Palms for Drinks, Sugar and Starch


The energy stored in the palm for its life processes, especially flower and fruit production, can be used for humankind in the form of refreshing drinks, sugar, and starch. The initial products of photosynthesis are easily moved from place to place in the plant, and are converted to starch in the trunks for storage. When the energy stored in the starch is needed, it is converted to simple sugars again and then transported in the sap to where it is needed. The sap is removed by stimulating its flow from a site where it is much used, such as near the terminal bud or in the growing inflorescence. Sometimes this is done simply by tapping the source, making a cut from which the sap flows, but more often some damage is done, such as beating the inflorescence, and then cutting a little each day to keep the sap flowing.

The sap that is removed contains 5 to 15 percent sugar, and, as contaminants, wild yeasts which will ferment it rapidly. Fresh, it is used as a drink, or mixed in other foods. 0r the sap can be boiled to prepare a brown sugar, jaggery. The latter is much used in foods but spoils readily. Fermented sap produces first alcohol, and then acetic acid, vinegar. Alcoholic toddy can be distilled to obtain the fiery arrack, much prized as a hard liquor. After fermentation, the yeast can be removed from the sediment and used in baking.

Starch is obtained by cutting the palm and opening the trunk, where the soft wood is completely penetrated with starch. The starch and wood flakes are removed by beating or grinding, and the fine mixture obtained is separated in water. The starch sinks, the wood floats, and soluble substances stay in solution. Washing the starch in this fashion several times results in a very fine, almost pure product. The wet starch is dried in the sun and then ground, or is dried on a hot plate over a fire to produce starch pearls, such as tapioca. The starch is cooked in numerous native dishes, often as a principal food for survival.

The uses of 5 palms for drinks, sugar and starch are emphasized here (Table 7). Four of the five palms featured in this chapter are shown in part in Fig. 5. There are hundreds of other species of palms used in very similar ways and which are vary valuable in some situations.

Table 7. Multiple Uses Of Five Drink, Sugar, And Starch Palms







Entire palm Stabilizes
soil ground
Dense in
Solitary Commonly
Trunks ----- These trunks can all be used for sago.      
Fibers ----- Excellent ----- Stiff used as stylus Fine fiber from sheath
Terminal bud ----- Edible ----- Intoxicate Edible
Leaf blade Weaving Construct Thatching Construct. Construct.
Inflorescence Accessible Toddy from term. bud ----- Excellent Excellent

Young fruit     

Pulp Preserves ----- ----- Irritates Irritates
Kernel Sweetmeat ----- ----- ----- ----

Mature fruit     

Fruit pulp ----- Edible, Oil extract Poisonous Irritates Irritates
Kernel ----- Edible ----- Edible Edible
Other uses Petiole as arrow, fine paper from leaf surface ----- Roasted pith, spent pith as feed ----- Leaf base fiber as dart wad

The Nipa Palm

The nipa palm, Nypa fruticans, is believed to be one of the oldest and previously most extensive palms of the world. Now found from India to Sri Lanka, the Philippine islands and some other islands of the Pacific, nipa is adapted to muddy soils along rivers and estuaries. It is unusual in having an underground stem which branches to form new above-ground plants. The pinnate leaves of the palm appear to come from a stemless rosette. This places the inflorescence very near to the ground where it can easily be tapped for its sap. Therefore, natural plantings of nipa are quite valuable, and at times new plantations are established. Because of the underground trunk the palms recuperate rapidly after storm damage.

The seeds of the nipa palm float and even germinate in the water, and when deposited on a muddy bank, can establish themselves. The bases of the fronds are characterized by air-filled cavities, which keeps them upright. These fronds have an especially wide usage in weaving household articles.

The Raphia Palms

While principally in West Africa, Raphia palms have been introduced to the Americas and one species has become wild in South America. There are 6-8 useful species, principally adapted to swampy conditions but also making dense stands on dry land. The trunks tend to be short, and the pinnate leaves upright, making them the longest leaves of the plant kingdom. Raphia palms accumulate starch for a number of years, then produce an enormous terminal inflorescence and when seeds mature, the palm dies. The petioles and midrib of the long leaves contain strong fibers which are extracted and, in addition, are used for construction. The leaf blades are a favorite source of attap, material for thatching. Several of the species are tapped in the meristem for the abundant sap, and the entire palm can be cut and used as a source of sago.

The Sago Palm

Sago is the extracted starch of palms and of a few cycads, used as a staple food. These include species of Arenga, Caryota, Eugeissona, Metroxylon, Raphia, and Phoenix. The sago palm, Metroxylon sagus, is the principal species of palm used for this purpose. The sago palm occurs naturally in New Guinea and the large islands to the east, where it is found in dense stands in swampy waters. The tall heavy trunks with pinnate leaves accumulate starch as do the raphia palms, and just before flowering is initiated, the entire trunk is cut to the ground, and prepared for the extraction of sago. The process is not necessarily destructive, for young basal sprouts immediately begin to replace the old trunk. The pith of the palm is also roasted, and the spent pith, after removal of the starch, is used as animal feed. Thus, the sago palm is a palm supporting a subsistence life style, and is important in exportation of starch as well.

The sugar palm

While sugar may be obtained from the sap of many palms, one palm in India and Southeast, Arenga pinnata, is especially cultivated for this purpose. Adapted to the hot, humid tropics, this palm has a massive trunk, built up with accumulated starch, and long, upright pinnate leaves, large inflorescences and great clusters of fruits. The young palm develops a few female inflorescences in the upper part of the trunk, and then many male inflorescences gradually working down the trunk. These are used for the production of sap which is later boiled to sugar. The fruits themselves are attractive but inedible due to their sharp crystals, but the nut is said to be edible.

The Fishtail Palm

Very few palms have the doubly pinnate leaves characteristic of the fishtail palm, Caryota urens. The palm is another with the strange habit of growing to a maximum size, blooming from top down, and then dying. Distributed naturally from India, Sri Lanka, to Southeast Asia, the fishtail palm is ornamental, and it and other species have been distributed throughout the tropics. It is well adapted to wet and to less wet climates. An easy palm to grow, it has found many uses in construction and occasionally as sago although its principal use has been as a source of palm sugar, and wherever it grows it is greatly appreciated for this purpose.

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