Ilala Palmson June 29, 2011
When most of us think about palm trees we think of coconut palms along sandy beaches. However, there are over 3,000 different species of palm in the world and we have only two of them around Livingstone. Our two palms are quite different from each other. The wild date palm likes to have its roots in wet or muddy soil and so it is found along rivers and by lakes. The ilala palm loves sand.
The ilala palm towers above the other trees growing to a height of fifteen meters (50 feet). It has huge fan-like leaves and hard round fruit. The leaves are used by people to make baskets, many of which you will find in the craft market. The fruit is called vegetable ivory and is loved by elephants.
When the fruit is ready to eat the elephants come along, look up at the vegetable ivory and know that it is far out of their reach, but they can make a plan. Facing the tree the elephant takes a step forward and head-butts the trunk. With that the trunk shakes, loosening the fruit which tumbles down to the ground. Occasionally one will fall on the elephant’s head, causing him to shake his head in irritation. But there on the ground are scores of delicious fruit to eat.
The elephant munches to his heart’s content, often joined by baboons who take advantage of this windfall. Having filled his stomach with the fruit the elephant continues on his journey across the savannah. The ilala fruit though is not all digestible – the outer coating is, but the hard seed in the center is not. This comes out in the elephant dung, where it may find conditions right to germinate and grow.
It is the love the elephants have of the ilala fruit which has helped in the dispersal of the ilala seeds across the land. For hundreds of years, as the elephants have wandered this part of the earth, the ilala palm has spread.
When coming in to Livingstone by air, take a look down over the land below – an often parched land of African savannah – and across it you are likely to see these rows of palms, like sentinels across the land. You will know then that you are seeing an elephant migration route; a route formed hundreds of years ago and still used today.