Hyphaene coriacea (2)

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The iLala Palm of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa - Part II

The fruit are somewhat variable according to locality, but generally green to pale orange at first, becoming progressively more brown with age, irregularly pear-shaped, about 60-80mm in diameter with a distinctive fruity aroma. The outer shell is glossy and tough (i.e. coriaceous, from which the specific epithet is derived). Internally an edible spongy fibrous pulp (the Greek word hyphaino, meaning entwine, alludes to this fibrous texture in the genus name) surrounds the single seed. The hard endosperm, resembling vegetable ivory, has a hollow centre. Fruit take about two years to reach maturity and another two years before falling from the plant. They are dispersed by elephants, monkeys and baboons.

Figure 6. Female iLala palms bear large quantities of characteristic pear shaped fruit. img src=ILALA4.JPG wid=209 height=310 Figure 7. A cross-section through the fruit of H. coriacea showing the internal structure. Photo: Trevor Coleman.

Hyphaene coriacea is closely allied to one other southern African species, H. petersiana Klotzsch [syn. H. ventricosa Kirk or H. beguellensis Welw. var. ventricosa (Kirk) Furtudo], which occurs in Zimbabwe, Angola and Botswana (with some incursions into the northern Transvaal and Namibia). Both these species are more distantly related to H. thebaica (L). Mart., the Sacred Doum Palm of north Africa.


The iLala palm is an ethnobotanically-important plant, especially to the Maputaland communities where one estimate puts the number of plants at over 10 million plants in an area of 156,000 hectares. The utilisation of Hyphaene coriacea was the subject of an article in this magazine by John Dowe in 1990, but further information has come to light and an update is justified.

Leaves are used extensively as a thatch and for weaving mats and baskets and similar ware, these first constructed for domestic usage but now becoming prominent items in the increasing tourist trade. John Dowe's article gives details of the method of preparation of the leaf material for these purposes. Herdboys occasionally make crude shoes from the foliage to protect their feet from the scorching sand.

But perhaps the most interesting economic use is in the vigorous local industry in the manufacture of palm brews: tapped stems and inflorescences produce a sugary sap which is fermented by natural yeasts into a kind of beer called ubuSulu or iNjemane which, when fresh, tastes rather like gingerbeer. The process is described in Palmer & Pitman's Trees of Southern Africa as follows: "The growing tip is cut away, leaves are stripped, incisions made and a leaf stalk inserted as a spout. The sap oozes down this and is collected in small gourds hung below. A plaited straw hut is placed over the tip of the palm to keep it moist and protect it and, these small chopped trees, with their plaited caps, are a common sight.... Every such tree, or group of trees, has its guardian, a small African boy, perhaps with a companion, who will - on the spot and for a few cents - unhook a gourd and sell a drink of the palm wine to any thirsty traveller."

As much as 60 to 70 litres can be obtained from an average tree and the alcohol level reaches 3.6-3.7% by volume within 36 hours. Nutritional studies have shown that the product is rich in vitamin C and nicotinic acid but its value in terms of protein, thiamin and riboflavin content is limited. Over I million litres of this liquor was sold annually in the 1980's (current figures are not available). Dowe (1990) records that the consumption of the beverage is a social event accompanied by much laughter and conviviality. The crude beer is used domestically, sold or traded locally or maybe diluted 1:1 with water, sugar added and sold further afield. The crude product can also be distilled to give about a 10% yield of a rather potent spirit.

Unfortunately, the tapping process is at best semi-destructive and repeated harvesting eventually kills the plant. Apart from the physical decapitation, plants are often burnt to stimulate sap secretion. This industry is having a negative impact on the plant population numbers in Maputaland. A further complication is that the large but limited plant resource is leading to a clash of interest between the leaf harvesters and the wine tappers.

Figure 8. Expatriate South African botanist Eugene Moll, inspecting a decapitated burnt iLala specimen from which sap secretions are being collected. Photo: Trevor Coleman.

Commercial exploitation of the leaves for fibre and paper production has twice been attempted but this venture has not proved economically viable.


The iLala palm is not well known horticulturally; only a few botanical gardens and private collectors have it as something of a curiosity. Although relatively slow growing, it is an ideal plant for a dramatic effect and will do well in any sunny well-drained site in a frost-free tropical or subtropical area. Ann Lambert, of the Durban Botanic Gardens, says that "this handsome South African palm can withstand temperatures as low as -5"C ...its planting should be promoted in parks and gardens."

The somewhat limited horticultural use of this palm may be due to difficulties in germinating its seed. As with most large-seeded palms, it is important to remove the outer shell and the fleshy material before sowing seed. Robert Tucker wrote (in this magazine in 1986) on the subject and suggested covering the seed kernels with a layer of peanut shells above a well-drained seed-raising medium, and keeping the con tainer relatively warm to promote germination. Tucker advised placing the container in full sun and watering daily; in this manner he achieved a 66% germination in only three weeks. Deep containers for the seedlings are essential as the taproot is vigorous and brittle. For the same reason, transplanting must be minimised, done with great care to avoid damage and plants should be established in permanent sites at a fairly young stage.


I would like to thank Trevor Coleman (Durban Botanic Gardens) and Steve McKean (Natal Parks Board) for their kind assistance in the preparation of this text. Unless stated otherwise, photographs are taken by the author.


Coates Palgrave, K. 1983. Trees of Southern Africa. C. Struik, Cape Town.

Cunningham, A.B. 1987. Commercial craftwork: balancing out human needs and resources. South African Journal of Botany 53: 259-266.

Cunningham, A.B. and Wehmeyer, A.S. 1988. Nutritional value of palm wine from Hyphaene coriacea and Phoenix reclinata (Arecaceae). Economic Botany 42: 301-306.

Dowe, J.L. 1990. The utilisation of Hyphaene coriacea Gaertn. in Southern Africa. Palms & Cycads No. 29, October - December 1990, pp. 8-9.

Dransfield, J. 1986. Palmae. In R.M. Polhill (Ed.): Flora of Tropical East Africa. A.A. Balkema, Amsterdam & Boston.

Lambert, A. 1994. The Palm Collection of the Durban Botanic gardens. Parks Department, City of Durban.

Moll, E.J. 1972. The distribution, abundance and utilisation of the Lala palm, Hyphaene coriacea, in Tongaland, Natal. Bothalia 10:627-636.

Palmer, E. and Pitman, N.1972. Trees of Southern Africa. A.A. Balkema, Cape Town.

Pooley, E. 1993. Trees of Natal. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban, South Africa.

Tucker, R. 1986. Germinating Hyphaene natalensis. Palms & Cycads No. 12, July-September 1986, p.l6.

Contributed by:

Roy Osborne (from Palms & Cycads, No. 49, Oct-Dec 1995)

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