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Nipah Palm
Nypa fruticans

Mangrove Palm, Attap/Nipah (Malay)


whole plantThe Nipah Palm is the among the few palms that grow well in mangroves. It grows in soft mud, usually where the water is calmer, but where there is regular inflow of freshwater and nutritious silt. They can be found inland, as far as the tide can deposit the Palm's floating seeds. It can tolerate infrequent inundation, so long as the soil does not dry out for too long.

It is the mangrove plant with the oldest known fossil, with pollen dated 70 million years old.

Compared to the Coconut Palm, the Nipah Palm appears to lack a trunk, with its leaves growing straight out of the ground. In fact, its trunk is horizontal and lies underground. The trunk branches and each branch ends with a bunch of fronds.
Mangrove and wetland wildlife at
Sungei Buloh Nature Park
Main features: Fronds emerge from the ground and the palm appears trunkless. Grows 4-9m tall.

Leaves: Large up to 9m long.

Flowers: A globular inflorescence of female flowers at the tip with catkin-like red or yellow male flowers on the lower branches.

Fruits: Woody seeds, several compressed into a ball.

Status in Singapore: Endangered.


World distribution: Common on coasts and rivers flowing into the Indian and Pacific Oceans, from Bangladesh to the Pacific Islands. Introduced to other parts of the World.
flowers
Flowers
fruit
Fruit
from same
inflorescence as above
Classification: Family Arecaceae. World 1 mangrove species.
The base of the frond is air-filled to help it stay upright. This habit of growing from underground stems results in almost pure stands of Nipah Palm.

opened fruit
Opened fruit
(bottom left)
showing attap chee

Photo from
Wendy Hutton
The fruits form into a large ball about the size and shape of a soccer-ball, rising from the mud on a stick. When it ripens, the ball breaks away and breaks up into individual fruits. These float away and may even germinate as they float.

Uses as food: Before the inflorescence blooms, it is tapped to collect a sweet sap. Young Nipah Palm shoots can be eaten. The petals of the flower can be brewed to make an aromatic tea.

The immature fruits are white translucent and hard jelly-like. Called attap chee, they are a common ingredient in local desserts.
In the Indonesian islands of Roti and Savu, the sap tapped from the palm is fed to pigs instead, allowing the pigs to fatten during the dry season when other fodder is scarce. The pigs are also fed the leftovers after sugar preparation. In this way, the Nipah Palm results in protein for the community.

Other uses: Dried fronds are used as thatching and called attap in Malay and nipa in the Philippines. They are also woven into mats, baskets and other household items. Young leaves are used to roll cigarettes.

Role in the habitat: Its horizontal creeping stem stabilises river banks preventing soil erosion. New fronds emerge quickly after damage and so quickly protect the land after storms and also continuously produce useful products for the locals.
Palms on Tap: Only plants 5 years and older are tapped. The flowering stalk is cut and inserted into a pot or plastic bag, and the end sliced every day to stimulate new flow and prevent bacterial growth. The base of the stalk is pounded with a mallet to keep the flow going. About half to one litre of sap can be collected per day. A flower stalk can be tapped in this way for 3 months.

The liquid can be drunk as is; boiled to produce a brown sugar (gula melaka); fermented to produce a strong liquor (toddy); or fermented further for several months to produce a cooking vinegar. These items were important trade goods in Southeast Asia in the past.
Status and threats: Although common elsewhere in their range, they are considered endangered in Singapore. Only those in Sungei Buloh Nature Park and Pulau Tekong are protected.

LINKS
45-65 million years ago
(Eocene period), the Nipah Palm
grew even in Europe, where
London and Paris now stand.
It also grew in Brazil, Florida and Senegal. It is now no longer found outside the Indo-Pacific region.

REFERENCES
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  • Wendy Hutton, "Tropical Fruits of Malaysia and Singapore", Periplus, 1996 (p. 35, description, photos).
  • Hugh T W Tan, "A Guide to the Threatened Plants of Singapore", Singapore Science Centre, 1995 (p. 92-93: description, habitat, distribution, uses, conservation).
  • Michael Mastaller, "Mangroves: The Forgotten Forest Between Land and Sea", Tropical Press, 1997 (p. 14: ancient distribution; p. 94: tapping method and other uses).
 
By Ria Tan, 2001