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The iLala Palm of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa - Part I===
A few weeks ago, someone asked me "What is your favourite palm?". Pondering the answer, I thought of obvious choices like the Royal Palm (Roystonea regia), the Petticoat Palm (Copernicia macroglossa), the African Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera), the Jelly Palm (Butia capitata), the Fishtail palms (Caryota spp.), the Lady Palm (Rhapis excelsa), the Foxtail Palm (Wodyetia bifurcata) and a number of other popular candidates. But the answer was none of these. My favourite palm, if there has to be one, is the Natal iLala, Hyphaene coriacea. Perhaps the reason is that seeing these palms always means that I'm off on a trip somewhere, either north or south from Durban, and the first sightings of the wild stands of iLalas along the roadside means that the trip is well underway. Quite apart from that association, H. coriacea is important economically and is a dramatic and attractive feature plant much worthy of greater horticultural attention.
Of the ten or so species in the genus Hyphaene which are found in Africa, coastal Arabia, western Madagascar and southern India, it is Hyphaene coriacea Gaertn. (synonyms H. natalensis Kunze, also erroneously known as H. crinata Gaertn.) which occurs southernmost. This species has a scattered subtropical coastal distribution in fairly hot and locally relatively dry areas in KwaZulu-Natal, southern Mozambique and some parts of the Eastern Transvaal lowveld. Following Dransfield (1986), it is the same species (in synonymy with H. turbinata and H. pyrifera) which extends much further into tropical east Africa and Madagascar. The habitat altitudes vary from sea-level to a few hundred metres and rainfall is between 750 and 1 200mm per annum, falling mainly in summer. Stands of iLala are seen south from Durban, plants becoming quite abundant from Scottburgh to the Province's southern border at the Umtamvuna River, and north from Durban, especially in the sandy plains of Maputaland where, in some areas, it is the dominant component of the vegetation. Other well-known plants in these localities include the fever-tree, Acacia zanthophloea; other Acacia spp.; the Marula, Sclerocarya birrea var. caffra; the giant Strelitzia nicholae; Combretum molle; Schotia brachypetala; Strychnos and Maytenus species and Syzygium cordatum. The wild date palm, Phoenix reclinata Jacq., is common in adjacent sites with somewhat better water supplies, e.g along stream beds. The abundance of the two palm species leads to the name palmveld being used to describe this vegetation in Maputaland. Figure 2. Dramatic costapalmate leaf of H. coriacea. Figure 3. The trunk of a tall, mature specimen showing scars from leaf and inflorescence bases.
Hyphaene coriacea may have trunks up to about 9m in height and 40cm in diameter with occasional dichotomous branching, but may also occur as a short-stemmed cluster of plants. Trunks are scored horizontally and prominently with the scars from old leafbases. Older and longer stems tend to recline and suckering occurs from the base to allow clump development. The leaves are robust, thick, costapalmate, up to 1.5m in diameter on a 1.5m long petiole, the latter armed with thick, black, recurved thorns along its margins. The foliage is attractively grey-green with a whitish bloom on the leaf undersurfaces. img src=ILALA1.JPG width=400 height=265 border=2 Figure 4. H. coriacea female plants in habitat near Hluhluwe in northern KwaZulu-Natal. img src=ILALA3.JPG width=209 height=310 Figure 5. The male inflorescence of H. coriacea terminates in catkin-like rachillae. Like all borassoid palms, the iLala is dioecious. The inflorescence on male plants is pendulous from the leaf axils and terminates in catkin-like rachillae. Female plants similarly bear pendulous inflorescences from the leaf axils, on which great bunches of fruit later develop, up to 2000 per plant being recorded.