African Oil Palm

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African Oil PalmElaeis guineensis

Subfamily: Arecoideae

Tribe: Cocoeae

Imagine that you are a participant on the TV quiz game “Jeopardy”.  Alex Trebeck has just given the answer to which you must provide the corresponding question: “The most heavily produced – by volume weight – oil seed crop in the world.

Your arm lashes out as you authoritatively smash the buzzer, beating your two opponents by mere nanoseconds.  You pause and then with the smallest of smug assuredness state “Alex, what is the African Oil Palm.”  You win!  

Having now determined the name of this palm, we need not guess where it originated.  In fact they came from the western part of that huge continent where they first grew between the countries of Angola and Gambia.  They were probably initially domesticated in the Nigeria area and now range between Sierra Leone, in the west, through the Democratic Republic of Congo, in the east.  Not recent to practical applications, there is evidence of the use of its palm oil in Ancient Egypt.

It is believed that late in the 1400’s European explorers “discovered” the palm – in the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, hence its Latin name – and as a result of the slave trade it was distributed throughout the world. The first African Oil Palm plantations were established on Sumatra in 1911 and in Malaysia in 1917.

Now, if a palm were ever called a “hunk”, this would be it!”  Let’s count the reasons:  One, it has a large, heavy, brawny trunk.  Two, it sports a most stately crown consisting of long fronds that can grow to more than 16’ (five meters) and last for over three years.  And, three, it is capable of growing to nearly 89’ (27 meters) high out in “the wild.”

Related to date palms and coconuts, it is a dominant, and good looking specimen in any locale.  Ours is prominently positioned on the – aptly named – Grand Terrace.   Seeming to show that its magnanimity is a great as its stature, from its large, frond stubbed, trunk thrive various air root bromeliads and a Staghorn Fern.

Beyond its obvious usefulness as a landscape palm, its oil – extracted from either its two inch (five cm) in diameter fruit or its seeds – has culinary and industrial applications.   Ninety per cent of the produced palm oil ends up in food products.  The fruit oil is edible while that of the seed is used, primarily, for soap.  Beyond these applications, the demand for palm oil has recently increased as a result of its use as a biofuel.  But, like so many things these days, this has become a rather controversial political and ecological issue. 

Back in 2003, palm oil production first equaled that of soybean which had been the number one oil crop for many years.  With average yields of around 10,000 pounds per acre it has a per acre yield of more than four-fold that of any other oil crop.  Beyond that, produced in 42 countries, with about twice the level of production of any other fruit crop, the oil palm is, far and beyond, the world’s number one fruit crop!  

Indonesia is the world’s largest producer of palm oil, with approximately 50% of the world annual volume.

While capable of handling flooding conditions for short periods, over the long haul the African Oil does not handle poorly drained soil well. Other than that, it seems to take well to a variety of soils.

Oil palms are monoecious, which means the plant produces both male and female flowers.  Closely set to the trunk, the male flowers are on short furry branches with longer female flowers – and consequently fruits – in large clusters of 200-300, close to trunk on short heavy stems.  The result of this “relationship” is a reddish fruit that takes around six months to mature from the point of pollination.  

These plum sized fruits grow densely in clusters that weigh from 88 to 110 pounds (40 – 50 kilograms) when ripe.  These individual fruits are comprised of an – not all that large –oily, fleshy outer layer with a single seed.  While by themselves the individual members of the African Oil’s offspring may be a bit smallish, clearly, as a whole they are mighty!

I know this not firsthand but from my secondary research I have read that this palm oil is supposedly an “anodyne, antidotal, aphrodisiac, diuretic, and vulnerary” and as a folk remedy good against cancer, headaches, rheumatism and as a liniment for “indolent tumors”!

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“The potential beauty of this palm is readily apparent – as seen in this juvenile specimen from our Grand Terrace.”

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The expansive, twenty five foot, fronds of ours – normal for this species – have adorned the palm for over two years.

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The thick, frond stubbed trunk of our approximately ten year old specimen is the home for air root bromeliads and a Staghorn Fern.

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“The majesty of a mature African Oil is almost awesome as seen in this magnificent specimen from the gardens of Tropical America (tropicalamerica@gmail.com)”