Sago Cultivation in North Borneo.

(Kew Bulletin.)

(Metroxylon Sagu, Rottb. Metroxylon Rumphii, Mart.)

The sago of commerce is a kind of starch prepared from the soft internal stems of certain palms, natives of the Malay Archipelago, Borneo, New Guinea, and possibly of Fiji. The word sago or sagu is said to be Papuan for bread.

There are two well-recognized species of sago palms. The smooth or spineless sago palm (Metroxylon Sagu) is specially abundant in Sumatra and adjacent islands. It does not reach so far eastward as New Guinea. In North Borneo it is known as rumbia benar. Wet, rich soils, especially at the base of mountains, are its favorite localities. This species is regarded as the principal botanical source of the sago received in Europe.

The thorny sago palm (Metroxylon Rumphii) is found further east than the other species. It is plentiful in New Guinea, and in the Moluccas and Amboyna.

Both sago palms resemble each other in general appearance, but the latter is a smaller tree, and it has its leaf-stalk and the sheaths enveloping the lower part of the flower spikes armed with sharp spines from one-half an inch to about one inch long. It has, moreover, decided littoral tendencies, and is abundant along the shores of many small islands, forming a dense, impenetrable belt. In North Borneo the thorny sago palm is known as rumbia berduri, or rumbia salak.

Some sago is obtained from the sugar palm (Arenga saccharifera) after the plant is exhausted of its saccharine juice. The sago palm of India is Caryota urens. The farinaceous part of the trunk of old trees is said by Roxburgh to equal the best sago from the Malay islands. In China, Japan and Florida, sago, differing in character of the starch grains from palm sago, is obtained from species of Cycas such as C. revoluta and C. circinalis. The commercial importance of the latter is very slight.

The cultivation of the true sago palms is entirely confined to the Eastern Archipelagos. The plants are difficult to grow elsewhere, and it is improbable that the industry will extend beyond its present limits. Both species of Metroxylon are monocarpic, and die after the seeds are ripened. The life of the plant lasts for about fifteen to twenty years, at the end of which period the terminal inflorescence is formed. In spite of the abundance of flowers very few fruits are produced; these occupy two or three years in ripening. The propagation of these palms is usually effected by means of suckers or stolons formed around the base of old trees.

An interesting account of sago cultivation in Province Dent, in British North Borneo, is included by Governor Creagh in the report on the Blue Book of Labuan for 1893. (Colonial Reports, No. 122, Annual, 1894.) As the subject has not hitherto been dealt with in these pages, the report, which has evidently been carefully prepared on the spot by Mr. J. G. G. Wheatley, is reproduced for general information.

A Report on Sago Cultivation in Province Dent.

The sago palm, from which is manufactured the well-known sago flour of commerce, resembles in appearance the cocoanut tree. The former is valued for its trunk alone, the nuts are useless, and the tree dies if allowed to fruit.

Varieties of Sago Palm.

(1) There are only two kinds of sago palm which are cultivated, the "rumbia benar" (true sago), and the "rumbia berduri" (the thorny sago), also known as "rumbia salak." In appearance both are the same, but on close inspection the stems of the latter, to which the leaves are attached, known as "pallapa," will be found to be covered with bunches of thorns about 1 ½ to 3 inches long.


(2) Sago grows chiefly on damp ground, subject to floods at certain times of the year. If grown in swamps, less sago is produced, and the trunks do not attain as great a height as when planted on clayey damp soil subject to floods periodically. Once planted, the tree withstands floods and brackish water, but in the latter it does not grow as fast and the trunks are small. Sago is planted chiefly by suckers sent out by the parent tree, which are carefully cut off under ground. In swampy ground the shoots are planted out at once, but in other localities the shoots are tied together in bundles and placed in wet, muddy ground until they have begun to send out roots, when they are planted out in holes 12 inches deep, 1 foot in diameter, and 4 to 6 fathoms apart. No earth is placed about the roots, but the plants are supported in an upright position by two sticks fixed on either side. The earth gradually fills the holes during rains and floods. One man with an assistant can plant 300 plants a day. After this, further attention is generally unnecessary for a year, and in some cases two years, when the jungle growth is cleared around the growing tree. Some planters regularly clear around the roots and cut away suckers if they are too abundant. Rumbia berduri is preferred to the rumbia benar, chiefly because the wild pigs do not attempt to destroy young plants, on account of the thorns. In planting rumbia benar, fences have to be made to keep out the pigs, which are very destructive. Rumbia berduri is also reported to produce more raw sago, but the quality of flour is the same in both species. Each tree produces from four to five pikuls of raw sago (133 lbs.= 1 pikul), being at the rate of one pikul per fathom of trunk. Both trees grow to the same dimensions, 24 to 42 feet in height, and in 1 ½ to 3 feet in diameter at the base of trunk. The sago palm is not subject to any disease; but, if a deep cut is made at the base of the trunk close to the earth, the pith is attacked by large maggots, which gradually eat their way into the centre of the tree, and in three or four months destroy the whole trunk. This is a favorite way of paying off a grudge among the natives. The sago tree takes from five to seven years to mature, according to the nature of the soil. During the third year the plant begins to send out shoots. These grow up with the parent tree, and in time give out suckers. If these are allowed to grow too freely they form a dense thicket around the mature trunks and give a great deal of trouble to the workers. Every year each clump produces a large number of workable trunks. During the fifth year the parent tree is ready to be cut down. In the meantime, the young shoots are rapidly developing, and in the seventh year probably three or four trees are ready, and so on, so that the sago tree, once planted, continuously supplies the planter with logs without giving him any trouble as regards their cultivation. The natives compare their sago plantation to a herd of cattle, and it would be difficult to reckon the number of logs that each clump may have produced in the space of forty or fifty years. When the sago tree is allowed to flower, the pith begins to diminish, and, if the mature trunks are not cut down regularly, the whole clump gradually deteriorates and the trees become stunted bushes instead of growing to the usual height. Nothing of the sago tree is lost. The trunk supplies the sago, the leaves and stems are largely used by natives for building purposes, the former for roofs and the latter for partitions and walls of houses, which, when properly constructed, are very neat-looking and durable. The top shoot makes an excellent vegetable, while the trunk, when split in two longitudinally, and the pith scooped out, is used as a boat to transport the raw sago which has been extracted from it. The bark, when taken off, makes excellent fuel, and an enterprising Chinaman, who employs an engine for rasping sago logs, uses this as a substitute for firewood.

The sago trade between Mempakul and Labuan is carried on by native schooners of about forty tons, which ply regularly, and in fair weather are able to make a trip every two days.

The following are the figures recorded in the returns at Mempakul of the sago shipped to Labuan since January, 1890:

Sago Flour.Raw Sago.

The latter portion of the year is generally the busiest, as the rains assist in the transport of the raw material from streams which may have become too shallow during the dry weather.

The present price of sago flour at Singapore is $2.55 per pikul. The Chinese traders buy the raw material at from $1 to $1.20 per pikul, according to the market price at Singapore, and, after allowing for the cleaning of the raw sago and washing it in the factories, there remains a profit of at least 50 cents per pikul to the Chinese manufacturers. The freight from Labuan to Singapore at present is 22 cents per bag of 115 catties = 150 lbs. A royalty of 6 cents per pikul is charged on sago flour exported from Province Dent to Labuan, when the Singapore price is below $2.50, and 8 cents when above that sum. On raw sago a royalty of 8 cents is charged to protect the sago factories. The sago trade is increasing rapidly on the Borneo Coast, and at the present time over three-fourths of the flour and raw sago exported from and imported into Labuan comes from British North Borneo ports,

(Signed), J. G. G. Wheatley,
Magistrate, Province Dent.
Mempakul, September 15, 1894.

The American Journal of Pharmacy, Vol. 67, 1895, was edited by Henry Trimble.