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Dates, Coconuts, Sugar, Wine

Palms: How to Make Fronds and Inflorescnce People

by Wes Porter
Saturday, May 13, 2006

There are at least 2500 different palms — new ones are still being discovered in such places as New Guinea. So, as we promised last month, we would have to look at this enormous plant family on its own. Mostly tropical and subtropical, some grown at 10,000 feet altitude in the Andes of South America; a few are hardy enough to grow year-round outside in southwest coastal British Columbia.

  • The Mexican Chamaedorea tenelia at up to a metre high is probably the smallest palm
  • Tallest at 60m is probably either of a pair of wax palms from the Andes Ceroxylon alpinum and Cotonxylon alpinum. Wax from the trunk of the former is used to make candles
  • Wax is also gathered from the fronds of wild palms to make carnauba wax for polish automobiles
  • Coconuts come from Cocos nucifera, 30 to 40 per palm per year, but nobody is quite sure where the 30m palms originated from — the best guess is southern India or Malaya. The nut yields food, oil and fresh, sterile water, the husk coir for ropes and mats, fronds for thatching, and finally the trunk provides wood.
  • Dates from Phoenix dactylifera were once an important export of Iraq before the tyrant Saddam Hussein destroyed many of palms. Large quantities are now grown in the deserts of southern California just north of the Mexican border. A single female palm tree there may yield over 100kg of fruit every year.
  • Oil, especially from Elaeis guineensis, originally from West Africa but now widely grown in Malaya and Indonesia, is used to make margarine and soap.
  • Raffia fibre comes from Raphia ruffia, a tropical West African palm, still used in industrialized countries for arts and crafts, formerly in the garden for tying up plants such as tomatoes.
  • Palm sugar is obtained from the sap of several palms, such as the Palmyra Palm of India and Southeast Asia, the Honey or Syrup Palm from Chile in South America
  • Palm wine or "toddy" is made by tapping the sap from the flower spike of any one of many palms that grow in tropical or subtropical Asia, the Americas or Africa. The toddy is sometimes distilled — usually illegally — into powerful arrack, smelling vile, tasting even worse
  • Rattans, Calamus or climbing palms are the largest group of palms, vine-like, and armed with spines. Commonly reaching to 30m, the longest recorded was 169m (550-feet) and in Southeast Asia are sued to make furniture, mats, ropes, baskets, hammocks, even blowpipes.
  • The Peach Palm, Bactris gasipaes, of South America is unknown in the wild, but cultivated for its edible fruit that looks like a peach but is treated as a vegetable following boiling
  • The Betel Palm, Areca catechu, like the coconut palm is of unknown origin but also probably came from the Malaya Peninsular. The areca nut or kernel is chewed with slaked lime and betel leaves from India to the Pacific Islands as a mild narcotic. It is often difficult to avoid being splashed by the red saliva users spit everywhere but, according to modern research, it is a major cause of cancer.
  • Isle of Palms, is a resort town east of Charleston, South Carolina which is nicknamed the Palmetto State
  • Palmetto, the fan palm of the southern United States, comes from the Spanish palmito, a little palm
  • Palm Beach, Florida, is another, perhaps more famous resort town
  • Latin palma, a palm tree and a leaf or branch of palm was once a signal of victory
  • Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter, commemorates Christ’s entry into Jerusalem when palm branches were strewn down in front of him (John xii 13)
  • A palmer in medieval times was a pilgrim who had visited the Holy Land and brought back palm fronds
Wes Porter is a horticultural consultant and writer based in Toronto. He has over 40 years of experience in both temperate and tropical horticulture from three continents.