Cyrtostachys renda Blume 1843
pronounced: kur-toh-STAY-kiss REN-duh
(Arecaceae – the palm family)
synonym: Cyrtostachys lakka Becc. 1885
pronounced: kur-toh-STAY-kiss LAK-kuh
common name: Lipstick Palm, Sealing Wax Palm
Cyrtostachys is derived from the Greek κυρτος (kyrtos), arched, and σταχυς (stachys), an ear of corn, referring to the curved flower spikes; renda is an Aboriginal name for a palm. The lakka in the synonym is more difficult to track down. Lakka is a Finnish liqueur which derives its flavour from the cloudberry fruit, and the fruit itself is also known as lakka. The cloudberry (Rubus chamaemorus) is a rhizomatous herb native to alpine and arctic tundra, producing an amber-coloured edible fruit. The liqueur is produced by soaking the berries in alcohol for anywhere between two to six months until it is sweetened. Surely any connection between this berry, or the liqueur made from it, and an Asian palm must be purely co-incidental! The fruit of this palm is nothing like the lakka berries, and I can find no evidence of a palm wine or liqueur made from the lipstick palm.
This is a medium-sized, slow-growing, clumping palm which can grow to about 6 m tall, or even taller under ideal conditions. It is one of the most spectacular and colourful of tropical palms, and is in high demand as a garden and a landscaping plant. Its best-known feature is its bright red trunk and fronds, which make it instantly recognizable.
The palm grows well in either full sun or part shade. It is tricky to grow, needing high humidity, well-drained soil, and plenty of water – it is not tolerant of drought or wind. As it naturally grows in the swamps of peninsular Malaysia and the islands of Borneo and Sumatra, it is tolerant of flooding, and can be grown in standing water. Perhaps this fussiness is the reason why so few are seen on Magnetic Island. The palm is quite common in Cairns, and the photographs on the right show a splendid specimen growing there, in a sheltered spot in the corner of a courtyard.
A mature Lipstick Palm will produce abundant suckers. Leaving them to grow will eventually form a multi-level impressive display as in the Cairns plant. The trunks, beautifully ringed by leaf scars, start off green in colour, mature to orangey or brownish green, and eventually end up grey. At the top of the trunks, at the leaf bases, are the striking red crownshafts, in contrast with the luxuriant green foliage. Even the leaf stalks are bright red.
The pinnate fronds are stiff to arching, and the 50 or so leaflets per frond are slender with pointed tips, and are pleasantly arranged in feather-like form.
The curved inflorescences, borne at the base of the crownshafts on mature trees all year round, are branched and green, turning red gradually. The plant is monoecious. The inconspicuous female flowers will develop into tiny oblong black fruits, with scarlet bases when ripe.
Propagation is by fresh seeds, the fresher the better. Fresh seeds will germinate in 2–4 months, where older seeds may take up to a year. Propagation may also be dome by division of suckers. These should be gently separated from the parent plant with a very sharp spade.
Photographs © Donald Simpson, taken Cairns 2008, Nelly Bay 2012
Page last updated 7th November 2013