Betel Nut Palm

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Betel Nut Palm, Areca catechu

Family: Arecaceae

Also known as: Areca Nut or Pinang Palm

Remember Bloody Mary, that wonderful, extraverted native character in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s wonderful movie musical “South Pacific” played by Juanita Hall, with the actual singing by Muriel Smith?

If so, you may recall that she had red teeth and gums from chewing on a quid of Betel nut. In one of the many, great songs from that show, she was “serenaded” by the character actor Ray Walston – who later played one of the leads in the TV series “My Favorite Martian”.

(“OK. enough of the inane trivia that few will recall, do get on with it Tommy,” I believe I heard!)

“Why in the world,” you may ask, “did she do that?” Before answering, let’s regress a bit.

The chewing of Betel Nut goes back quite some time – all the way to the 1st century AD where early Sanskrit writings purported that the betel nut possessed “13 qualities found in the region of heaven”. It was said to “expel wind, kill worms, remove phlegm, subdue bad odors, beautify the mouth, induce purification, and kindle passion.” Sure, and snuff and chewing tobacco really enhancing soulful kissing I’m sure!

It can cause some of the same stimulating effects as tobacco or caffeine, such as “alertness, increased stamina, a sense of well-being, euphoria, and stimulates of the flow of saliva to aid digestion” as well as enhancing the appetite.

But this piece is supposed to be about “Planting Roots” so, before returning to the chemical properties and use of the Betel Nut, with an eye to determining whether one would fit well into your lawn or garden, let’s briefly discuss the plant itself.

While the original habitat of the Areca catechu is unknown, it is naturalized in India, Southeast Asia, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and assorted South Pacific islands.

Though, in its natural environs, its trunk can reach up to 100 feet (30.5 meters), under cultivation it normally only achieves about half that height. Width-wise, the head of an older specimen is usually around twelve feet (3.6 meters). It is rather wind resistant but the leaves, obviously, will become tattered after a “big blow”. Its smallish – eight to twelve inches in diameter (20-30.5 cm) – trunk, with prominent whitish rings, is a deep green with the very oldest being a more grayish color.

Its lovely, three foot tall, smooth, bright green crownshaft has a slight bulge near its base. The stiffly arching, mature leaves are around eight feet (2.5 meters) long with forty or more shiny green leaflets standing proudly at a 45-degree angle form the rachis (frond shaft) in a V-shape.

These palms are monoecious (male and female flowers on each inflorescence). The flowers that emerge are small, white and fragrant with the ultimate fruits being yellowish to red, one to two inches long (2.5 – 5 cm) and egg shaped.

A bit tolerant of salt spray, the Betel Nut Palm likes partial shade to full sun, absolutely loves water and is a fast grower in rich, humusy, well-draining, acidic soil.

It is best planted in in a group of varying heights to create, in the words of the tropical palm tree master, Robert Lee Riffle, “a veritable symphony of form and color because of the splash of leaves and the gorgeous, straight dark green trunks.

In that they grow so fast they are not candidates for house plants but might be employed in large atriums. But beware! A few nurseries have been known to market these as miniature coconuts while such, most certainly, is not the case. (I know this for sure as, early on, I once got so fooled when ordering seeds of palms I couldn’t otherwise get down here!)

Now, back to Betel Nut munching. In that it has a mild narcotic effect, native folks have long chewed on them (mixed with its leaves and/or those of the pepper vines (Piper methysticum) along with lime juice) to achieve a “high” and stain their teeth.

Though in the short term – cosmetics aside – it appears to help alleviate the pain of those inflicted with tooth and gun disorders, there are those additional, “small” downsides such as the documented reaction of DNA damage and hurtful effects to the fetus of pregnant women, incidence of metabolic syndrome, cause of cancer in cells (in animal experiments), association of pre-cancerous changes in the mouth, throat, laryngeal, and esophageal cancer.

Given all that, culinarily, I’d lean to the side on non-use!

Betel Nut Palm IMG_5370

The stiffly arching, mature leaves are around eight feet (2.5 meters) long with forty or more shiny green leaflets standing proudly at a 45-degree angle form the rachis (frond shaft) in a V-shape.

Betal Nut Palm IMG_5372

The newer trunk is a beautiful banded green with fruit soon to set on up above.

Betal Nut Palm IMG_5374

The more mature trunk, lower to the base is more grayish in color.