PROTA homepage Prota 16: Fibres/Plantes à fibres
Record display

Dypsis fibrosa (C.H.Wright) Beentje & J.Dransf.

J.Dransf. & Beentje, The palms of Madagascar: 366 (1995).
Arecaceae (Palmae)
Dictyosperma fibrosum C.H.Wright (1894), Vonitra thouarsiana (Baill.) Becc. (1906), Vonitra fibrosa (C.H.Wright) Becc. (1912).
Vernacular names
Vonitra palm, mountain vonitra palm (En). Dypsis chevelu (Fr).
Origin and geographic distribution
Dypsis fibrosa is endemic to Madagascar, where it occurs widely in the north-western and eastern rainforests. It is also grown as an ornamental plant in gardens outside Madagascar.
The leaves are extensively used for thatching. For this purpose leaves of any age can be used provided the leaflets are intact. The leaves are also used for decoration, for instance at religious festivals. The dried inflorescences are widely used as brooms. In this case the entire inflorescence is used with the peduncle serving as shaft. Piassava fibre from the leaf sheath is mainly used for making rope, but also for stuffing mattresses, for scouring pots, and as shoulder pads for porters using carrying-poles. Piassava fibre from Dypsis fibrosa and other Dypsis spp. from Madagascar (‘Madagascar piassava’) was formerly used in Europe for industrial brush production, but it has been replaced by synthetic fibres.
The boiled palm heart of Dypsis fibrosa is eaten with rice or mixed with other vegetables. Before the widespread availability of manufactured salt, salt was extracted from the pith of the trunk by boiling, and used for seasoning. Insect larvae, that are eaten fried or boiled, are extracted from cut trunks that have been rotting for 2–3 months.
The boiled palm heart and salt from the trunk are used in traditional medicine for the treatment of chronic cough in children. The salt has also been used against intestinal worms and for the treatment of pancreatic disorders caused by malaria.
Outside Madagascar Dypsis fibrosa is planted as an ornamental in botanical and private gardens for its mixture of green mature leaves, red young leaves and brown fibres.
Production and international trade
Piassava fibre from Dypsis fibrosa was exported in the early 20th century and was an important source of cash income for forest people. Trade of Dypsis fibrosa products is presently limited almost exclusively to places in Madagascar where it is common. A panel of five half-leaves bound together for use as thatching material was sold for US$ 0.05 in eastern Madagascar in 1998.
Madagascar piassava is 45–60 cm long, with a rich brown colour. Its softness and flexibility make it suitable for the production of sweeping brooms. The ultimate fibre cells are (0.3–)0.6(–1.3) mm long, with a diameter of (7.5–)10.3(–21) μm. The wood of Dypsis fibrosa is hard and white.
Adulterations and substitutes
Madagascar piassava can also be obtained from Dypsis crinita (Jum. & H.Perrier) Beentje & J.Dransf. and Dypsis utilis (Jum.) Beentje & J.Dransf. Other sources of piassava fibre are Attalea funifera Mart. (‘Bahia piassava’ or ‘Bahia bass’) and Leopoldinia piassaba Wallace (‘Para piassava’ or ‘Monkey bass’), both from Brazil, and Raphia spp. (‘West African piassava’). Madagascar piassava is shorter than Bahia piassava, but finer and more flexible. In the international market, piassava fibre of Dypsis fibrosa for the manufacture of brushes has been almost entirely replaced by synthetic fibres such as nylon.
As a source of roof thatch in Madagascar, Dypsis fibrosa can be substituted by the traveller’s palm (Ravenala madagascariensis Sonn.) or other palms with longer leaves than Dypsis fibrosa, although Dypsis fibrosa is considered superior as thatching material. Thatching material from the palm is also being partially supplanted by use of manufactured materials such as corrugated iron.
Palm with solitary trunk or 2–6 trunks clustering in a clump; trunk 3–9 m tall, 5–18 cm in diameter, branched 1–2(–3) times a few meters above the ground, with closely parallel branches, rarely unbranched, base swollen, sometimes with surface roots resembling stilt roots, upper part of trunk covered with fibres, bark pale brown to grey, ringed. Leaves 8–25 in the crown, arching, pinnately compound; sheath 40–60 cm long, red-brown floccose, 10–12 cm wide at the base, towards the top with a central woody part and a fibrous part with opposite the petiole a pale brown tongue 30–34 cm long becoming tattered and so producing the piassava fibre that clothes the upper part of the trunk, petiole 40–170 cm long, rachis 140–200 cm long; leaflets 34–51 on each side of the rachis, in one plane, dull dark green (red in young leaves), basal leaflets up to 82 cm long, median leaflets up to 71 cm long, upper leaflets up to 42 cm long. Inflorescence between the leaves, branched to 3 orders, arching; peduncle 70–94(–150) cm long, glabrous, green; bracts up to 188 cm long; rachis up to 60 cm long, branches up to 53 cm long (up to 78 cm long in fruit), glabrous, green to red-brown, with the flowers in triads of 1 central female flower and 2 lateral male flowers. Flowers unisexual, 3-merous, orange in bud, yellow at anthesis; male flowers slightly trigonous, with 6 stamens in 2 series and a rudimentary pistil; female flowers globose, with superior ovary and rudimentary stamens. Fruit an obovoid to almost globose drupe 20–30 mm × 18–25 mm, with persistent perianth, 1-seeded. Seed ellipsoid, 20–23 mm × 15–18 mm; endosperm ruminate.
Other botanical information
Dypsis comprises about 140 species, all endemic to Madagascar except 2 occurring in the Comoros and 1 on Pemba Island. Dypsis fibrosa belongs to the ‘Vonitra’ group within the genus. Palms of this group are characterized by fibrous leaf sheaths that disintegrate into piassava. They are the source of Madagascar piassava, with Dypsis fibrosa being the main species harvested. The most robust member of the ‘Vonitra’ group is Dypsis utilis (Jum.) Beentje & J.Dransf. (synonym: Vonitra utilis Jum.), a palm with solitary or clustered, branched trunks up to 17 m tall, occurring in eastern Madagascar along streams in moist forest at 950–1000 m altitude. It yields good piassava fibre, the palm heart and fruits are edible, and the wood is used for construction. The species occurs in only a few locations and probably in low numbers, and it is classified as vulnerable in the IUCN Red list of threatened species. Dypsis crinita (Jum. & H.Perrier) Beentje & J.Dransf. (synonym: Vonitra crinita Jum. & H.Perrier) is a palm with clustering and usually branched trunks up to 15 m tall, occurring in north-western and north-eastern Madagascar along streams at 200–250 m altitude. Its piassava fibre is used for rope making, for mattress stuffing, and for filtering oil. The leaves are used for thatching. The wood is used in traditional medicine against cough in children. The species is rare and is included in the IUCN Red list, where it is considered to be at lower risk although near threatened.
Dypsis fibrosa occurs from sea level up to 800(–1250) m altitude, on steep slopes and ridge tops in moist upland or coastal hill forest, and in littoral or peat swamp forest. Dypsis fibrosa is one of only 2 species on which the rare orchid Cymbidiella falcigera (Rchb.f.) Garay grows in its native range in south-eastern Madagascar.
Leaves are harvested either by removing them from living trees or by felling trunks to strip the leaves. It is common to strip all leaves from a standing tree, and spare only 1 or 2 emerging leaves. The practice of too abundant or too frequent pruning leads to slow growth and postponed maturity. The multi-stem habit means that felling of a trunk is not necessarily fatal for the tree. Piassava fibre is obtained by cutting old leaf sheaths from the trunk. Hence this is a non-destructive harvest. Extraction of heart of palm entails the felling of trunks.
Handling after harvest
After the leaves have been harvested, the leaflets are stripped from one side of the leaf, and the remaining half-leaves are used for thatching. Five such half-leaves are bound together to form a panel. For covering a hut of 3 m × 4 m, 500 panels of leaves are needed. A roof thatched with leaves of Dypsis fibrosa lasts up to 5 years, but in houses with fireplaces the thatch lasts 10–20 years thanks to the insect-deterring action of smoke and soot from the fire.
Genetic resources
Dypsis fibrosa is not threatened. Its wide distribution in Madagascar, as well as its use in gardens in other parts of the world, means that for the moment there is no major threat of extinction or genetic erosion. Also, its multi-stem habit allows it to withstand felling of a trunk without dying. However, in a survey in eastern Madagascar where the tree is heavily exploited for use of its leaves for thatching, it was found that its population is declining. It was indicated that the population structure is changing as well, with a large proportion of trees kept in a juvenile growth pattern due to the constant harvesting of outer leaves. In the same survey, it was revealed that local villagers do not favour sustainable harvesting measures of Dypsis fibrosa but prefer to switch to alternative thatching materials (other palms or corrugated tin) once Dypsis fibrosa thatch becomes scarce. Therefore, Dypsis fibrosa may soon become locally threatened unless conservation or sustainable exploitation measures are implemented.
The popularity of Dypsis fibrosa as a source of thatching material leads to unsustainable exploitation practices, and the species may become locally threatened soon. A possible way to avoid this and to conserve the species while maintaining its use by people, would be to encourage its planting in home gardens and fields and subsequently its commercialization. The importance of piassava fibre from Dypsis fibrosa for the manufacture of brushes is unlikely to increase again, due to competition from synthetic fibres and other sources of piassava fibre.
Major references
• Boiteau, P., Boiteau, M. & Allorge-Boiteau, L., 1999. Dictionnaire des noms malgaches de végétaux. 4 Volumes + Index des noms scientifiques avec leurs équivalents malgaches. Editions Alzieu, Grenoble, France.
• Byg, A. & Balslev, H., 2001. Diversity and use of palms in Zahamena, eastern Madagascar. Biodiversity and Conservation 10(6): 951–970.
• Byg, A. & Balslev, H., 2001. Traditional knowledge of Dypsis fibrosa (Arecaceae) in eastern Madagascar. Economic Botany 55(2): 263–275.
• Dransfield, J. & Beentje, H.J., 1995. The palms of Madagascar. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and The International Palm Society, United Kingdom. 475 pp.
• Kirby, R.H., 1950. Brush-making fibres. Economic Botany 4(3): 243–252.
• Kirby, R.H., 1963. Vegetable fibres: botany, cultivation, and utilization. Leonard Hill, London, United Kingdom & Interscience Publishers, New York, United States. 464 pp.
• Uhl, N.W. & Dransfield, J., 1987. Genera palmarum - a classification of palms based on the work of Harold E. Moore Jr. The L.H. Bailey Hortorium and the International Palm Society. Allen Press, Lawrence KS, United States. 610 pp.
Other references
• Byg, A. & Balslev, H., 2003. Palm heart extraction in Zahamena, eastern Madagascar. Palms 47(1): 37–44.
• Decary, R., 1946. Plantes et animaux utiles de Madagascar. Annales du Musée Colonial de Marseille, 54e année, 6e série, 4e volume, 1er et dernier fascicule. 234 pp.
• Dransfield, J. & Beentje, H.J., 1998. Dypsis utilis. In: IUCN 2010. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2010.3. [Internet] Accessed September 2010.
• Goulding, E., 1917. Cotton and other vegetable fibres: their production and utilisation. John Murray, London, United Kingdom. 231 pp.
• Gray, M., undated. Dypsis fibrosa. [Internet] Palm and Cycad Societies of Australia. Milton, Queensland, Australia. palms/ Dypsis/fibrosa.html. Accessed September 2010.
• Johnson, D.V., 1998. Palms. Non-wood forest products No 10. FAO, Rome, Italy. 166 pp.
• Johnson, D., 1998. Dypsis crinita. In: IUCN. 2010 Red list of threatened species. Version 2010.3. [Internet] Accessed September 2010.
• Jumelle, H., 1945. Palmiers (Palmae). Flore de Madagascar et des Comores (plantes vasculaires), famille 30. Imprimerie Officielle, Tananarive, Madagascar. 180 pp.
• Medina, J.C., 1959. Plantas fibrosas da flora mundial. Instituto Agronômico Campinas, Sao Paulo, Brazil. 913 pp.
• Missouri Botanical Garden, undated. VAST (VAScular Tropicos) nomenclatural database. [Internet] W3T/Search/ vast.html. Accessed September 2010.
• Porembski, S., 2003. Epiphytic orchids on arborescent Velloziaceae and Cyperaceae: extremes of phorophyte specialisation. Nordic Journal of Botany 23(4): 505–512.
• Riffle, R.L. & Craft, P., 2003. An encyclopedia of cultivated palms. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon, United States. 516 pp.
Sources of illustration
• Jumelle, H., 1945. Palmiers (Palmae). Flore de Madagascar et des Comores (plantes vasculaires), famille 30. Imprimerie Officielle, Tananarive, Madagascar. 180 pp.
G. Vaughan
Museo Arqueológico de Tunja, UPTC, Avenida Central del Norte, Tunja, Boyacá, Colombia

M. Brink
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands
E.G. Achigan Dako
PROTA Network Office Africa, World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), P.O. Box 30677-00100, Nairobi, Kenya
Photo editor
G.H. Schmelzer
PROTA Network Office Europe, Wageningen University, P.O. Box 341, 6700 AH Wageningen, Netherlands

Correct citation of this article:
Vaughan, G., 2011. Dypsis fibrosa (C.H.Wright) Beentje & J.Dransf. In: Brink, M. & Achigan-Dako, E.G. (Editors). Prota 16: Fibres/Plantes à fibres. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.
Distribution Map wild

1, mid-section of leaf with leaflets; 2, part of infructescence.

obtained from Palmweb

obtained from Palmweb