Salak Pollination - dangerous work, with a delicious pay off
By Amy Dodds, 2019 Apprentice
As apprentices at Rancho Mastatal, we take on a Plant Skill, where we each are responsible for a plant variety in our agro-forestry system. When we began as apprentices many of us wanted to avoid the Salak palm, as it has splinter inducing spikes throughout the stem and leaves. Following my intention to dive into challenges this year, I decided to take being caretaker of the prickliest palm on the Ranch.
This is a breakdown on my experience, playing Cupid by pollinating this spiky palm!
Salak palm, or Snake fruit palm, originated from Indonesia, South East Asia. The main reason for planting in an agro-forestry system is that is produces a crunchy fruit that tastes like a tropical apple, which you can eat immediately after peeling the snakelike skin. It does well in humid lowland tropical areas, so is perfect for our climate at the Ranch. It is best to plant in a forest as an under story crop, especially as the young palms require heavy shade. They have superficial roots and therefore needs to be watered regularly, making it thrive in rainy season. Interestingly, pollination is most effective by hand. This can done by insects but is much more productive with human intervention.
While it may appear a harsh plant, I have found the Salak palm to be a rewarding plant to interact with. So far it has meant that every few days I get to go into the lush and cool Fern Gully and practice being mindful in the forest. I have to be slow and calm when navigating the spikes and surrounding orb spiders. And I get the joy of sharing the tasty fruit with my friends!
The main task is pollinating the female flowers with the male pollen at least 3 times a week. I am essentially playing matchmaker in Mastatal’s forest. Salak plants are either male or female. At the Ranch we have 20 plants, with the ratio of 3 females to males in our orchards. The female palms are the fruit producers. Their flowers develop in a hard pointy sheath, which you open with clippers once it becomes more hairy. This allows you to see when they develop a deep pink colour, meaning they are ready to receive the pollen. You can tell the male stamen is ready when they also become pink with small yellow pollen granules. I clip the male stamen at the stem and carry it carefully to the female flower, shaking the male spike on the ripe pink open flowers. Within a few days the flower should harden. If it becomes soft and dry pollination is unsuccessful.
When the fruit is ready it should fall off easily from the bunch. Taste can help indicate if it is ready - unripe Salak has a dry astringent flavour, whereas a ripe fruit should taste juicy and sweet.
Included in the pruning process is clipping the suckers to prevent reproduction, pruning the leaves to keep only 4-5 mother leaves and removing any dead female and male flowers.
Other uses for Salak besides food production include using it as a hedge if you don't like neighbours or visitors. Or you can use it as an intimidating potted plant!
Overall this experience has been an important one to improve my permaculture skills of observation and interaction with this particular species. Plus it has become a mindfulness practice!
For more further reading on the propagation and care see https://www.porvenirdesign.com/blog/2017/7/11/salak-palm-a-guide-for-the-tropical-permaculture