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What is Pandanus?

By C. K. Lanz
Updated May 16, 2024
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The genus pandanus includes more than 600 known species of dioecious palm such as trees and shrubs. They are known as screw pines that produce edible green, yellow or red cone-shaped fruit and have large prop roots and long pleated leaves. Pandanus plants are native to the Pacific islands, northern Australia and regions of Southeast Asia such as the Philippines, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea and grow primarily in coastal forest areas.

The primary uses of the pandanus include thatch roofing, construction material, weaving and food but the plants also have cultural, economic and medicinal import. This plant is known by many different names throughout its native region.

The pandanus plant can grow in a wide variety of soil types and ranges between 13 and 46 feet (4 and 14 meters) tall with prop and aerial roots and thick trunks that fork in various directions. Each plant can produce between 10 to 300 leaves and eight to 12 fruits annually, depending on the species. It propagates easily from both seed and branch cuttings and all parts of the plant from the fruit to the leaves, poles and branches are used.

The shape and size of pandanus leaves varies widely between species and serve many purposes. Leaves can be treated by soaking or heating and drying and used to weave baskets, hats, fans, pillows, mats, canoe sails and toys. Other common used of pandanus leaves include wall and roof thatching, cigarette wrappers, pig feed, compost and ornaments and decorations. The juice of leaves of some varieties is a common flavoring in Thai cooking while whole leaves can be cooked with rice or boiled in water and consumed like tea. As a medicine the leaf is used to lance boils and treat inflammatory illnesses, colds, asthma, cancer, urinary infections and skin diseases.

Pandanus fruit is a dietary staple in regions of Micronesia, Tokelau, Tuvalu, Nauru, the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea. The flesh can be consumed raw or preserved as a pulp similar in taste and texture to dates or as flour. The fruit is a source of calcium, iron, beta carotene and Vitamin C. In other areas like Polynesia the fruit is worn as a lei or garland or used to make perfume, scent tapa cloth and as fuel, fishing line floats and lobster bait.

The stems and trunks of pandanus plants are often used as construction materials in homes and for ladders. Dried keys make excellent cooking fuel because they burn slowly. The wood has other craft uses like headrests and vases and was once used to make batons and lances. The trunks of some varieties can be fashioned into masts for canoes and are a source of caulking or glue.

In addition to its practical uses, the pandanus is also considered to be a plant with magical properties in areas of Hawaii and Micronesia. In the Marshall Islands the male flowers are believed to be potent aphrodisiac. The plant and its flowers are commonly used in ceremonies or consumed as ceremonial food.

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