It takes six leaves from the Panama Hat Plant to make a Panama Hat. The leaves must be young and most commonly they will come from the country of Ecuador. Never or rarely, I gather, from Panama, where the hats were first traded in the nineteenth century.
The Panama Hat Plant looks like a palm. Indeed it is sometimes called the Jipijapa Palm, after one of the Ecuadorian towns that makes the hats. But it’s not a palm. Botanists have always know that. In fact these days we consider it even less of one!
Carludovica palmata has always had its own family, Cyclanthaceae, but this used to be tucked in near the palm family Arecaceae, albeit each within its own order (Cyclanthales and Arecales). The Pandanas family, Pandanaceae, used to be thereabouts, again in its own order (Pandanales).
Nowadays our Panama Hat Plant is included within the Pandanales, closer to Pandanas but distant now from the true palms which are clustered elsewhere in the family tree with grasses, gingers and the water hyacinth (in a group called the Commelinids).
To look at though, the fronds look very palm-like. The one-metre wide leaves are fan-shaped, divided into three to five segments, with each segment further divided towards the tips.Unlike all fan palms, however, it doesn’t produce a trunk.
The flowers arise from the base of the plant, on a stalk and grouped in a cylindrical ‘spike’. As with cycads, an very unrelated group of plants, weevils pollinate the flowers.
The Panama Hat Plant is a tropical species, growing naturally from Mexico to Bolivia, but more commonly in Ecuador. In Australia it grows outdoors in Sydney and Brisbane botanic gardens, but apparently not here in Melbourne. There are three other species in the genus Carludovica, all with similar horticultural requirements.
Apart from spiffing hats, the leaves are used for ‘matting, curtains, roofing, baskets, cigar-cases, purses, fly swatters and brooms’. In fact anything that needs a tough, weavable fibre, including mammal and fish traps.
In Ecuador the base of the unopened leaf base tastes similar, apparently, to a palm heart. This may be a more sustainable way to satiate that particular food fetish given that extracting the heart – the growing point – of a palm kills it.
I just need to wait until this specimen on a colleague’s windowsill matures a little, then creep in and do some (sustainable) harvesting.