DHPL Travels: Discover the Majestic Traveler’s Tree

Unveiling the Marvel of the Traveler’s Tree

Traveler’s tree (Ravenala madagascariensis). Photographs by Don Walker

Many travelers exploring tropical destinations are left in awe when they come across a tree that seems to have jumped straight out of a sci-fi movie like Star Trek. Meet the remarkable traveler’s palm tree of Madagascar, scientifically known as Ravenala madagascariensis. Its towering palm-like trunks crowned with massive flat fans of banana-like leaves truly create a breathtaking sight. While this plant is renowned in tropical gardens worldwide, you don’t have to venture too far to witness its beauty. Surprisingly, Southern California boasts several impressive specimens that are worth a visit. Embark on this journey, and you’ll be rewarded with an unforgettable experience.

A Tree that Defies Classification

Often referred to as either the traveler’s palm or traveler’s tree, Ravenala madagascariensis possesses both palm-like and tree-like characteristics. However, it is actually a colossal relative of the more familiar bird of paradise (Strelitzia reginae). This unique species, native to the rainforests of Madagascar, stands alone in its genus. While it can be trained to grow as a single trunk for a dramatic effect, the evergreen traveler’s tree naturally forms a cluster of tall, unbranched, woody trunks. These trunks are adorned with extraordinary crowns of elongated leaves resembling those of a banana plant (Musa). The most distinct feature of this tree is the striking arrangement of its long-stalked leaves, forming a magnificent, flattened fan against the sky. In the summer, the traveler’s tree adorns itself with spectacular white flowers that emerge from large clusters of green, boat-shaped bracts, located near the center of the foliage crowns. If pollinated successfully, these flowers develop into three-inch-long woody capsules filled with fleshy blue arils, each containing numerous seeds.

Dispelling the Myth

A common misconception about the traveler’s tree is that its foliage always faces a specific direction and can be used as a compass by travelers. Although it makes for a captivating tale, it is, unfortunately, not true. The tree derives its name from the fact that its flower bracts and leaf bases adeptly capture and store considerable amounts of rainwater. This unique ability enables travelers in remote areas to use them as a source of drinkable water.

Creating the Ideal Habitat

The traveler’s tree is highly sensitive to cold temperatures and thrives best in frost-free areas of Southern California, preferably near the coast. While it appreciates good air circulation, its large leaves are prone to tearing, making it advisable to protect the tree from strong winds. Adequate watering and regular fertilization are beneficial, but once established, the tree shows resilience and requires minimal care. New plants can be grown from seeds or through division.

Pursuing the Enigma

In the tropics, the traveler’s tree can reach heights of thirty to forty feet and create clumps as wide as twenty-five to thirty feet. Large specimens, however, are quite rare in Southern California. Enthusiastic tropical plant aficionados have always been on the hunt for “the big one.” It is important to note that reported sightings are sometimes inaccurate, as untrained observers often mistake the commonly grown giant bird of paradise (Strelitzia nicolai) for a traveler’s tree. Once you’ve laid eyes on a true traveler’s tree, there will be no more confusion. Impressive examples, like the one depicted in the image above (found in Del Mar, near the coastal region north of San Diego), prove that these majestic tropical plants exist and can indeed thrive in our region. A little adventure is well worth the opportunity to witness such botanical grandeur firsthand.

An inflorescence on a traveler’s tree (Ravenala madagascariensis)

Ornamental Trees of San Diego: Mediterranean Climate Trees for Your Garden

By Steve Brigham, photographs by Don Walker

The San Diego Horticultural Society, in collaboration with the San Diego Natural History Museum, has successfully compiled an important new book focusing on trees. This article is an excerpt from “Ornamental Trees of San Diego: Mediterranean Climate Trees for Your Garden,” which has been featured in recent issues of Pacific Horticulture. The comprehensive book provides detailed descriptions, along with captivating color photographs, useful tables and charts, sources, a bibliography, and indexes of both common and botanical names. All the trees showcased in the book were photographed at easily accessible locations within the greater San Diego area, and precise details of each tree’s whereabouts are provided.

The book can be purchased directly from the San Diego Horticultural Society for $34.95, with an additional $5 per book for postage and handling. If you wish to secure a copy, please send your order to the following address: Book Order, PO Box 231869, Encinitas, CA 92023-1869. The books will be available for shipping in December 2003.

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