Skyscrapers of the north – Makalani palms

Herero dresses – the bigger, the better
July 7, 2016
The phenomenal Himba – a joy to photograph
July 11, 2016
Herero dresses – the bigger, the better
July 7, 2016
The phenomenal Himba – a joy to photograph
July 11, 2016

Text and Photos by Helga Burger

A re palm trees the epitome of exotic destinations? Palm trees with their slender stems and crown of graceful leaves creating images of faraway places, where peacefulness pushes aside the ballast of everyday life?

May I invite you on a journey to the northern territories of Namibia, to discover the makalani palm, Hyphaene petersiana, one of Namibia’s two indigenous palm trees (the other being the wild date palm, Phoenix reclinata). The makalani evokes images of elephants roaming African woodlands dissected by rivers: with crocodiles lazing on the sandbanks and hippopotami floating by with only the circular elevation of their eyes, ears and nostrils on the surface of the slow-flowing water. There are palm swifts in the sky – returning gracefully on stiff wings to their roosts under palm leaves when evening falls. The bubbling liquid call of a white-browed coucal echoes in the makalani palm scrub, and high in the sky the African fish eagle gives its wonderful call. This in turn evokes visions of seasonally flooded oshanas with young women standing knee deep in the water to catch fish, their voices and laughter filling the air, while an African marsh-harrier patrols the territory and makalani palms skyscrape the horizon.

Makalani palms occur in the Caprivi and Kavango regions along the Okavango River and the Kwando-Linyanti and Chobe-Zambezi river systems. They are part of the north-eastern Kalahari woodland, a vegetation type that contains more than 400 higher plant species, in some areas even over 500. West of the Okavango River, the makalani palm features dominantly on the flat plateau of Owambo, where plant diversity is low (up to 150 species of higher plants only). Makalanis form extensive stands in the area around Epupa Falls, and accompany this river further west, almost to the Atlantic Ocean. Further south, they occur in the Hoarusib River and at Palmwag, as well as in the east of Etosha around Namutoni along the saline water pans, and in patches north of Grootfontein towards Bushmanland. This distinctive palm also occurs in countries bordering Namibia. A very similar species, the lala palm, Hyphaene coriacea, distinguished only by the shape of its fruit (petersiana having a spherical fruit and coriacea one that is pear-shaped), occurs along the coast of Kwa-Zulu Natal and Mozambique.

The makalani palm is easy to identify, as it is the only palm in Namibia with fan-shaped leaves. As palms do not have branches, the grey-green leaves grow at the top of the stem, creating the typical contour of a palm tree. The leaves are one and a half to two metres long, including the petiole (foot-stalk of the leaf), which is armed with sharp black re-curved thorns. Dead leaves often stay on the palm, giving it an untidy look. New leaves are cut to weave traditional baskets for everyday use, as well as for the tourist market. The most impressive woven artefact is the oshigathi (grain silo), a huge basket (up to one and a half metres high and one metre wide), for storing mahango dryly and hygienically. Traditionally meals are served on woven plates, while a variety of baskets are woven to store or carry foods. The elegant silhouette of women carrying baskets on their heads is therefore a common sight.

The makalani grows up to twenty metres tall. Its stems are usually single, although several-stemmed plants also occur, especially in Owambo. Sometimes the stem has a slight swelling about halfway up. Short palm scrub often occurs in dense clumps underneath the tall specimens. It is formed by the development of suckers, each of which may produce several stems at the base of a parent stem.

These palms are dioecious, that is they bear flowers with separate sexes on different trees. After pollination, the female tree bears trusses of almost spherical fruits, four to six centimetres in diameter. They are green when young, turning orange-red to dark brown when ripe. As the fruit take two years to ripen and two more years to fall to the ground, trees bearing up to 2 000 fruits are seen bearing green and brown fruit simultaneously. People, elephants and baboons eat the fallen fruit. However, the people of the north often don’t wait for it to fall, knocking it down with sticks or stones.

Children sometimes climb the palm trees to reach the much-liked fruit. This effort to get hold of the fruit is not only to chew the dry, ginger-flavoured, fibrous layer surrounding the seed (mesocarp). A most delicious, potent liqueur, ombike, is brewed from boiling the pulp in water. No sugar is added and the brew is ready for consumption after maturing for up to a week. Aletta Petrus, who describes this drink as being similar in taste to vodka, warns the uninitiated not to brew it themselves, as it can become extremely toxic and even lethal.

While the main function of the seed is to propagate the species, it is also used by local craftsmen to make souvenirs. They carve pictures or patterns into the thin dark-brown tissue layer covering the white bone-hard seed (endocarp), which bears a resemblance to the vegetable ivory of South America.

Although so abundant in northern Namibia, the makalani palm is extremely difficult to cultivate, as the seeds do not germinate readily. To the central highlanders of Namibia the sight of a makalani heralds entry into elephant country. The saying goes that a makalani seed only germinates once it has been eaten and digested by an elephant. I would like to believe that every makalani palm is a living monument of a member of the elephant population somewhere on our continent.

“Please Frau Sprandel, will there be palm trees in South West Africa?”

“I have told you that it is a desert land. I think we can safely assume that there will be the odd oasis with palm trees.”

“ In that case I shall go.”

The other Side of Silence, André P Brink

Hyphaene petersiana

English: Real fan palm

Afrikaans: Opregte waaierpalm

Namibian: Makalani palm

Tswana: Mokolane

This article was first published in the Flamingo July 2004 issue.

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