Fan Palms are in the Arecaceae (palm) family. There are two subspecies: Licuala ramsayi var. ramsayi and Licuala ramsayi var. tuckeri, which is found further north, including on 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 rain, wrapping for food and other 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, south to Ingham.
Fan Palms are typically found within 20km of the coast and from sea level to 1,100m. They form a key part of the sub-canopy in rainforests, mangroves, littoral forests, vine forests and in riverine habitats.1
Fan Palms are associated with several different soil types and thrive in shady, humid spots. They tolerate the cold, though they’re not considered frost hardy. They’re 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
Fan Palm forests provide habitat for a suite of rare and threatened flora and fauna, including the Southern Cassowary, the Pied Imperial Pigeon and Bennett’s Tree Kangaroo.
They also support vulnerable plants such as the Layered Tassel Fern and the Freycinetia Percostata3 and provide outstanding wetland habitat, as they’re often seasonally inundated.
Fan Palm ecology
The Australian 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 Palm populations.
The wet season is a time of food scarcity for cassowaries because not many plants fruit at that time. Fan Palms however do fruit throughout the wet season so they’re a particularly important food source for cassowaries.
Australian 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.
Threats to Fan Palms
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 damaging seedlings.
Finally, weed invasion threatens to outcompete native plants such as the Fan Palm, in particular weed species such as Pond Apple (Annona glabra) and Harungana (Harungana madagascariensis).