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THE TALIPOT TREE;
OR, UMBRELLA-BEARING PALM.
Corypha umbraculifera. THERE are few objects in the vegetable kingdom more remarkable and beautiful, or more useful to man, than the Talipot Tree, which is a species of the Palm (Corypha umbraculifera) peculiar to the island of Ceylon and the Malabar coast. Robert Knox* says, “it is as big and as tall as a ship mast; but Cordiner gives more definite dimensions, by stating that one which he measured was a hundred feet high, and five feet in circumference near the ground. The stem of this tree is perfectly straight; it gradually diminishes as it ascends, the circumference of the upper part being half that of the base. It is strong enough to resist
Author of " An Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon," where he resided some years in the middle of the 17th century.
the most violent tropical winds; it has no branches, and the leaves only spring from its summit. These leaves, which when on the tree are almost circular, are of such prodigious dimensions, being from thirty to forty feet in circumference, that they can shelter from eight to a dozen men standing near to each other. The flower of the tree, which shoots above the leaves, is at first a cluster of bright yellow blossoms, exceedingly beautiful to the eye, but emitting an odour too strong and pungent to be agreeable. Before its developement the flower is enclosed in a hard rind, which upon the expansion of the flower bursts with a sharp noise. The flower shoots pyramidically to a great height, frequently adding as much as thirty feet to the elevation of the tree. From the flower proceed the fruit or seeds, which are as large as our cherries, and very numerous, but not eatable; they are only useful as seeds to reproduce the tree.
It appears that the natives do not sow them, but leave that operation entirely to nature. The flower and the fruit only appear once on one trec.
Their appearance betoken that the tree has attained to old age, which according to the natives it does in a hundred years; Ribeyro, a Portuguese writer, says thirty years, which is more likely to be correct. As soon as the fruit or seeds are ripe, the tree dries up, and decays so rapidly, that in two or three weeks it is seen prostrate and rotting on the ground. Knox asserts that if the tree be cut down before it runs to seed, the pith, largely contained in the stem, is nutritious and wholesome; and adds, that “the natives take this pith, and beat it in mortars to flour, and bake cakes of it, which taste much like that of wheat bread, and it serves them instead of corn before their harvest be ripe.” We have not found these cakes mentioned by any other writer on Ceylon; but, as Knox was so veracious and correct, we may admit that the natives were accustomed to make them. A better known fact about the uses of the inner parts of the tree is, that sago is made from them. The stem or trunk of the Talipot, like most other palms, is extremely hard without, but soft and spongy within.
The sago is made by beating the spongy part in a mortar.
Still, however, the great usefulness of the tree is in its leaves: when growing on the tree, these leaves are, when expanded, of a beautiful dark green colour; but those chiefly used, are cut before they spread out, and have and retain for ages
a pale brownish yellow colour, not unlike old parchment. Their preparation for use is very simple; they are rubbed with hard pieces of wood, which express any moisture that may remain, and increase their pliability, which is naturally very great. The structure of this wonderful leaf, and the disposition of its fibres, are exactly like those of a fan: and it can be closed or opened like a fan, and with almost as little exertion. It is in fact used as a fan by the natives, and is at the same time their only umbrella and parasol ; in addition to which uses, it forms their only tent, when in the field; and cut into strips, it serves them to write upon, instead of paper. The leaf is so light, that a whole one can be carried in the hand; but as this, from the great size, would be inconvenient, the natives cut pieces from it, which they use both to defend themselves from the scorching rays of the sun and from the rains. The narrow part is carried foremost, the better to enable those who use them to penetrate through the woods and thickets with which most of the country abounds. No handles are used, but the two sides of the leaf are grasped by a bearer. This, says Knox, in his quaint manner, “is a mar
vellous mercy which Almighty God hath bestowed upon this poor and naked people, in this rainy country.” He ought to have added, and in this hot country; for the heats of Ceylon are frequently and for long periods tremendous, and the Talipot leaf is quite as valuable a protection against them as against the rain.
However much rain may fall, the leaf does not become wet, but remains dry and light as ever. The British troops in the campaign in the jungles against the Cingalese, in 1817 and 1818, found to their cost how excellent a preservative it was against wet and damp. The enemy's musket-men were furnished each with a Talipot leaf, by means of which they always kept their arms and powder dry, and could fire upon the invading forces; whilst frequently the British muskets, which had no such protection, were rendered useless by the heavy rains and moisture of the woods and thickets, and our men consequently unable to return the fire of the natives.
As tents, the Talipot leaves are set up on end. Two or three Talipot leaves thus make an excellent shelter ; and from being so light and portable, each leaf folding up to the size of a man's arm,