The Five Most Economically Beneficial Palms

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The Palm Reader

The Five Most Economically Beneficial Palms

If we seek to identify the most easily domesticated palm species which, commercially, generate the most money, they are, alphabetically, as follows:  African Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis),  Betel Nut Palm (Areca catechu), Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera), Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera), and the Peach Palm (Bactris gasipaes).

African Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis)

The African Oil Palm represents the most recently domesticated major palm. Within the past century this palm has been cultivated to increase its compressed nut oil productivity through the breeding of high-yielding hybrids.   Originating in West Africa, where it exists in wild, semi-wild and cultivated states, it now also can be found in substantial numbers in Madagascar and East Africa. It is likewise cultivated extensively in Southeast Asia and to some degree in the New World tropics. Malaysia is the leading nation in production of this vegetable oil.

Apart from being an outstanding plantation crop, the oil palm remains a multipurpose tree among local populations in Africa. It is a traditional source of cooking oil, palm wine and other useful products.  The African oil palm has potential for multipurpose utilization in those areas where it is grown on plantations.

(The American Oil Palm, (Elaeis oleifera), originating in Central and South America, is also a source of Palm Oil.),

Betel Nut Palm (Areca catechu)

Interestingly, the origin of the Betel Nut Palm is ambiguous which is further confounded by the fact that a clearly wild population of them has never been found!   We know, however, that it was supposedly introduced, from Southeast Asia, to India where it has been cultivated for as many as 3,000 years.  It is grown for its hard dried nut which contains the alkaloid arecoline that can be chewed as a narcotic, though it does have a number of more reputable medicinal uses.

India is probably the leading world producer of Betel Nut.  Its husk is used as fuel or mulch as well as a source of fiber material that is used to make hard board, paper board and pulp to be processed into paper.  The leaf sheaths have traditionally been used to make containers and can be utilized as a raw material to manufacture plyboard and, I understand, even to make disposable cups and plates.  Betel Nut Palm fronds are used for thatch with the stem wood being made into an array of products such as waste paper baskets.  To the best of my awareness, the palm heart is this palm’s only food product.

Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

Unquestionably, the most ubiquitous palm of tropical coastal areas is the Coconut. Ironically, its origin has been a matter of long debate.  However, it is now believed to have originated in Malesia (the region between Southeast Asia and Australasia) where wild types have been found.

From its origins, the coconut was dispersed both by humans and, naturally.  In that the nut will float and remain viable for three months or more it – via ocean currents – is quite the world traveler!  

When the coconut was first domesticated is unknown though it is thought that they were in India some 3,000 years ago . . . but, like the Betel Nut Palm, they may have been introduced from elsewhere.  

Perhaps the most versatile of all palms, the coconut is sometimes called the “tree of life” because of its numerous uses, both of subsistence and commercial.  Between its delicious “nut meat”, oil processed from that endosperm, the coir (fiber made from the husks, frond uses and various applications for its trunk, this can well be understood.

Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera)

This may represent the oldest domesticated palm.  It is believed to have originated in Mesopotamia (Iraq) somewhere between 5,000 to 10,000 years ago.   If from the earlier part of that period, it would make this date palm among the most ancient of all domesticated plants.   

While working in that region we were told a professional who was an agricultural consultant to the area (though I’ve not scientifically confirmed the fact) that there were well over 400 different varieties of dates in the region.  He further stated that Medjools were one of only four that were fructose – as opposed to sucrose – based, making them healthier for human consumption than the latter.

The history of this palm, recedes so far into antiquity – coupled by the fact that  the species of Phoenix has freely crossbred  (the original ‘free love’ date, I suppose) – so as to produce a plethora of hybrids, hence making it extremely unlikely that wild populations of Phoenix dactylifera will ever be found.

Peach Palm (Bactris gasipaes)

The Peach Palm (or, Pejibaye) may have originated in the southwestern portion of the Amazon Basin.  It has since been widely dispersed by humans throughout South and Central America.  Unsure which came first to human awareness and use, it was domesticated for either its mesocarp (“The middle, usually fleshy layer of a fruit wall”) starch or oil.  (Both mesocarp and endosperm are edible after being boiled.)  This palm has been under cultivation in the Americas since pre-Columbian times in an elevation ranging from from sea level to about 1,200 meters.

Beyond the previously mentioned food uses. the mesocarp pulp can be fermented into an alcoholic beverage (chicha), male flowers used as an ingredient in flavorings, leaves employed for thatching and basketry, spines finding use as needles, stem wood cut to fashion bows, arrows, fishing poles, harpoons, house flooring and paneling, and, the roots processed for medicinal use as a vermicide.