Palms for Vegetables


Possibly all palms can be used as vegetables. The principal vegetable use of the palms is for the tender growing tip, deeply enclosed in leaf bases, and removed only by destruction of the growing point and thus the trunk of the palm. It is well recognized that this material, called palm cabbage, palm heart, millionaires salad, or palmito, differs in taste and thus in value from one species to another. It is not clear if any terminal bud might be poisonous, and, in fact the record is not clear that any palm is poisonous in any manner. But, it can be possible that the irritating and obnoxious calcium oxalate crystals found in the pulp of some palm fruits might also be found in the terminal buds. Nevertheless, the question is almost irrelevant, for the destructive nature of the harvest of the tips suggests that palm cabbage should not be used except in those cases where the palm plantation is established for this purpose. Two species especially suited as palm cabbages are mentioned in this chapter. These are both species where the palm has numerous trunks and the potential of regrowth after one or more trunks have been harvested.

Rarer still are other uses of palms as vegetables. These can only be conceived when the part of the plant used is tender enough to make it edible through cooking. The young inflorescence of some palms can be used as a vegetable, the flowers and the pollen, the young fruits, and even the mature fruits, the haustorium or root ball, and even the tender pith from the trunk of some species. There are precedents in the use of all of these parts, and it is suggested here that more palms than have been noted here might have potential vegetable uses. One might hope that students of a particular palm might wish to test these potential uses.

In this chapter the vegetable uses of four palm species will be emphasized. Two of these species, the coconut (Chapter 3), and the peach palm (Chapter 5) have been discussed with respect to other uses, and will not be discussed again. Three of the species are illustrated in Fig. 5, and the multiple uses of the four are compared in Table 7.

Table 8. Multiple Uses of Four Palms Used As Vegetables






Entire palm Of very wet hot regions Widely adapted Understory, dwarf palms Hot, humid tropics
Trunks Construction Construction ----- Construction
Terminal bud Best species Edible Edible, small Edible
Leaf blade Thatch Wide uses Minor use Widely used

Mature fruit    

Fruit pulp Drinks, candies Wide uses ----- Cooked
Kernel ----- Wide uses ----- Edible
Other uses Lovely ornamental palm See Chap. 3 As parlor palms See Chap. 5

The Assai Palm

Principally in the Amazon Basin of Brazil, from the foothills to the Atlantic Ocean, the assai palm, Euterpe edulis, can be found as a carefully cherished palm vegetable. This great palm species has been exploited in the wild for so long that now it is evident that only plantations can provide a constant and renewable amount of the succulent tip, perhaps the best of the palm cabbages. Because this palm has multiple trunks and sprout readily, it can be managed in a non-destructive fashion. Assai palms are tall, thin, delicate trunks with a crown of long, outreaching pinnate leaves with drooping leaflets. The flowering clusters are development below the crownshaft (leafbase encircling the trunk), and are equally delicate, many branched and open, later hanging as thick clusters with numerous large-marble purple, or rarely white fruits. This palm requires lots of water, constant moisture, and is often seen in flooded lands along the rivers, but can also be found in fields and gardens where flooding never occurs. High temperature is also a growth requirement. This palm is difficult to produce outside of the region where it grows naturally.

From the pulp of the ripe fruit, pounded and pressed, and then extracted with hot water, comes a purplish liquid which is absorbed by the flour made from cassava, farinha, and then dried as an excellent, easily marketable candy-like confection called vinho. The trunks are cut in abundance for the cabbage, which is marketed fresh or is canned for local sale and for export. All other uses are incidental. But, the beauty of this palm in gardens is also a treasured asset.

The Coconut Palm

Because the coconut has been discussed in detail in Chapter 3, it will not be considered again except to point out here its vegetable uses. When trunks are cut for one reason or other, the cabbage is always eaten for it is of high quality. The root ball of the germinating seed is a second appreciated vegetable use.

The Pacaya Palm

Throughout Central America and Mexico there are 50 or more species of small understory palms, Chamaedorea, quite variable in form and in size. This is the genus of the so-called parlor palms, frequently sold as household ornamentals because of their elegant appearance, slow growth, tolerance of shade and of indoor conditions. A number of these species, including C. elegans, C. graminifolia, C. sartortii, and C. tepejilote are used for the still unopened male inflorescence. Growing rapidly, and thus still tender, it is removed in season and sold on local markets. Sometimes compared to asparagus in taste and quality, the tender tissues are usually boiled first, used alone as a vegetable dish or prepared with other foods, such as scrambled eggs and stir-fry combinations. This is a vegetable with great appeal and one that could be commercialized on a larger scale. The species C. tepijilote is especially desirable as it is the largest, most productive and has the reputation of the best pacaya.

The Peach Palm

While the peach palm or pejibaye (see Chapter 5 for more detailed information) is best known for its fruits, which are a significant item of the diet, or even a staple food in some cultures during some seasons, nevertheless, another vegetable use is as a palm cabbage. In practice palms that are unproductive of fruits are frequently cut for this purpose, but in addition many of the palms are multiple trunked. These are especially satisfactory for the establishment of plantations for the cabbage. However, such establishment has been impeded by the difficulty of growing them from suckers. Removal of the young trunks and their survival is difficult due to their intimate attachment to the mother palm and frequently to lack of separate roots. Work is now being done to fine other ways of vegetatively propagating the peach palm.

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