Palms for Oil


Oil is a common constituent of seeds in general and all of the world's great sources of oil are from seed. It should be no surprise that in the palms, when seeds are large and abundant, there should be large quantities of oil. Oil as part of the fruit is not frequent, but the avocado, for example, is an exception. among the palms many if not most contain oil in the pulp of the fruit as well as in the seed. Thus, among the palms there are hundreds of species that have sufficient oil in the seed and/or the fruit pulp to make them good if not commercial sources of oil. Native cultures often use palm species for oil that are not mentioned in this chapter. Whether a particular species is used as a commercial oil source depends not only on the amount of oil per fruit or per plant, but to some degree on other cultural, social and economic factors.

Quality of oil as food depends principally on the amounts of saturated fatty acids in the oil. Palm oils, like animal fats, contain large amounts of these undesirable fatty acids, much more than the common oils from corn, soy, sunflower, peanut, etc. Among people who tend to get too much fat in the diet, Americans, for instance, it is better to limit the intake of palm oils. Nevertheless, palm oils enjoy in the United States and elsewhere a tremendous market for their uses in foods, in margarine and cooking fats, and they are included in many baked and elaborated products. On an international scale, palm oils are common cooking oils in many millions of households. In addition, palm oils have many industrial uses and the market for these oils is very old and stable.

Two species of palms dominate the market for palm oils, the African oil palm and the coconut. However, there are many more species of palms, principally wild but sometimes cultivated on a small scale, especially in Tropical America, that could become of great international importance except for the dominating role of the previous two species. They are still of great importance in some regions. These palms all have other uses, of course, and in some the several important uses make it difficult to judge which is indeed the principal uses of a particular species.

In figure 7 four oil palms are illustrated. In Table 9 the other uses of these palms are also mentioned.







Entire palm Of very wet hot regions Widely adapted Wild in the wet tropics Hot, humid tropics
Trunks The trunks of all these palms are used in construction.      
Terminal bud The terminal buds are edible in each species listed.      
Leaf blade The leaves of all species are used in thatch, weaving.      
Inflorescence The inflorescence of all can be used as a source of sap.      

Mature fruit    

Fruit pulp Oily, seldom eaten Multiple uses As flour Edible
Kernel Not eaten Wide uses Not eaten Edible

The African Oil Palm

The African oil palm is surpassed in importance as an oil source \ only by the soy bean. From its origin in West Africa, this oil palm has traveled to and been made an important crop in practically all parts of the tropics where it has been hybridized and selected to develop very fine varieties. It is adapted to the hot, humid tropics and does well in constantly humid soils. While the original species was quite variable, modern varieties are stout palms, robust, with persistent leaf bases. They begin to produce their fruits at a very early stage, and produce large numbers of compact inflorescences held very close to the trunk. The palms are not exceptionally tall, but they are dense, casting a heavy shade. The ground below is frequently planted to shade tolerant legumes as ground covers.

The oil when extracted by primitive methods is rich in carotene, provitamin A. Commercially the oil is extracted from the fruit and from the nut by steam and pressure. The refined oil is an item of international commerce, used in food for cooking, for margarine, and baked products, and in industry for soaps, candles, plastics, and other products.

The Coconut palm

Because the coconut palm is considered in detail in Chapter 3, only a few specific remarks are appropriate here. The coconut is the second most important palm as an oil source and far outshines any competitor. The oil is removed from the dried kernel, called copra. Production of copra is a traditional industry in many tropical sites that have no other export crops. Coconut oils are also produced domestically in several ways. They are important in cooking and baking, and have many other household and industrial uses.

The Babassu palm

Among the many wild palms that produce oil and that are exploited at least on a small scale, none is more important than babassu, Orbignya barbosiana (O. speciosa, O. martiana) of Brazil. While only now entering cultivation as a response to the fact that wild stands are limited, the exploitation of this palm from the wild is an old story. But, even from the wild, babassu ranks as the 3rd most important oil palm of the world.

Babassu is an large, impressive palm with tall, straight, strong and wide trunk, long, pinnate, mostly upright leaves, large inflorescences followed by large, heavy clusters of large fruits, rich in oil. The fruits are collected when the bunch begins to ripen and are pressed for the yellowish oil. This is used as a household oil and is exported in quantity.

Babassu is one of those palms with many uses, almost a life supporting species. The old trunks are useful for cellulose and paper. The large petioles and midribs of the leaves, and the blades as well have numerous uses in construction and weaving. The terminal bud is edible, but more often it is tapped, in lieu of the inflorescence for its multiple purpose sap. the bract around the inflorescence is used as a household scoop or container. The skin or epicarp of the fruit contains useful fibers. The mesocarp or pulp is starchy and is ground as flour. The shell of the nut is hard and makes good small containers. And, the kernel itself is used for oil.

The Murumuru and other Wild Palms

The murumuru palm, Astrocaryum murumur, is just one of many palms of the American tropics used for oil and for the many purposes so adequately discussed in this handbook. These palms vary in importance from place to place in tropical America, and are cherished by local peoples for their contributions to local well being. Any one of them might have potentials for broader usage, but would require domestication, selection, systematic development of techniques of cultivation. The most important of these wild palms are:


glaucophylla Catala Brazil
mexicana Coyal Mexico, Guatemala
slerocarpa Macauaba South America, Caribbean
totai Mbocaya Brazil, Paraguay


aculeatum Aguire British Guyana
jaurari Jauary Brazil
macrocarpum Tucumassu Brazil
murumuru Murumuru Brazil
princeps Tucumassu Brazil
tucuma Tucum Brazil
vulgare Tucuma Northern South America


oleifera American oil palm Tropical America


bataua Patawa Brazil and Venezuela


bacaba Bacaba Brazil
distichus Bacaba Brazil
minor Bacabai Brazil
multicaulis Bacaba mirim Brazil


cohune Cohune MexicO, Central America
excelsa Uracuri Brazil
spectabilis Carua Northern South America


costaricense   West Costa Rica
macrocarpa   Brazil

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