Massive, solitary, armed, pleonanthic, dioecious, tree palms. Stem erect, becoming very tall, with conspicuous nodal scars, internodes glossy, green in distal areas, becoming brown with age, usually bearing abundant, somewhat spine-like, adventitious roots near the base, the cortex very hard, pith soft. Leaves pinnate, strongly curved, abscising neatly in trunked individuals; sheath splitting opposite the petiole, bearing a tattered ligule around the mouth or two conspicuous auricles, the sheath unarmed at the very base, distally armed abaxially with low collars bearing abundant soft flexible spines, both sheath surface and spines with a dense caducous felt of tomentum; petiole (true petiole) absent (P. filaris) or massive (P. elata), channelled adaxially, rounded and armed like the sheath abaxially; rachis angled adaxially, rounded and armed with sparse collars and spines abaxially; leaflets single-fold, numerous, regularly arranged, curving, slender, elongate, acuminate, armed with short marginal bristles and long bristles on the main veins, midribs large, one other pair of large veins evident, transverse veinlets sinuous, moderately conspicuous. Inflorescences axillary, interfoliar at anthesis, sometimes becoming infrafoliar after abscission of the subtending leaf, ± horizontal, tending to diverge obliquely from the plane of the leaf, branched to 2 orders; prophyll tightly sheathing, with 2 triangular limbs and dense caducous indumentum; peduncular bracts (ca. 8), tubular, in the staminate inflorescence somewhat inflated, with short triangular limbs and dense caducous indumentum; rachis much longer than the peduncle; rachis bracts subtending pendulous first-order branches, partly adnate to the primary axis above the bract; first-order branches with a tightly sheathing prophyll and numerous tubular bracts each subtending a ± pendulous rachilla; flower-bearing part of the rachilla exserted from the bracts on a bare flattened basal stalk; rachilla prophyll minute, 2-keeled, empty, borne at the distal end of the rachilla stalk; rachilla bracts minute, membranous, striate, triangular, in the staminate inflorescence subtending a dyad of fertile staminate flowers, and in the pistillate subtending a single fertile pistillate flower; bracteoles in both sexes minute, obscured by a deep pile of crowded hairs. Staminate flowers symmetrical; calyx striate, cupular, with 3 very shallow lobes; corolla exceeding the calyx, tubular at the base, divided distally into 3 striate, narrow, triangular valvate lobes; stamens 6, borne at the mouth of the corolla tube, the filaments adnate laterally in a low ring, the anthers elongate, somewhat sagittate, apparently latrorse; pistillode minute. Pollen grains spheroidal, symmetric; inaperturate; ectexine tectate to semitectate, reticulate with frequently interrupted, angular or spinulose muri; infratectum columellate; longest axis 29–36 µm [2/2]. Pistillate flowers ± globose; calyx cupular with 3 very short lobes, later splitting; corolla divided ± to the base into 3 broad triangular lobes; staminodes 6, united by their filaments into a short ring with 6 narrow lobes bearing flattened empty sagittate anthers; gynoecium incompletely trilocular, triovulate, globose, covered in reflexed scales, stigmas 3, short, reflexed, ovules anatropous, basally attached. Fruit relatively very small, ovoid, single-seeded; epicarp covered in neat vertical rows of reflexed scales, mesocarp thin, endocarp thin, not differentiated. Seed basally attached, laterally somewhat flattened, covered in thick sweet sarcotesta, endosperm homogeneous with very shallow depressions and laterally with a shallow pit; embryo lateral, opposite the pit. Germination adjacent-ligular; eophyll bifid, with very narrow leaflets and softly spiny petiole. Cytology: 2n = 28.
Massive, elegant, solitary tree palms of the Sulawesi, Moluccas and New Guinea; sheaths, rachis and leaflet margins armed with soft spines; the palms are pleonanthic and dioecious, with inflorescences interfoliar, sometimes becoming infrafoliar in fruit; fruits are remarkably small in comparison with those of other Calamoideae.
Pigafetta elata seems to behave as a pioneer palm of disturbed habitats in the mountains, where it is most abundant between 300 and 1500 m. It grows on old landslips, old lava flows and river banks, and also seems to colonise cultivated land reverting to secondary forest. Seedlings appear to require high light intensities. Pigafetta filaris also seems to be a pioneer species, but rather less is known of its behaviour in the wild. Both species have very small seeds for the size of the palm; that of P. elata shows staggered germination. These are the tallest recorded palm species in the Asian tropics, individuals sometimes reaching 50 m in height; both are also very fast growing (see Dransfield 1976b).