A majestic palm that flowers once in its life is in bloom in Trinidad

The flowering Talipot Palm at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Port of Spain, Trinidad, April 15, 2024. Photo by Janine Mendes-Franco, used with permission.

On the southern perimeter of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Port of Spain, Trinidad, a palm tree is blossoming — but it's not just any ordinary tree. It's the flowering Talipot Palm (Corypha umbraculifera), known for having the largest inflorescence in the world. A bigger natural cluster of flowers on a stem you'll never see.

Native to eastern and southern India as well as Sri Lanka, it is also called the Century Palm. As such, there is a misconception that it flowers only once every 100 years; the truth is that it can flower once it reaches maturity, typically between 25 and 80 years old. After it flowers, it takes about a year for the resulting small, circular yellow-green fruit — which appear in the thousands, each containing a single seed — to mature. Because the tree is monocarpic, this process only happens once, and the tree dies after fruiting.

In an interview with the Trinidad and Tobago Newsday, Dr. Linton Arneaud, who lectures in plant science at The University of the West Indies (UWI) and is vice-president of the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalists’ Club, explained the origin of the palm's species name: “Corypha means top. Umbraculifera means umbrella […] so it’s speculated that the name is referring to the flower to the top, and the fronds are in the shape of an umbrella.”

However, for citizens of Trinidad and Tobago, used to the splendour of Carnival, the country's national festival, this type of formation may be more easily compared to the way feathers are grouped together for costume headpieces.

The flower at the top of the Talipot Palm at the Royal Botanic Gardens in Port of Spain, Trinidad, April 15, 2024. Photo by Janine Mendes-Franco, used with permission.

The palm is one of 72 species of exotic palms detailed in a publication by the Field Naturalists’ Club. In Asia, the tree is commonly used for timber, thatch, and even buttons, which can be made from the seeds. It is also believed that the leaves — called “olas” — were once used as palm leaf manuscripts in some south-east Asian cultures. The famous Sanskrit epic “Ramayana” was said to have been written on olas.

Although the statuesque palm at the Botanic Gardens is not the only one in the country — there is one along the east-west corridor close to UWI's St. Augustine campus, and a few in the south of the island — it is perhaps the most high-profile, due to its location and the amount of vehicular and foot traffic that pass around the neighbouring Queen's Park Savannah each day.

The Talipot can also be found in other Caribbean islands, including at Hope Gardens in Jamaica, but naturally, there was great excitement around its flowering in Trinidad.

Veteran environmentalist Ian Lambie wrote on Facebook, “I am indeed pleased to learn that the Talipot Palm at the Botanical Gardens in Port of Spain is in bloom. It is my wish that the seeds from Talipot Palm Trees growing in Trinidad and in Tobago be collected by the Horticulture Section of the Ministry of Agriculture on maturity, and that they be distributed for germination at the various Government Nurseries, at selected Privately-owned Nurseries and at the Botany Department of the UWI to ensure that we have many flowering Talipot Palm Trees in the future. […] It would be nice should a young botanist plant some Talipot Palm seeds and monitor the growth of the resulting trees until their maturity and blooming.”

Many people flocked to the Botanic Gardens to see the glorious sight for themselves, including Jennifer Alcazar-Dolsingh, who was touched by witnessing what she called the palm's “Last Hoorah;” Rachel Lee Young, who nabbed a great photo; and Steven Valdez, who suggested it was “a once in a lifetime opportunity that you shouldn’t miss!”

Just in case you can't make it there in person, here's the next best thing:

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