18 April 2009

Blooming Nipah at Admiralty Park

The Nipah palm is among the best recognised mangrove plant as it produces 'attap chee', a favourite ingredient of our much loved local desserts such as ice kachang.And at Admiralty Park today, there were lots of large clumps of Nipah palm (Nypa fruticans) all along the trails. A few were flowering and I took a closer look at the insects that were attracted to these strange blossoms.

The palm produces two kinds of flowers.
The female flowers form a globe made up of little segments that eventually become the fruits. While the male flowers appear on a thick long sausage-shaped inflorescence.

Blooming male flowers are golden yellow with sticky pollen and attract a lot of insects.There were honey bees. And swarms of tiny little insects.Are they flies or bees? I have no idea. But there sure were LOTS of them.

According to Tomlinson, two kinds of insects visit the flowers "in significant numbers": small bees of the genus Trigona and small flies of the Family Drosophilidae. He says the bees may not be important pollinators as they only visit the male flowers and not the female flowers. The small flies, however, visit both kinds of flowers and appear to complete their lifecycle in the branches of the male inflorescences.

If this is true, then it's important NOT to 'clean' away the withered male flowers as they may be the source of the pollinators that the palm depends upon!
The honey bees pack the pollen on their back legs.And I noticed (after I got home and processed the photo), one of the little insects eating the pollen on the bee's leg!!

Besides the honey bees and little insects, there were also beetles. There were many of them, but not as many as the little insects. And the beetles seem to be mating as well as eating!
And there were even tinier insects too! Wow, it was a real frenzy!

I didn't see any insects at the female flowers. But perhaps these only become receptive after the male flowers surrounding them wither away? There's still so much more to find out about our mangrove plants.Eventually, the male flowers wither away, and the female flowers turn to dark brown fruits.

The Nipah palm often forms large colonies. It is generally found in tidal rivers, calm estuaries and shallow lagoons with permanent and high inflows of freshwater. It does not occur on shores exposed to waves or in areas with high salinity, and is also not found far beyond the intertidal influence.

The Nipah palm is among the more commercially valuable plants of the mangroves. The leaves are used for 'attap' huts. According to Burkill, "a more skilful use of the leaves" is to produce attap: drying the leaves, folding them over a rod and stitching them in place to form shingles called attap. These shingles are used for roofing as well as the sides of houses and can last for 5 years or more. The leaves are also used to make umbrellas, sunhats, raincoats, baskets, mats and bags. Young leaves are made into cigarette-wrappers.

Another famous product of the Nipah palm is the production of 'toddy', an local alcholic drink. Burkill describes the process of tapping sap from the palm to produce 'toddy': A palm is fit to tap at 5 years of age or after its second flowering. When the fruit is forming, the stalk carrying it is beaten with a wooden mallet. After being bruised daily for a week, the stalk is tapped for its sap and the flow maintained by daily shaving off from the stump of the inflorescence. It is accepted that tapping over 50 years is possible.

The sap ferments into alcoholic 'toddy', almost immediately as "bacteria of fermentation is in abundance" in the containers used to collect the sap. Nipah suger is not much made in Malaya because it contains "too much of a treacly substance that is difficult to eliminate". Toddy left to stand becomes vinegar in a fortnight, which is used to bleach Nipah leaves for the hat and mat industry.

An animal that is fond of stealing 'toddy' is the Common Palm Civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus). It is also called the Toddycat. The Toddycat and Palm leaf is part of the logo of the Raffles Museum of Biodiversity Research (RMBR) at the National University of Singapore.
From the write up about the Toddycat and Palm leaf in the logo ...
"Commonly residing in roofs of houses, gardens and parks, they travel between houses via telephone wires, poles and trees. Often mistaken for cats or rats in the roof, Toddy eats flesh and fruit with equal gusto.

Seven of the eight species of world's palm civets are found in Southeast Asia. They are secretive and elegant animals residing in the threatened forests of Asia, and even now, we know very little about them!"
The Toddycats is also the name of the volunteers at RMBR! Here is the really delightful mascot of the volunteers...
There sure are a lot of fascinating fauna and facts surrounding the Nipah palm!

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