Overstory #6 - Introduction to Multipurpose Palms
Among the plants of the Tropics it is difficult to find a family of plants of more service to people than the palm family (Palmae, Arecaceae). In fact, this family has been called the most versatile of all due to its many uses. Palms seldom receive the recognition they merit, perhaps because the family is almost entirely of the tropics, and almost completely absent in temperate zones where there are more writers of books and magazines as well as researchers. This article aims to stimulate readers to grow and use palms with the belief that these plants can be of much, much more service.
Records Involving Palms
Palms beat records in many ways, as follows:
- Most versatile plant family in total uses: Palmae
- Most versatile plant family in food uses: Palmae
- World's longest woody vines: Rattan palms
- World's longest leaves: Raffia palms (over 10 meters)
- World's longest inflorescence: Talipot palm
- World's largest seed: Double coconut (Coco-de-Mer)
- World's hardest seed: Ivory palm
- World's tallest palm: Ceroxylon (65 meters)
- World's single best starch source: Metroxylon
- Most versatile plant in the world: Coconut palm
- Most versatile plant in the world: Coconut palm
The Uses of Palms Around the World
How are palms used around the world? It might take considerable study to find all the ways. More than 800 uses have been recorded for the date palm alone, for it is the very foundation of life for several cultures. One might divide the uses into three classes: for ecological purposes, for food, and for other uses.
Palms are seldom used purposely for ecological purposes, yet they play a great role in the ecology of the tropical forest, for they are, in size, from small and almost insignificant understory plants to large and dominating beauties of the forest. They are shelter for numerous birds and small animals. In the axils of the old leaves other plants such as ferns, orchids, and bromeliads grow, and their unique insects are many in number. Palms are principal sources of food for many birds and mammals, serving an important ecological function.
Almost all parts of the palm can be used as food in some cases, as shown below. The three most common food uses are of the sap, the accumulated starch, or the growing tip. The tapping of the inflorescence (flower cluster) or the apex of the palm yields sap, which can be made into a fresh drink, or fermented into toddy, or then distilled into a drink called arrack. The sap can also be boiled to yield palm sugar, or jaggery. The accumulated starch is harvested from the trunk of mature palms, and becomes not only a staple food but an industrial product as well. The third common use is of the growing tip hidden among the bases of the leaves. The tender tip, eaten raw or cooked, is frequently called millionaire's salad. Harvesting the tip destroys the trunk, and thus the best species for this purpose are those with multiple trunks. The above general uses are shared by many, many species of palms. In contrast, the edible qualities of the inflorescence, the flower, the pollen, the fruit pulp, and the nut inside vary with each species and it is difficult to be sure of these uses without careful trial.
The Edible Uses of Palms
- From sap: toddy, wine, vinegar, arrack, sugar, jaggery
- From bud: palm cabbage
- From flower cluster: cooked vegetable, candied flowers, pollen, bee nectar
From fruit pulp: fresh, cooked or candied, mixed in drinks, in "vinho", fermented for palm wine
- Extraction of fruit: For cooking oil and medicine
- From nut: fresh for drinking, raw or roasted, as drug or stimulant
- Germinated seed: For edible root ball
- From trunk: Sago for starch
- From roots: Medicines
Other uses of the palms
The principal non-food uses of palms are summarized below. One very important use is for construction. Because the trunks and leaves may be long, they often contain tough fibers that are quite useful. The trunks, entire or cut into planks, and the petioles as well as the rib of the leaf are often used to support buildings, or as a framework, or even as floors. The leaves are woven in many ways to make useful mats and are often used in thatching of walls and roofs. Very thin trunks of vine-like palms are the sources of rattan used in furniture.
Useful wax is removed from some species, from the trunk, the mature leaves or even the young, unfolded leaves. This is an article of commerce such as carnauba wax. The fibers can be removed by hand after retting (partial rotting in water), or by hand techniques. Many woody parts of the plants are used for making charcoal. But, this is not all, for native peoples have found ways to use even the thorns of some species. Finally, some plant parts, especially the foliage, but also the trunks of some starchy palms are used for animal feed, especially during drought.
Other useful products of the palms:
Trunks: As timbers, planks, fiber, rattan, charcoal, starch for pig feed
Fronds or leaves: For fences, thatching, weaving, arrow shafts, fiber, wax, fodder, to write on
Thorns: Arrow tips
Fruit: Husks for fiber
Nut shells: Utensils, or for charcoal
Oils: Soap making
Thus, the uses of palms are highly varied, and the cultures that depend on palms have discovered many uses for them.
Excerpted from Multipurpose Palms You Can Grow: Twenty of the World's Best, by Dr. Franklin W. Martin, publication pending.
Dennis V. Johnson's recent publication covers the multiple uses of palms in great detail: Non-wood forest products: tropical palms. Non-Wood Forest Products Vol. 10, FAO, Bangkok. 165 pp. 1997.
Bill Mollison's The Palms, is a booklet covering palms from a permaculture perspective. Order through Permaculture International Journal, PO Box 6039, South Lismore, NSW 2480, Australia, Tel: +61 66 220020, Fax: +61 66 220579.
Natalie Uhl and John Dransfield, Genera Palmarum, A classification of palms based on the work of Harold E. Moore Jr. 1987. 600 pages, 400 Illustrations. Published by the International Palm Society and the L.H. Bailey Hortorium at Cornell University. This comprehensive treatment of all genera of palms includes ethnobotanical information. Order from the Palm Society.
David L. Jones and John Dransfield, Palms Throughout the World, 1995. Comprehensive guide to world palms, including economic uses.
David H. Romney, Growing Coconuts in South Florida, a comprehensive guide to growing the world's most useful palm. D. Romney, 26021 S.W. 199th Ave., Homestead, FL 33031, USA
Mail-Order Sources for Palm Books
The International Palm Society Bookstore -- many palm references, and several covering traditional uses. Geoff Stein, 1196 Calle Jazmin, Thousand Oaks CA 91360. Tel. 805-494-4534. E-mail
A source of out-of-print palm books: Dennis V. Johnson, 3726 Middlebrook Ave., Cincinnati OH 45208. tel/fax: 513-631-8766.
Related Editions to The Overstory
- The Overstory #59--Choosing Species for Timber Production and Multiple Benefits
- The Overstory #54--The Agroforester's Library, Part Two--Species
- The Overstory #53--Nontimber Forest Products-An Introduction
- The Overstory #32--Multipurpose Windbreaks
- The Overstory #31--Tree Domestication
- The Overstory #30--Bamboos in Agroforestry
- The Overstory #16--Multipurpose Trees