Raphia australis (2)

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Figure 1. R. australis next to boardwalk.


The Raphia palms at Mtunzini, South Africa

A favourite destination for South African hosts to take overseas palm enthusiasts is the Raphia australis grove in the swamp forest at Mtunzini, about 150 km north of Durban on KwaZulu-Natal's subtropical coast. The palm colony was started in 1916 by local magistrate C.C. Foxon who was sent several batches of seed by government officials in Pretoria, although the exact origin of the seed remains obscure. Apparently the Director of Prisons in Pretoria, believing the species to be the true "raffia palm" (Raphia vinifera), had hoped that its fibre could be used by prisoners to make brooms and brushes, and had identified Mtunzini as one of several candidate sites for the cultivation of these palms. Although the plants flourished beyond expectation, the leaf material yielded a fibre which was too short for use in the broom and brush industry and commercial interest in the palms ceased.

Further spread of the palms at Mtunzini may have been promoted when it was thought that the plants were useful in stream bank stabilisation or the reduction of water levels in the swampy terrain. This too seems somewhat speculative, perhaps it was simply the aesthetic appearance of the palms that resulted in more plantings. Records indicate that 14 plants were growing by 1918 and that 46 were present in 1925. More recently, local conservationist Ian Garland has established several hundred specimens on his farm "Twinstreams" just outside the town centre. From 1943, the original palms started to produce seed and, since then, the grove has spread naturally and prolifically through several generation changes, largely through the dispersal agencies of the Palmnut Vulture and the Vervet Monkey. It now assumes all the aspects of a wild population; this despite a fire in 1948, set off by a spark from a passing locomotive, which all but destroyed many of the original trees. Enthusiasm for these magnificent plants lead to the Mtunzini Raphia palms being proclaimed a National Monument in 1942. However, this move has been questioned as being somewhat overreactive by historians F.A. van Jaarsveld and G. Peckham, from the University of Zululand, who argue that the palms are not critically important in either a botanical or an historical sense. Their feeling is that proclamation of the area as a Nature Reserve would be more appropriate. Despite this minor controversy, the locals clearly identify with the Raphia australis grove; the Mtunzini Town Board, for instance, features both the palm and the Palmnut Vulture on its coat-of-arms. Visitors are immediately impressed by the ambience of the area, a typical subtropical swamp, strangely silent but for the pounding surf of the nearby Indian Ocean. A rustic but sturdy wooden boardwalk allows easy access to the heart of the swamp where the prime Raphia specimens create an awesome cathedral-like effect. A second palm species, Phoenix reclinata, is common along the swamp margins. Other trees in the area are the mangrove, Barringtonia racemosa, and water-loving species like Macaranga capensis and Syzygium cordatum. Ferns abound and include the climbing Stenochlaena tenuifolia and epiphytic Microsoma species. Additional interest to naturalists is a chance to sight the Palmnut Vulture, Gypohierax angolensis, also and perhaps better described as the Vulturine Fish Eagle, 3-4 pairs of which nest amongst the palms in the Mtunzini area. This bird of prey is unique in that its diet is largely vegetarian, comprising particularly the fleshy outer portions from the fruit of palms like the oil palm, Elaeis guineensis, and certain Raphia spp. Some visitors hope also to glimpse the colony of the Egyptian Fruit Bat, Rousettus aegyptiaca, which use the grove as a daytime feeding roost; others are fascinated by the reptile and insect fauna.

Raphia australisM.jpg

nesting near the top of a R. australis.


Harris, D., Harris, J., Harris, C. & Goodwin, W. 1994. Observations on the Palmnut Vulture in South Africa. Birding in SA 46: 73-79. Obermeyer, A.A. & Strey, R.G. 1969. A new species of Raphia from northern Zululand and southern Mozambique. Bothalia 10(1): 29-37. Pooley, E. 1993. Trees of Natal. Natal Flora Publications Trust, Durban, South Africa. van Jaarsveld, F.A. & Peckham, G.D. 1989. New historical perspectives on the Raphia Palm Monument at Mtunzini. S. Afr. J. Cult. Art. Hist. 3: 77-81.


I would like to thank Hugh Chittenden, Trevor Coleman, Dave Harris and Ian Garland for their assistance in the preparation of this text.

Contributed by:

Roy Osborne (from Palms & Cycads).

External Links:

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