The Uses of Palms Around the World

Chapter 2

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.

Ecological 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. Some may fly to or climb the palms in search of the fruits, while others find the fruits on the ground below. Even the foliage serves as food for some animals.

On the farm the principal domesticated species have a limited number of ecological functions. Coconut groves give a light shade that can improve the yields of some crops like taro and its relatives. The long leaves of cultivated palms add to the tangle of decaying organic material to provide a constant return of minerals and organic matter to the soil.

Uses as Food

Almost all parts of the palm can be used as food in some cases, as shown in Table 2. The three most common food uses are of the sap, the accumulated starch, or the growing tip. The tapping of the inflorescence or the apex of the palm yields sap, which can be made into a fresh drink, or fermented into toddy, or then distilled into arrack. The sap can also be boiled to yield palm sugar, 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.

Table 2. The Edible Uses of Palms


Raw Product

Refined Product
From sap toddy, wine Vinegar, arrack
  sugar, jaggery  
From bud palm cabbage  
From flower cluster As cooked vegetable  
  Flowers candied  
  Pollen as food  
  Nectar for bees  
From fruit pulp Fresh Cooked or candied
    Mixed in drinks
    In "vinho"
  Fermented In "wine"
  Extracted For cooking oil
  Extracted For medicine
From nut Fresh For drinking
    Raw or roasted
    As vegetable ivory
    As drug or stimulant
  Extracted For oil and medicine
  Germinated For edible root ball
  Shell For oil
From trunk Sago For starch
From roots Medicines  

Other uses of the palms

The principal non-food uses of palms are summarized in Table 3. 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 viny 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.

Table 3. 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;
  Part of leaf to write on
Roots: Medicines
Thorns: Arrow tips
Fruit husks: Fiber
Seeds: Ornaments
Nut shells: Utensils, or for charcoal
Oils: Soap making

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