15 March 2009

What do the flowers of the Seashore pandan look like?

The large prickly Mengkuang or Seashore pandan is a familiar sight on our wild shores.Seashore pandan (Pandanus tectorius)
We often see the large pineapple-like fruits. But what do the flowers of this pandan look like? Today at Pulau Semakau, we found out!

The Seashore pandan has a spiral of long leaves armed with wicked thorns. Usually forming an impenetrable thicket at ground level, it sometimes grows into a small tree, often with stilt roots around the central trunk.
The egg-shaped compound fruit looks like a pineapple. Turning from green to bright orange as the fruits ripen, the compound fruit disintegrates into individual fruits that can remain alive for a long time as they float in the sea.

But what do the flowers look like? As we were all remarking that we've never seen a Seashore pandan flower, Suay Hwee said, "Let's look for them!" And he proceed to find one in the plant right in front of us!

The male and female flowers are found on different plants. The male flowers form a pendulous ‘cone’ (25-60 cm) comprising many small flowers. Around the male flowers are yellow-white leaflets that produce a pleasant smell.

The female flowers have been described as "compact greenish heads with pistils densely crowded with colored scales." I saw this some time ago on Kusu Island and thought it was a fruit. It was rather small and the fruits were not so well developed. Could it be a female flower, or a young compound fruit? Hmmm ... it's amazing that there's still so much to learn about even common sea shore plants.

According to Little, the male and female plants have vastly different structures. Trunks of male trees are hard and solid throughout. The timber is yellow, strong and difficult to split. Trunks of female trees have a hard outer part, but soft inner pith. In fact, the trunks of female trees have used as water pipes after removal of the pith.

According to Burkill, the Seashore pandan is widely cultivated for various purposes. Each cultivated variety is different depending on the purpose, e.g., for making mats, for the fruits and so on. Up to 28 varieties of this plant have been described!The leaves are widely used to make matting and bags in Southeast Asia as well as the Pacific islands to Hawaii. To prepare the leaves for weaving into mats, they are first split down the midle to remove the spiny midrib, then cut into strips by dragging them over a board with brass spikes in it. The strips are softened by pulling them over a bamboo and pounding them with a pestle, then soaking them for three days with changes in water. The strips are then bleached in the sun before they are woven into mats, cords, sugar bags, hats and in the past, even boat sails.Seashore pandan is still used to create many modern items used today!

The sweet smelling male flowers were used by women in their hair or to prepare scented oils. Medicinal uses include using the young leaves as an antidote for poisoning.

According to Hsuan Keng, the Seashore pandan was common along sandy shores in many parts of Singapore. According to Giesen, it is probably the most widespread Pandanus species as it is also widely cultivated. It is found on all tropical shores and throughout Southeast Asia. Its proper scientific name is Pandanus tectorius, although the old name P. odoratissimus is an accepted synonym. Another common name for it was "Screw pine" apparently for the way its leaves are arranged in a spiral and the evergreen leaves. I think Seashore pandan is a nicer common name.

References
  • Giesen, Wim and Stephan Wulffraat, Max Zieren and Liesbeth Scholten. 2006. Mangrove Guidebook for Southeast Asia (PDF online downloadable). RAP publication 2006/07 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific Bangkok.
  • Hala, screwpine (Pandanus tectorius) (PDF online downloadable) on the Common Forest Trees of Hawaii USDA Agriculture Handbook No. 679 Elbert L. Little Jr. and Roger G. Skolmen, 1989
  • Hsuan Keng, S.C. Chin and H. T. W. Tan.1998, The Concise Flora of Singapore II: Monoctyledons Singapore University Press. 215 pp.
  • Burkill, I. H., 1993. A Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula. 3rd printing. Publication Unit, Ministry of Agriculture, Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur. Volume 1: 1-1240; volume 2: 1241-2444.

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