Almost all the rattan that enters world trade has been collected from the wild from tropical rain forests. With forest destruction and conversion, the habitat of rattans has decreased rapidly in extent over the last few decades and there is now a very real shortage of supply. In the mid 1970s, forest departments in South-east Asia became aware of the vulnerability of rattan supply and began investigations aimed at safeguarding the long term supply of canes for the industry. Cultivation of canes presents the best possibility for the future. Early research examined pre-existing cultivation. In one small area of Indonesian Borneo rattan has been cultivated in permanent rattan gardens on land adjacent to rivers that flood severely and for prolonged periods. This land, that is more or less unsuitable for any other permanent form of agriculture because of the flooding and very acid soils, appears to be ideal for the cultivation of one rattan, Calamus trachycoleus. Here, villagers have developed a method of cultivation that has been used as a model for rattan cultivation elsewhere, whether on flooded or dry land. However, this species has a cane of small diameter (6-12 mm); large diameter canes (in excess of 18 mm) are needed to produce the framework of cane chairs, and a major focus of rattan research has been to find large diameter canes that are suitable for domestication and cultivation in a variety of habitats.
During the late 1970s commercial estates of rattan were established in Sabah, East Malaysia. Commercial rattan planting is still a risky business as there is still so much that is unknown about the growing of rattans. However, growth rates in the new estates have been amazing - small diameter Calamus trachycoleus and the best large diameter cane Calamus manan have both been recorded as growing as fast as over 6 m a year. Several estates have already reached harvestable age and the financial returns from the estates seem promising. There are also some unexpected benefits from rattan planting.
Benefits of rattan cultivation
In order to grow properly rattan has to be planted under some sort of tree cover, such as logged-over forest, secondary forest, fruit orchards, tree plantations or, even, rubber estates. Thus rattan planting preserves tree cover, and along with tree cover, where it is semi-natural forest, wildlife is also maintained. One of the highest populations of orang-utan in Borneo is in a rattan estate and over half the wild species of rattans recorded for Sarawak have been recorded as occurring wild within the boundaries of another rattan estate. Such commercial planting thus offers attractive prospects for wise land use in the humid tropics, allowing a crop to be grown with minimal disturbance of the vegetation. However, perhaps the most exciting potential of rattan is as a small-holder crop. Some rattans lend themselves to cultivation on a small scale under fruit trees or in rubber gardens. Such cultivation allows the smallholder to gain extra cash returns from a small area of land.
Rattan research at Kew
With over 600 species to choose from and a huge geographical, altitudinal and ecological range, choosing the right cane for the right habitat is clearly a complex process. What is certain is that the basic classification of rattans is of great importance to the further development of the wild resource - we must know what species we are trying to cultivate and how to distinguish it from other species of rattans at all stages of development from seed to mature plant. Kew plays a vital role in the basic research on rattans in providing the taxonomic framework for development. Kew scientists now have wide experience in rattans, their natural history, economic potential and cultivation requirements.
Current research needs for the further development of rattan that are being addressed at Kew include the search for more species suitable for plantations. At present we know enough to cultivate a mere four or five of the 600 different species of rattan, and these are all species of the ever wet lowlands of the Malay Archipelago. There is a real need to broaden this base, to look for further elite species from which selections can be made, to be used eventually in the breeding of new strains.