Malaysia is one of the centers of palm diversity in the world. Many of these palms are found nowhere else, and one of these is the beautiful Umbrella Palm genus (in Malay language – Daun Payung), which is known as Johannesteijsmannia, of which 4 species exist in Peninsular Malaysia; usually in isolated pockets in only a few localities. These four species are Johannesteijsmannia altifrons, Johannesteijsmannia lanceolata, Johannesteijsmannia magnifica, and Johannesteijsmannia perakensis.
So far, I have come across Johannesteijsmannia altifrons and Johannesteijsmannia magnifica in the wild; both are of similar size and height, but with a crucial difference – The undersides of the leaves of J. magnifica are silvery grey whereas J. altifrons are normal green. The leaves of J. magnifica also appear to be slightly broader or more diamond shaped. It’s easy to see why J. magnifica was thus named; at maturity, its leaves are HUGE!
Hard and stiff, the leaves of J. magnifica can attain a length of 3 m long, by 2 m wide. Natives frequently use them for thatching the roofs and ceilings of dwellings. It is stated that these palms can also grow to 5 meters in height, although the biggest ones I’ve seen so far are just above 4 meters tall. They are stemless palms, and the leaves appear to shoot out from the ground. The base is almost always covered in a mound of dead leaves.
Development is slow for these palms (as they are for most rainforest flora), and large specimens may be decades old. Flowering via inflorescence usually occurs after a period of drought, and appears to be aseasonal (based on a few studies). Stingless bees (Trigona spp) are believed to be amongst the main pollinators, although the flowering always attracts a broad range of insects, some of which are potential pollinators.
In Peninsular Malaysia, J. magnifica is found in certain small areas in southern Selangor like the Sungai Lalang Forest Reserve, but mainly in Negeri Sembilan, where it occurs in the hilly rainforests near to Seremban (Angsi and Berembun Forest Reserves). Encountering mature J. magnifica in their natural untouched rainforest habitat for the first time is quite a memorable experience for many people (as they are so rare).
Outside of these few places in Peninsular Malaysia, there is no record of J. magnifica existing, and it only grows naturally in primary rainforest, although I have seen some individuals colonizing old secondary forest. Perhaps past droughts wiped them out or prevented them from spreading to a wider area? It is imperative that these forests be preserved in perpetuity, especially from today’s destructive logging practices that often appear to have little regard for past forestry silviculture standards.
Worldwide, there is also a big and growing demand for these palms due to their exotic appearance, and therefore illegal harvesting and uncontrolled seed harvesting is also another threat to their continued survival. Such is its overseas demand for ornamental gardening that J. magnifica already has an American name coined for it – Silver Joey Palm (The Johannesteijsmannia palms are called Joey palms in the US). In the IUCN Red List, J. magnifica is classified as endangered.