All About Rattan

Etymology, Description and Structure

Rattan alternately called Wicker comes from the Malay word rotan, a specific plant of the Calamus Daemonorops and Korthalsia genera, belonging to the palm or Arecales or Palmea family. This type of plant have originated and said to be abundant on the tropical regions of Asia and observed to have some relative species in Australia and Africa. Distinct from the most common plant species, its leaves are not clustered into a crown. This plant is geographically situated on heights climbing up to 3,000 meters above the sea level. Based on expert studies, there are around 600 different species of this plant and 13 corresponding generas.

Those that we see as rattan furniture and other items made out of this plant on the market are those that grow in the wild, the hilly tropical areas, where the average temperature is averaging at 25 degree Celsius and a relatively moist environment measured in through an annual rainfall of 2,000 mm or less. Since this type of plant thrives best on the tropics, it wouldn’t be a surprise why the South East Asian nations like the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia are the top producers of rattan products and raw materials. This is the primary reason as well why rattan craft from these countries are the most exquisite and considered to be the best.

The generic classification of this palm would be according to their climbing nature or ability whether it be a low or a high climber and whether they are single-stemmed or a bunch of the plant cluster. Typically, the plant ironically has a very short and thin stem on the base and the size are much larger on the tip. Though it’s just a palm, a single plant including its stems can grow lengths reaching to 100 meters.

Rattan is characterized by having slender stems measuring 2 to 5 centimeters in diameter with long internodes between the leaves. These nodes or stems would project a seemingly vine appearance for the plant. The plant’s characteristics are similar to that of the bamboo except for the more solid stems. The sheaths and whips of the plant are protected or covered with spines all throughout. The whips and the spines benefit the plant through survival and protection. These spines provide structural support or serve as hooks while the plant is climbing over the surrounding trees.

Rattan Geographical Distribution

The majority of the world’s rattan supply comes from the Indonesian tropics. The next top supplier is the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Bangladesh. Almost all supply of this plant are located and harvested from the hills, mountainous regions, and tropical forests. Though the supply is ample enough, environmental threats to rain forests, including deforestation has also been the source of supply threat for the plant. Statistics have shown that forest and the plant’s population have enormously decreased over the past few decades.

Rattan Harvesting, Collection, and Processing

Although forests have still an ample supply remaining, it is important to preserve and protect this plant and the forest land and areas where it grows. Rattan is not considered as a seasonal plant, it grows all year round, there is no harvesting season, and that it grows faster compared to all other tropical wood. Tools to harvest the plant are just the common and simple ones, the challenge lies on the actual harvesting. The first harvesting impediment is the difficult landscape and the inaccessible mountain, jungle or forest. The next is the intensive manpower or labor that it requires. Harvesting is often the livelihood or tasks of the villagers or the local people who are experts about the cutting and climbing required. Risks associated with the harvesting include dead tree branches that may fall off, colonies of ants, wasps and all other insects that can impede or distract the harvester. Prior to the plant or wood transport, all spiny sheaths, whips, and the leaves are removed.

The most common method of processing the rattan stem or wood is through sun drying, or perhaps smoked with burning sulphur. Raw materials intended for the sturdier and solid crafts are sometimes boiled in oil to eliminate excess oil and natural gum deposits, these two attracts most wood-boring beetles. (Read further on how rattan is processed).

The Many Uses and Benefits of Rattan

With all its advantageous features (light, durable, flexible), rattan has been the top choice as a material for numerous projects and purposes. They can be generally classified either in terms of being a furniture raw material, handicraft source, shelter material, and even as a source of food and medicine.

1. Furniture Making.

This would probably the most popular use of this plant. Rattan furniture making is a very large industry. Furniture products include sofas, chairs, tables, mats, and many more types. These furniture are not only adornment to homes but an essential furnishing requirement of businesses as well, most especially those who are wanting to arrive at a traditional, all natural theme. Said furnitures are the choice of most restaurants, offices, and all other buildings.

2. Handicraft and Arts.

Rattan’s flexibility, strength and durability make it perfect for crafts and all other artistic items. Expert craftsmanship of a lot of natives brings out the true beauty of this plant. Most museums showcase some of the brilliant works and items made out of it. The plant is also noted as the material used for canes not just for oldies but martial artists as well. That’s correct, for in the Philippines, they are proud of their unique Arnis or Eskrima, a sporting martial art which in the past is used as a self-defense. This martial art specifically requires the use of a rattan-cane or stick.

3. Rattan as a shelter material

Most natives or locals from the rattan rich countries employ the aid of this sturdy plant in their home building projects. It is heavily used as a housing material in the rural areas. The skin of the plant or wood is primarily used for weaving.

4. Food source and Medicinal Potential

The inner core of the plant including its shoot is edible and is part of the local delicacies of the specified countries. The fruit is also edible and sometimes fermented to become vinegar.

Rattan’s fruit exudes a certain type of red resin locally termed as “dragon’s blood” which said to have some medicinal properties and was further used as dye for wood and wood products like the guitar and violin. Recently, a group of scientists and medical experts have declared the full medical potential of the plant’s wood or pole through the production of artificial bones which shall be used for humans. (Learn about this new medical breakthrough)

Other Benefits of Rattan

With the growing deforestation and logging problem, rattan planting and harvesting is one of the best alternative to the scarcity of timber products. This plant also serves as the secondary forest cover which would serve as protection to much more smaller plants. It is also a possible small-scale cultivation alongside fruit and rubber trees.

The Rattan Trade and Industry

To date, rattan global trade reached a massive US$4 billion annually. Some industries where the plant is abundant heavily rely on craft and marketing. It’s the main income source for the local or villagers on the most remote areas in the Philippines, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, thus helping these people alleviate from poverty.

Europeans is said to be the most frequent and best clients of rattan craft and products.

Environmental Issues and Sustainable Rattan

With its popularity and demand, rattans are considered to be threatened and deemed overexploited in some areas. Abuse may come in the form of cutting the younger ones eliminating the future capacity to reproduce. There are also health issues related on the toxicity of some methods of processing, and the possibility of pollution (Rattancraft products are totally safe and environment friendly).

The solution to the plant’s threatened supply is sustainable planting and harvesting. (Read more about such worldwide effort).


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