Admiring fan palms is simple: just look up. Let your eyes take in the geometric puzzle of palm fronds, the layered silhouettes of hundreds of leaves against the sky – an iconic image of Queensland’s northern rainforests.
Also known as the Australian Fan Palm or the Licuala Palm, this species is in the Arecaceae (palm) family. There are two subspecies: Licuala ramsayi var. ramsayi and Licuala ramsayi var. tuckeri, which is found further north, including the Torrres Strait Islands.
The fan palm can reach 20m tall. It has a single trunk, which is quite slender (around 20cm in diameter).
But the species is most famous for its leaves. Each plant has 9 to 12 huge, segmented, pleated and almost circular leaves; they resemble a giant pinwheel or fan, hence their common name. The leaflets are bright green on top and silvery underneath. There are spines along the leaf stem, which grows to 2m long. A fibrous mesh hangs from the leaf sheath, and gives the species its other common name: the Hessian Hair Fan Palm.
The fan palm was an important plant for Aboriginal groups of north Queensland, providing thatching and shelter from heavy rains, and for food wrapping and other material uses.
Where are Fan Palms found?
The fan palm is endemic to (only found in) Queensland. It occurs in the north east of the state, in the Wet Tropics area: from Cooktown and south to Ingham. It's typically found within 20km of the coast, and from sea level to 1,100m. It forms a key part of the subcanopy in rainforests, mangroves, littoral forests, vine forests and in riverine habitats.1
It’s associated with several different soil types, and thrives in shady, humid spots. It tolerates the cold, though it’s not considered frost hardy. It’s also sensitive to drought and dry air. Nonetheless, the fan palm’s conservation status is considered of Least Concern under Queensland’s Nature Conservation Act 1992.2
That said, fan palm forests provide habitat for a suite of rare and threatened flora and fauna, including the Southern Cassowary, the Pied Imperial Pigeon, Bennett’s Tree Kangaroo, vulnerable plants like the Layered Tassel Fern and the Freycinetia Percostata.3 Fan palm forests also provide outstanding aesthetic values (check out a 360 degree view below) and wetland habitat values, as they're often seasonally indundated.
The fan palm generally flowers between November and January, and fruits between January and March. The long flower clusters form a ‘skirt’ that dangles from the canopy. Once pollinated by insects, the small white flowers develop into orange to red fruits.
The fruits drop to the rainforest floor, and this is where the cassowary enters the story. Cassowaries (Casuarius casuarius johnsonii – Southern Cassowary) eat fruits, like that of the fan palm, that are too large to be eaten by other species. By dispersing seeds they're essential in the longevity of fan palms populations. The wet season is a time of food scarity for cassowaries because not many plants fruit at that time. Fan plams however do fruit throughout the wet season so they're a particularly important food source for cassowaries.
Fan palms have low seedling numbers, typically only 50 to 500 per hectare.4 Even in good conditions it's known to be a slow-growing plant.
The biggest threat to remnant fan palm forests is large-scale clearing. Large areas of north Queensland’s coastal rainforest have been cleared, and wetlands drained, to make way for agricultural and housing developments. This also means that edge effects in fragmented remnants is a serious management challenge. Feral pigs also pose a problem: they plough up the ground underneath fan palms, disturbing the forest floor and affecting seedling recruitment.
Finally, weed invasion threatens to outcompete native plants like the fan palm, in particular weed species such as Pond Apple (Annona glabra) and Harungana (Harungana madagascariensis).
What's Bush Heritage doing?
We love fan palms so much that we’ve named a reserve after them! Fan Palm Reserve is a special remnant patch of lowland rainforest, located 50km north of Port Douglas. It’s within Queensland’s Wet Tropic World Heritage Area – a national biodiversity hotspot. And it's dominated by Fan Palms! We bought the 8.2 ha property in 1993, just as it was threatened with development. Now that the area is a Bush Heritage reserve, we’re working with local authorities to undertake feral pig control.
After a recent sighting of a juvenile Bennett’s Tree Kangaroo (Dendrolagus bennettianus) close to the reserve, we teamed up with a local expert to investigate the southern distribution of this charismatic creature. Read more about Bennett’s Tree Kangaroos and Fan Palm Reserve on our blog.
Can’t visit north Queensland? You can put yourself in the picture by visiting Fan Palm Reserve via Google Map’s ‘Photo Sphere’ and enjoy a 360 degree view of these beautiful palms.
Bush Heritage Australia recognizes the Kuku Yalangi Bama as the Traditonal Owners of Fan Palm Reserve and we pay our respects to Kuku Yalangi elders past and present.