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Oncosperma tigillarium (Jack) Ridl. 1864
pronounced: on-koh-SPER-muh tig-ill-AIR-ee-um
(Arecaceae – the palm family)
pronounced: on-koh-SPER-muh fill-uh-men-TOE-sum, uh-REE-kuh tig-ill-AIR-ee-uh
Common name: Nibung
Oncosperma is derived from the Greek ογκος (onkos), a mass, heap, and σπερμα (sperma), a seed – swollen seed; tigillium is from the Latin tigillum, diminutive of tignum, a tree trunk – and means ‘of small trunks’. In the synonyms, filimentum is Late Latin for a filament – full of filaments, and Areca is the botanical Latin for the name that the natives of South India use for palms.
The genus contains only 4 or 5 species (depending on which botanist is being consulted). As far as I can tell, although it is difficult to find information about them, they are all clustering, and all seem to have spines on the trunks.
• Oncosperma fasciculatum is found only in Sri Lanka, and is threatened through habitat loss.
• Oncosperma horridum is rarely cultivated, but is very ornamental, with red new leaves.
• Oncosperma gracilipes is a poorly known species endemic to Luzon and Biliran Islands in the Philippines. Its stems are about 6 m tall (and spiny, of course), and the crownshafts are a distinctive orange, a colour not seen in other species of Oncosperma. It is found cultivated in only the Makiling Botanical Gardens just outside Manila; and cultivation is probably the only way to save the species, as its native habitat is threatened by deforestation.
• Our species, Oncosperma tigillarium, is a tall (to 25 m) densely clumping palm, with up to 50 trunks, all of which are covered with long black spines. It has fine pinnate leaves, with attractive drooping leaflets. It is native to Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, growing in lowland swampy forest, and among mangroves. This palm has extremely hard, rot-resistant wood. Once stripped of its thorns, it is used as posts for fishing stakes and in kelong construction.
The inflorescences are a beautiful red colour, and globe fruits are produced.
It is now commonly seen over most of southern Asia, growing in huge stands, a great landscape plant for large gardens and parks, provided one doesn’t get too close! There are some fully grown specimens in the Singapore Botanical Gardens, flanking the orchidarium. They tower impressively over other plants growing nearby. I am told that there is at least one clump in the Townsville Palmetum.
Photographs taken at Picnic Bay 2009
Page last updated 30th January 2018