Of Blood and Spines – Investigating the world’s most dangerous palms

Benedikt Kuhnhaeuser

Youthful ignorance. Me in 2015, sitting on a coconut palm in Australia. I didn’t know yet how dangerous palms could be.

Thinking about palms, what comes to your mind? White sand, coconuts, holidays?

Palms are instantly recognised by their unique appearance, but their diversity is totally underestimated by almost everybody. They can have a nice stout stem like a coconut palm, but they also can be stemless, with the leaves directly coming out of the ground. And they can be long – really long. A palm holds the world record for the longest unbranched stem of any plant. The record lies somewhere at around 200m. Another one was thought to be over 300m long, but was chewed up by some hungry elephants the night before it could be measured. To give you a comparison of how long that actually is, let’s have a look at some buildings in London:

Who is the tallest? The rattan palm Calamus manan outcompetes all of London’s landmarks and skyscrapers (©pinterest.co.uk, proprofs.com).

How should that work? You would know about a plant that huge, wouldn’t you? The explanation is easy: The palm we’re talking about is a vine. That means that it doesn’t grow straight up to the light like a tree, but that it uses other trees as its scaffold. A vine’s way of life is often twisted, and the plant we’re talking about was most likely creating a Gordian knot somewhere in a rainforest with much of its stem dangling from the canopy and piling up on the ground before some pedantic botanists came along and decided to measure its total length.

I started learning about this a year ago when I stumbled across these strange climbing palms. These palms are called rattans, a name that might be familiar as their canes are used to make nice furniture. They are tremendously diverse, having more than 500 species. All sounded so good to me. I started my PhD. How naïve I was!

I ignored the signs. I heard that rattans are undercollected, as botanists tend not to bring them home from their fieldtrips. But I didn’t ask why. I heard that many rattans have telling names. They are called Daemonorops draco, Calamus spinosissimus or Korthalsia ferox. But I didn’t ask why. I heard that a substance produced by some rattans is called dragon’s blood. But I didn’t ask why.

Who could have thought that rattans are covered in spines? That their spines can be longer than my head is broad (16 cm)? That they tend to be infested by aggressive, swarming hordes of ants living in between the spines, willing to risk their lives just to defend their homebase?

Spiny monsters. Stems of Calamus erinaceus (left, ©Kwan) and Calamus speciosissmus (right, ©J. Dransfield)

Next winter, I will go to Borneo to collect rattans. When going to bed, my mind rotates around the dangers I will face. How many people have lost their eyesight from rattans? How will I defend myself against the swarming hordes? Will I ever return?

When thinking about palms, I think of blood and spines.

“I am a DPhil student at the University of Oxford and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I am studying rattans, an incredibly speciose group of palms, to unravel tropical rainforest diversity. My deep fascination for plants originated in an apprenticeship as a gardener, and has been driving my scientific interests ever since.”



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