Plant 123

Carludovica palmata Ruiz & Pav. (Cyclanthaceae)


Panama hat plant

Carludovica palmata is a tropical American, palm-like perennial. The leaves are folded fan-like along their length, giving the foliage a graceful and plicate appearance. It can form large clumps of several metres with the bright green leaves reaching up to five metres high.

Found growing in lowland and submontane tropical rainforests from Guatemala to Bolivia, Carludovica palmata is locally common, and is cultivated commercially, on a very large scale, for the Panama hat industry.

It takes six young leaves to make a single hat. Before the leaf fibre can be hand woven it must be softened and bleached. The leaves are harvested before they have unfurled and the stiff parallel veins are removed. The bleaching process involves immersing the fibre in boiling water after which the leaves are left to dry in the sun. The curled leaves are then treated with sulphur or lemon juice, washed and dried again.

Although made for centuries, it was not until the 1880s that Panama hats got their name. In 1881 French engineers began work on a canal through what was the Colombian province of Panama. Construction of the Panama Canal, completed in 1914, was a challenging, large-scale engineering project that killed large numbers of people. The hat was popular with men working on the canal construction and as trade grew, hats were sold and exported via the Canal. Notwithstanding its name, the hat was not made in Panama; it came from Ecuador. Despite development of the hat industry in other parts of Latin America, Ecuador retains the largest market share, exporting more than one million hats annually.

Depending on the origin, quality of materials and finesse of individual weavers, a hat may take several hours to several months to make. Unfortunately, people involved in processing and weaving hats frequently fall prey to unscrupulous middlemen. Fair trade initiatives are working to support communities through sustainable livelihoods to ensure the tradition of hat weaving continues; luxury fashion at the right cost.

Older, tougher leaves from Carludovica palmata are used to make baskets and mats. Other Carludovica species have uses as diverse as thatching and even anti-venom for snakebites.

Carludovica palmata needs dappled shade and plenty of water to be cultivated successfully. It is increasingly grown as a houseplant because it requires a minimum temperature of 13 degrees Celsius to thrive. Since Carludovica palmata is a stoloniferous plant, the quickest method of propagation is by division.

Further reading

Fayaz A 2011. Encyclopedia of tropical plants. Firefly Books Ltd.

Huxley A 1992. Dictionary of gardening. The Royal Horticultural Society.

Lewington A 2003. Plants for people. Transworld Publishers.

Kate Pritchard