This recent trip turned me around when it comes to Ravenala madagascariensis, or traveler's palm. Previously, I had kinda pooh-poohed it. The form is just so...unnatural for a tree. People always seem to plant them because they like the flat rigid form then are dismayed when they see the wind shred the leaves to tatters. It always seemed a bit...gimmicky.
And if I had only encountered this plant in Waikiki then I think my opinion would remain unchanged. But luckily I went to the north shore for some vacation time after my site work and stumbled upon the Waimea Valley Botanical Garden. I was going to Waimea valley primarily to seek out the waterfall, so imagine my delight when I saw there were thousands of plants, all with labels.
I can only imagine how difficult it is to maintain a garden in a jungle valley and sure enough the landscape of the Waimea Valley Botanical Garden is sprawling and a bit shaggy. Personally, I preferred that; it would just seem wrong for a tailored garden to appear in a site like this. And I especially liked encountering this massive clump of traveler's palm growing alongside a path. It reminded me of the many people who have sought fresh water in the crevices of the leaves while on long, isolating treks (indeed, this is why the plant is called traveler's palm). Someday, when I have my Hawaiian villa, I think I will grow a few traveler's palms and let them run wild, clumping into an almost unmanageable grove.
Despite the use of "palm" in the common name, Ravenala madagascariensis is actually more closely related to bird-of-paradise (Strelitzia reginae) than any true palm. The flowers are similar too, though Strelitzia's blossoms are more colorful and a bit 'neater' looking.
Finally, as the species name would imply, this plant is not only native to Madagascar but is endemic to the island. It is not found in the wild anywhere else. In fact, many posit that the traveler's palm and one of its pollinators, the ruffled lemur co-evolved. This is likely based on the shape and size of the lemurs muzzle and the Ravenala's blossom.