Rattans are climbing palms that provide the raw material for the cane-furniture industry. Sometimes confused with bamboo, canes can usually be distinguished because they are solid, whereas bamboos are almost always hollow. Although there are some climbing palms in the New World, the true rattans are restricted to the Old World tropics and subtropics. They are particularly abundant in South-east Asia and the Malay Archipelago. Over 600 different species belonging to 13 genera have been recognised. Their major habitat is tropical rain forest, where in much of South-east Asia they represent the most important forest product after timber. The trade in rattans and canes is thought to be worth about £3 billion annually. The trade is labour intensive, and as it involves some of the poorest people in the community, is of great social significance.

Rattans have long and very flexible stems that need support. In favourable conditions some species will grow to very great lengths. The longest cane ever recorded was over 175 m long. Some species are single-stemmed while others are multi-stemmed, single-stemmed species providing a single harvest while the multi-stemmed species can be harvested sustainably.

Surrounding the stem are sheathing leaf bases which are nearly always fiercely spiny, the spines sometimes arranged in neat rows and interlocking to form galleries in which ants make their nests, providing extra protection to an already well protected plant. This may prevent animals from feeding on the tender growing point (or 'cabbage'), hidden within the leaf-sheaths. As well as the sheath spines, rattans usually have whips, either on the leaf sheaths or at the ends of the leaves. These whips are armed with grouped, grapnel-like spines and play a major role in supporting the rattan as it climbs into the forest canopy. It is these terrible whips and spines that make the scientific collection of rattans so unpleasant and are in part responsible for making this a poorly studied and still only partially understood group of plants.