WORLDWIDE, more than 700 million people trade in or use rattan for purposes ranging from furniture -- examples include chairs, beds, cabinets, tables, and sala and corner sets -- to walking sticks, umbrella handles, baskets, carpet beaters, matting, hats, ropes, cordage, birdcages, fish traps, baskets, paneling, hoops and a host of other products.

Although confined mainly to Southeast Asia, rattan has found its way to other parts of the world throughout history, including ancient Egypt, parts of Europe during Renaissance period and France during the reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XV.

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Furniture is still the most well-known rattan product. In Asia, the rattan furniture industry represents substantially more than 25 percent in value of all furniture industry output, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The markets for rattan are Europe, North America, Japan and other industrialized countries. "However, there is an urgent need for studies of the marketing and future prospects of rattan in those countries," FAO points out.

The Philippines is one of the most important contributors to the global rattan trade. "The rattan furniture industry today contributes greatly to the growing economy by providing local employment and increasing foreign exchange," says the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR).

But there's more to rattan than just furniture and handicrafts. Some indigenous people in Bangladesh use young leaves, roots and shoot tips as vegetable. Its buds and shoots can be prepared into salad or cooked the same way as coconut buds. The swollen basal part jutting just above the ground contains a considerable amount of starch and is edible when roasted.

The stem also stores some amount of water during the rainy season, which is very potable. The fruits, when fully ripe, are sweet and can be made into wine. The fruits of some species produce a sap which can be used as dye for violins.

Rattan can also be used as medicine for many kinds of body aches. All that one has to do is heat a five-inch strip of fresh rattan in a fire, extract the juice, and then apply it on the affected area. It is also used to treat rheumatism, asthma, diarrhea, snake bite, and intestinal disorders.

In Nepal, the Tharu people use rattan sticks in temples, believing them to be holy and capable of warding off evil spirits. Some species of rattan are used in tribal rituals and festivals.

In the Philippines, fathers from the old have been spoiling the rod to spare the child, using the Tagalog yantok, Spanish bejuco, and Visayan uway on young buttocks, bare or clad. "In olden days, the rattan cane was teacher’s best friend, a surefire teaching aid that ensured good behavior and academic aptitude in unruly pupils," said the Technology and Livelihood Resource Center. "Today, it is every Pinoy’s best hedge against the hard times, offering a source of income in an arid landscape of scarce jobs and lost opportunities."

The word "rattan" is the Anglicized version of the Malayan term, rotan, which means to pare, smoothen, or whittle, an operational process that takes place when a rattan collector drags down a pole, twists it around a convenient rough-barked tree trunk, and rubs off the prickly leaf sheath.

Rattan is a climbing palm. Its leaves and climbing organs are variously covered with thorns or spines, hairs, and bristles. It has two major climbing organs, which anchor the plant to the adjacent trees. These organs appear as long whips barbed with reflexed thorns, but of different origin.

As the rattan matures, its stem becomes relatively smooth with more or less regularly-spaced scars left by the fallen leaves. These scars are called internodes. The dreaded thorns that characterized rattan are found only at its top, two to four meters long where the leaf sheaths and the leaves with their climbing organs are located. The stem without its young portion at the top is commonly called a cane or pole.

In forests where rattan grows, its economic value can help protect forest land, by providing an alternative to loggers who forgo timber logging and harvest rattan canes instead. Experts claim rattan is much easier to harvest, requires simpler tools and is much easier to transport. It also grows much faster than most tropical wood. This makes it a potential tool in forest maintenance, since it provides a profitable crop that depends on rather than replaces trees.

The Philippines is home to four genera of rattan, namely: Calamus, Daemonorops, Korthalsia, and Plectocomia.

Calamus, which means "reed" in Latin, is the largest among the four genera. The various species of this genus show a wide range of vegetative and reproductive structures, the most important of which are being solitary or clustered. Thirty-two of the 45 species found in the Philippines are endemic. Eleven are in Luzon, including kulambo and saba-ong. Nine species grow in Mindanao.

The term "Daemonorops" is coined from two Latin words: daimon (meaning spirit) and rhops (shrub). This genus is the second largest in the country. It is morphologically similar with Calamus in its solitary and clustering habit, in having spiny leaf sheaths, pinnate leaves and variously arranged leaflets. Of the 14 species found in the Philippines, 12 are endemic.

Korthalsia, named after German botanist Peter Korthals, is the third largest genus of the Philippine rattan. It's a clustering and branching, high climbing palm and is easily recognized by the appearance of leaflets which are short, broad, and triangular. One species (Korthalsia merilli) can only be found in Palawan.

Plectocomia, which comes from the Greek word plectocomia (which means "plaited hair"), is the smallest genus of rattan in the country. The member species are robust, solitary high- climbing palms, with hand-like claws that cling to the host trees. Two species are found in the Philippines, but only one is endemic to the country.

The biggest concentration of rattan is found in Mindanao. Thirty-seven species grow in the island, with 12 species strictly restricted in the area. No less than nine of the 14 Daemonorops species are found in the island.

Luzon boasts 31 species of rattan, five of which are strictly confined in the area. However, the genus Plectocomia is not represented in the island. Palawan, on the other hand, harbors 22 species but only four are endemic. Majority of the species are generally of Bornean elements.

Of the 66 known rattan species in the Philippines, only 12 are commercially used. These are the "palasan" (Calamus merilli), "limuran" (C. ornatus var. philippinensis), "tumalin" (C. mindorensis), "sika" (C. ramulosus), Malacca cane (C. scipionium), "lambutan" (C. halconensis), "lukuan" (C. reyesianus), "kurakling" (C. microsphaerion), "ditaan" (Daemonorops molis), and "hiyod" (D. pedicellaris).

The most profitable products are well-designed, costly furniture. A feasibility study done by the DENR showed the return on fixed investment on rattan furniture making at 2.28 while the return on total investment is 0.56. This implies that this livelihood project is lucrative.

But the future of rattan is not bright. "Rattans were once abundant in tropical forests of Asia but have become scarce in many countries today, primarily because of overexploitation and shrinking forest area," FAO notes. "Natural regeneration seems to be inadequate, and there is a general decline in the planting of rattan because of various technical, economic and policy constraints, including, for example, the long gestation period of rattan, the absence of secure tenure over resources and difficult market conditions."

Something must be done indeed. "Given rattan’s economic, ecological, and socio-cultural importance to the hundreds of millions of people in the developing world, steps must be taken to ensure its future," the FAO suggests.