Palms for Staple Food


As a boy I learned that bread is the staff of life, a life-sustaining food containing moat of the nutrients humankind requires. Yet, as a man I now know the strengths and weaknesses of bread as a food. Much nearer to a staff of life are many of the palms. Because of their multiple uses they can come near to supplying not only the food humankind needs, but shelter as well, and many useful articles around the house. Frequently they are a useful feed for animals as well. Thus, these can be called life sustaining palms.

Only a few of the many palms with multiple purposes are in fact life sustaining. This is because many have never been developed for their potentialities. usually the palm that is life sustaining is widely adapted within a certain region. People of diverse cultures have learned to use these palms for many purposes. There is a certain similarity in the uses to which these vital palms are put, yet each is unique as well, in origin, distribution, appearance, and in some of its uses.

The uses of 5 palms (Fig. 2, 3), each life sustaining in certain distinct regions, are emphasized here (Table 5).

Table 5. Edible And Other Uses Of Five Palms*

  Date Palmyra Doum Buriti
Entire palm Sand stabilization Elephant trails Arid forests Marks water
Trunks All trunks used as wood subatitutea in construction.      
Roots Roots of only minor or medicinal uses.      
Terminal bud The terminal buds of all are sometimes used as salad.      
Leaf blade All are used in thatching, weaving, construction.      
Useful fibers Several Leaf, sheath Primitive Strong
Inflorescence All are used for sap, toddy, and sugar, or more.      

Immature fruit

Pulp Cooked Cooked Edible ----
Kernel ---- Edible Jelly Edible ----

Mature fruit

Fruit pulp Edible Edible raw Edible Preserves
Kernel Edible ---- As ivory For oil
Germinating ---- As vegetable ---- Edible

* The coconut is not included in this table because of more adequate coverage in table 4 of chapter 3.

The coconut palm

Because Chapter 3 is dedicated to the coconut, this important palm will not be discussed again except to remind everyone that this is the best palm of all, the most versatile and useful.

The date palm

The date palm, Phoenix dactylifera, with its strong upright trunk, its long pinnate leaves, and its heavy clusters of fruit is a sure sign of the richness of the desert. With an origin in Mesopotamia (Iraq), the date has become a virtual staff of life for the desert regions of North Africa and the Near East, and has been introduced successfully to other countries with similar climates. Yet, its great importance is confined to its original areas of distribution. Date palms require a hot, dry area for producing and maturing their fruits, and while quite adept at retrieving water from the soil, they are always found around oases, streams, wells, or irrigation canals. Date palms are dioecious, and thus the male must always be nearby. While pollinated by wind, it is advantageous to attach part of the male inflorescence to the female to insure adequate pollination. By a phenomenon known as metaxenia, the male parent, through its pollen, influences many characteristics of the fruit including earliness and size. Successful date culture is having the right climate, the right varieties, and the right techniques.

While the fruit types are classified as soft, medium dry, and dry, there are many varieties used in different ways, and prepared for different purposes. Four stages of maturation are recognized, and even at the second stage, green, immature fruits, the fruits are edible cooked. The seeds as well, small as they are, can be cracked and eaten. For some people, dates may be the moat important and frequently eaten fruit throughout the entire year. Because the trees themselves are so important, they are never sacrificed for the edible cabbage or terminal bud, but the inflorescence or apical region may be tapped for the sap, used for its many uses.

The palmyra palm

Another giant of arid regions, the palmyra palm, sometimes called the African fan palm, Borassus aethiopicum (B. flabellifer, two closely related or perhaps identical species), is dioecious, upright, stout, with tremendous costa-palmate leaves and clusters of large fruits. Its unusual swollen trunk is sometimes hollowed out as a storage place. Usually near the sea or in coastal valleys, it is found on the edges of desert regions from East Africa and India to Indonesia, both wild and planted by local peoples who depend for their welfare on this palm.

While the pulp of the immature fruit is eaten cooked, or of the mature, raw, it is the sap which is of special value, and its techniques of collection have been developed to an art, and its purposes are multiple. In India the principal use is as palm sugar, jaggery. The kernel of the young nut is edible, as is the germinating nut. While the cabbage is edible, to eat it would mean eliminating a very valuable tree. A very unusual use is of sections of the leave, used to write on with a stylus, and these are then bound as books. Used in construction and weaving as well as fuel are very typical of those of other palms.

The Doum Palm

The doum or gingerbread palm, Hyphaene thebaica, is a dioecious, usually branched palm of 2, 4, 8, or 16 heads of fan-shaped leaves. It occurs as dense, fire-resistant forests of coastal arid regions from East Africa to India. While it is propagated from seeds, which take a very long time to become eatablished, it can also be planted from suckers originating at the base.

The vegetative parts of the doum palm, trunk and leaves, are used much as are those of other palms in weaving and construction. In addition, the young, still not unfolded leaves are used for weaving versatile mats. The sap obtained from tapping the apex of the palm has the usual multiple purpose, but its use is prohibited in some countries because of the alcoholic toddy. The fruit pulp has the smell of gingerbread, hence one name of the palm. It is used in cooking in various ways, and varieties differ in their edibility. While the unripe kernel is edible, the ripe kernel is too hard and used only as a vegetable ivory.

To the peoples of the deserts where doum palms are found, this palm is a life-sustaining blessing.

The Buriti Palm

The buriti palm, also with several other names in Spanish and Portuguese, Mauritia vinifera or M. flexuosa, is a palm of the Amazon basin and of the humid regions to the south. A tall palm with palmately divided leaves, it requires a large space, about 30 feet apart, and a constantly humid soil. It bears large, long clusters of fruit, each about 2 inches long, the individual fruits covered with scales. This palm, and several related to it, is a life sustaining palm in Brazil. It is used from the wild, but also now cultivated in plantations.

In addition to the typical uses of the vegetative parts in construction and weaving, this palm is especially useful for its foods. The sap is especially good for its typical uses. The pulp of the fruit is delicious, used fresh, in candies and other confections, and in drinks. The kernel of the nut is large and has a high content of useful oil.

Thus, it is a surprise to find so many similarities in uses among the five life sustaining palms considered, and one wonders how many other such palms there might be, especially in the humid tropics, that need only thoughtful attention to become important crops for humankind.

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