Most ratans differ from other palms in having slender stems, 2–5 cm diameter, with long internodes between the leaves; also, they are not trees but are vine-like, scrambling through and over other vegetation. Rattans are also superficially similar to bamboo. Unlike bamboo, rattan stems ("malacca") are solid, and most species need structural support and cannot stand on their own. However, some genera (e.g. Metroxylon, Pigafetta, Raphia) are more like typical palms, with stouter, erect trunks. Many rattans have spines which act as hooks to aid climbing over other plants, and to deter herbivores. Rattans have been known to grow up to hundreds of metres long. Most (70%) of the world's rattan population exist in Indonesia, distributed among Borneo, Sulawesi, Sumbawa islands. The rest of the world's supply comes from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Bangladesh.
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. 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. It remains to be seen whether rattan can be as profitable or useful as the alternatives.
Generally, raw rattan is processed into several products to be used as materials in furniture making. The various species of rattan range from several millimetres up to 5–7 cm in diameter. From a strand of rattan, the skin is usually peeled off, to be used as rattan weaving material. The remaining "core" of the rattan can be used for various purposes in furniture making. Rattan is a very good material mainly because it is lightweight, durable, and—to a certain extent—flexible.
Rattans are threatened with overexploitation, as harvesters are cutting stems too young and reducing their ability to resprout. Unsustainable harvesting of rattan can lead to forest degradation, affecting overall forest ecosystem services. Processing can also be polluting. The use of toxic chemicals and petrol in the processing of rattan affects soil, air and water resources, and also ultimately people's health. Meanwhile, the conventional method of rattan production is threatening the plant's long-term supply, and the income of workers.
Rattans are extensively used for making furniture and baskets. When cut into sections, rattan can be used as wood to make furniture. Rattan accepts paints and stains like many other kinds of wood, so it is available in many colours; and it can be worked into many styles. Moreover, the inner core can be separated and worked into wicker.
Handicraft and arts
Many of the properties of rattan that make it suitable for furniture also make it a popular choice for handicraft and art pieces. Uses include rattan baskets, plant containers and other decorative works.
Due to its durability and resistance to splintering, sections of rattan can be used as staves or canes for martial arts— 70 cm-long rattan sticks, called baston, are used in Filipino martial arts, especially Modern Arnis and Eskrima and for the striking weapons in the Society for Creative Anachronism's full-contact "heavy combat".
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.
Food source and medicinal potential
The fruit of some rattans exudes a red resin called dragon's blood. This resin was thought to have medicinal properties in antiquity and was also used as a dye for violins, among other things. The resin normally results in a wood with a light peach hue. In the Indian state of Assam, the shoot is also used as vegetable.
Thin rattan canes were the standard implement for school corporal punishment in England and Wales, and are still used for this purpose in schools in Singapore, Malaysia and several African countries - and similar canes are used for military punishments in the Singapore Armed Forces,
In early 2010, scientists in Italy announced that rattan wood would be used in a new "wood to bone" process for the production of artificial bone. The process takes small pieces of rattan and places it in a furnace. Calcium and carbon are added. The wood is then further heated under intense pressure in another oven-like machine and a phosphate solution is introduced. This process produces almost an exact replica of bone material. The process takes about 10 days. At the time of the announcement the bone was being tested in sheep and there had been no signs of rejection. Particles from the sheep's bodies have migrated to the "wood bone" and formed long continuous bones. The new bone-from-wood programme is being funded by the European Union. Implants into humans are anticipated to start in 2015.
- Rattan, Furniture. "Rattan Furniture". Retrieved 24 December 2011.
- MacKinnon, K. (1998) Sustainable use as a conservation tool in the forests of South-East Asia. Conservation of Biological Resources (E.J. Milner Gulland & R Mace, eds), pp 174–192. Blackwell Science, Oxford.
- "WWF Rattan Switch project". WWF. July 2010. Retrieved 16 July 2010.
- "What is the SCA?". Society for Creative Anachronism, Inc. Retrieved 14 July 2012. "Since we prefer that no one gets hurt, SCA combatants wear real armor and use rattan swords."
- "Marshals' Handbook". Society for Creative Anachronism. March 2007 revision. Retrieved 16 March 2010.
- All About Rattan at Rattancraft.com.
- "Rattan" at Encyclopedia.com.
- Singapore: Caning in the military forces at World Corporal Punishment Research (includes a photograph of a military caning in progress).
- Judicial caning in Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei at World Corporal Punishment Research.
- Jaqueline M. Piper, Bamboo and rattan, traditional uses and beliefs, Oxford Univ Press, 1995, ISBN 978-0195889987
- "Turning wood into bones". BBC News. 8 January 2010. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
- Siebert, Stephen F. 2012. The Nature and Culture of Rattan: Reflections on Vanishing Life in the Forests of Southeast Asia. University of Hawai'i Press. ISBN 978-0-8248-3536-1