. A Synopsis of the Queensland Flora containing both the Phanerogamous and Crytogamous plants. J Beal, Government Printer, Brisbane.
Bailey, F.M. (1888). Description of the Queensland form of Nipa Fruticans. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Queensland 5(4): 146-148.
Bailey, F.M. (1909). Palmae. p. 573 in. Comprehensive Catalogue of Queensland Plants. Government Printer, Brisbane.
Mueller, F., von (1881). Pandanaceae. Fragmenta Phytographiac Australiae 11: 127-128.
Mueller, F., von (1889). Nipaceae. p.202 in. Second Systematic Census of Australian Plants. Pt 1 - Vasculares. McCarron, Bird and Co., Melbourne.
Contributed by: John Dowe and Robert Tucker. (Text - from Palms & Cycads No. 41 Oct-Dec 1993) Kyle Wicomb (Figure 1) Alex Prendergast (Figure 2)
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