An Introduction to Palm Trees for British Columbians

If you live in BC like us, you don’t have palm trees growing in your yard. However, many of us like to take our RV’s south into territory where palms are far more common.  Ever wondered why palm trees are different then the hardwood and softwood trees found in British Columbia campgrounds and parks?  Here is an introduction.

The Arecaceae are a botanical family of perennial lianas, shrubs, and trees commonly known as palm trees. They are flowering plantsRoughly 200 genera with around 2600 species are currently known, most of them restricted to tropical, subtropical, and warm temperate climates. As well as being morphologically diverse, palms also inhabit nearly every type of habitat within their range, from rainforests to deserts.

Palms are among the best known and most extensively cultivated plant families. They have been important to humans throughout much of history. Many common products and foods are derived from palms, and palms are also widely used in landscaping, making them one of the most economically important plants. In many historical cultures, palms were symbols for such ideas as victory, peace, and fertility. For inhabitants of cooler climates today, palms symbolize the tropics and vacations.

General Characteristics of all Palm Trees

A palm trunk are usually a straight, unbranched stem but on rare occasions the trunk will divide into two branches. Unlike hard and softwood trees found in Northern climates, palms add new growth to the inside of the stem but other types of trees add new growth to the outside of the trunk, just under the bark. The living wood in a palm tree is at the heart of the trunk.  Therefore there are no growth rings on palm logs. On other types of trees the wood in the middle of the trunk is old, which is why you often see old trees rotten on the inside in BC.

1280px-Palm_tree_trunk

Palms are monocots, belonging to the same family as grass and bamboo. Palm roots do not gain much diameter once the tree reaches maturity. Roots of dicots, on the other hand (that is, broadleaf plants such as oaks and maples) continue to grow and get fatter as long as the plant lives. There are real world consequences to the difference in roots.  That oak tree will destroy a sidewalk if planted to close for its roots can heave up the concrete, while a palm will do no damage to the same sidewalk even if close by.

Palm roots are usually called “rootballs’ for their round structures. A mature tree’s rootball tends not to grow very much more.

Palms have large evergreen leaves that are either palmately (‘fan-leaved’) or pinnately (‘feather-leaved’) compound and spirally arranged at the top of the stem. The leaves have a tubular sheath at the base that usually splits open on one side at maturity.

The inflorescence (flowers) is a panicle or spike surrounded by one or more bracts or spathes that become woody at maturity. The flowers are generally small and white, and radially symmetric. The sepals and petals usually number three each and may be distinct or joined at the base. The stamens generally number six, with filaments that may be separate, attached to each other, or attached to the pistil at the base.

The fruit is usually a single-seeded drupe, but some genera (e.g. Salacca) may contain two or more seeds in each fruit.  Some palms have very tasty fruits.

New growth in the palm comes from the crown of the tree, fed by the living wood in the center. If the crown is out out, the tree will die.

While you can kill an evergreen tree by slicing the outer layer of growth all around cutting off the sap, and the outer layers will heal if not damaged too much, the outer layers of a palm’s trunk consists of dead tissue that will not heal.  Once you mar a palm tree it stays marred forever.

The Most Useful Palms

Sago Palm

Sago palms are the source of sago, a starch extracted from the pith inside the stems of the sago palm. Sago forms a major staple food for the lowland peoples of New Guinea and the Moluccas where it is called sagu and traditionally is cooked and eaten in the form of a pancake served with fish. It is also eaten as a common food in other parts of Asia and where Asian influence is felt.

Sago is made through the following steps:

  1. Felling the sago palm tree;
  2. Splitting the trunk open lengthwise;
  3. Removing the pith;
  4. Crushing and kneading the pith to release the starch;
  5. Washing and straining to extract the starch from the fibrous residue;
  6. Collection of the raw starch suspension in a settling container.

The sago starch is then either baked (resulting in a product analogous to bread or a pancake) or mixed with boiling water to form a kind of paste.

Sago can be made into steamed puddings such as sago plum pudding, ground into a powder and used as a thickener for other dishes, or used as a dense glutinous flour.

In Indonesia and Malaysia, sago is used in making noodles and white bread.

Sago looks like many other starches, and both sago and tapioca are produced commercially in the form of pearls. These two kinds of pearls are similar in appearance and may be used interchangeably in some dishes. This similarity causes some confusion in the names of dishes made with the pearls. Both typically are small (about 2 mm diameter) dry, opaque balls. Both may be white (if very pure) or colored naturally grey, brown or black, or artificially colored pink, yellow, green, etc. When soaked and cooked, both become much larger, translucent, soft and spongy. Both are widely used in South Asian cuisine, in a variety of dishes, and around the world, usually in puddings. In India, pearl sago is called sabudana (“whole grain”) and is used in a variety of dishes. Pearls are also used as the “bubbles” in bubble tea (originating in Taiwan)

In addition to its use as a food source, the leaves and spathe of the sago palm are used for construction materials, and for thatching traditional roofs. The fiber can also be made into rope.

The starch is also used to treat fiber to make it easier to machine. This process is called sizing and helps to bind the fiber, give it a predictable slip for running on metal, standardize the level of hydration of the fiber, and give the textile more body. Most cloth and clothing has been sized and this leaves a residue which is removed in the first wash.

The Wondrous Coconut Palm

The coconut palm is grown throughout the tropical world, for decoration as well as for its many culinary and non-culinary uses; virtually every part of the coconut palm has some human uses.

Nearly all parts of the coconut palm are useful, and the palms have a comparatively high yield, up to 75 fruits per year; it therefore has significant economic value. The name for the coconut palm in Sanskrit is kalpa vriksha, which translates as “the tree which provides all the necessities of life”. In Malay, the coconut is known as pokok seribu guna, “the tree of a thousand uses”. In the Philippines, the coconut is commonly given the title “Tree of Life”. It its theorized that if you were to become stranded on a desert island populated by palm trees, you could survive purely on the tree and coconut alone, as the coconut provides all of the required natural properties for survival.

Culinary uses for Coconut Palm parts

  • The white, fleshy part of the seed is edible coconut and used fresh or dried in cooking, for snacks, or in drinks like pina colada.
  • Very young fruits are also harvested, primarily in the Philippines, where they are known as macapuno. They are sold in jars as “gelatinous mutant coconut” cut into balls or strands.
  • The fruit cavity is filled with coconut water which contains sugar, fiber, proteins, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. Coconut water provides an isotonic electrolyte balance, and is a highly nutritious food source. It is used as a refreshing drink throughout the humid tropics and is also used in isotonic sports drinks. It can also be used to make the gelatinous dessert nata de coco. Mature fruits have significantly less liquid than young immature coconuts; barring spoilage, coconut water is sterile until opened.
  • Coconut milk is made by processing grated coconut meat with hot water or milk, which extracts the oil and aromatic compounds. It should not be confused with the coconut water discussed above, and has a fat content of approximately 17%. When refrigerated and left to set, coconut cream will rise to the top and separate out the coconut milk.
  • The milk is used to produce virgin coconut oil by controlled heating and removing the oil fraction. Virgin coconut oil is found superior to the oil extracted from copra for cosmetic purposes.
  • The leftover fibre from coconut milk production is used as livestock feed.
  • The smell of coconuts comes from the 6-pentyloxan-2-one molecule, known as delta-decalactone in the food and fragrance industry where extracts are used to make candles, sprays etc.
  • Buds of adult plants are edible and are known as “palm-cabbage” or heart-of-palm. It is considered a rare delicacy, as the act of harvesting the bud kills the palm. Hearts of palm are eaten in salads, sometimes called “millionaire’s salad”.
  • Ruku Raa is an extract from the young bud, a very rare type of nectar collected and used as morning break drink in the islands of Maldives reputed for its energetic power keeping the “raamen” (nectar collector) healthy and fit even over 80 and 90 years old. And by-products are sweet honey-like syrup and creamy sugar for desserts.
  • Newly germinated coconuts contain an edible fluff of marshmallow-like consistency called coconut sprout, produced as the endosperm nourishes the developing embryo.
  • In the Philippines, rice is wrapped in coco leaves for cooking and subsequent storage – these packets are called puso.
  • Coconut shells are used both in primitive cultures and fancy meals as a serving or eating dish.

Non-culinary  for Coconut Palm parts

Extracting the fibre from the husk (Sri Lanka).

  • Coconut water can be used as an intravenous fluid.
  • Coir (the fiber from the husk of the coconut) is used in ropes, mats, brushes, caulking boats and as stuffing fibre; it is also used extensively in horticulture for making potting compost.
  • Coconut oil can be rapidly processed and extracted as a fully organic product from fresh coconut flesh, and used in many ways including as a medicine and in cosmetics, or as a direct replacement for diesel fuel.
  • Copra is the dried meat of the seed and, after further processing, is a source of low grade coconut oil.
  • The leaves provide materials for baskets crafts and traditional thatch.
  • Palmwood comes from the trunk and is increasingly being used as an ecologically-sound substitute for endangered hardwoods. It has several applications, particularly in furniture and specialized construction (notably in Manila’s Coconut Palace).
  • Hawaiians and others hollowed the trunk to form drums, containers, or even small canoes.
  • The husk and shells can be used for fuel and are a good source of charcoal (many uses).
  • Dried half coconut shells with husks are used to buff floors. In the Philippines, it is known as “bunot”, and in Jamaica it is simply called “coconut brush”
  • In the Philippines, dried half shells are used as a music instrument in a folk dance called maglalatik, a traditional dance about the conflicts for coconut meat within the Spanish era
  • Shirt buttons can be carved out of dried coconut shell. Coconut buttons are often used for Hawaiian Aloha shirts.
  • The stiff leaflet midribs can be used to make cooking skewers, kindling arrows, or are bound into bundles, brooms and brushes.
  • The roots are used as a dye, a mouthwash, and a medicine for dysentery. A frayed-out piece of root can also be used as a toothbrush.
  • Arts and crafts are often made from husks and shells

Making a rug from coconut fibre.

  • The leaves can be woven to create effective roofing materials, or reed mats for the floor.
  • Fresh inner coconut husk can be rubbed on the lens of snorkeling goggles to prevent fogging during use.
  • Dried coconut leaves can be burned to ash, which can be harvested for lime and used in agriculture.
  • Dried half coconut shells are used as the bodies of musical instruments, including the Chinese yehu and banhu, and the Vietnamese đàn gáo.
  • Coconut is also commonly used as a herbal remedy in Pakistan to treat bites from rats.
  • In World War II, coastwatcher scout Biuki Gasa was the first of two from the Solomon Islands to reach the shipwrecked, wounded, and exhausted crew of Motor Torpedo Boat PT-109 commanded by future U.S. president John F. Kennedy. Gasa suggested, for lack of paper, delivering by dugout canoe a message inscribed on a husked coconut shell. This coconut was later kept on the president’s desk, and is now in the John F. Kennedy Library.
  • Coconut trunks are used for building small bridges, preferred for their straightness, strength and salt resistance

Copernicia prunifera

Grown only in Northeastern Brazil, this palm is the source of Carnauba wax extracted from the palm’s leaves. Carnauba wax produces a glossy finish and as such is used in automobile waxes, shoe polishes, dental floss, food products such as sweets, instrument polishes, and floor and furniture waxes and polishes, especially when mixed with beeswax and with turpentine. Use for paper coatings is the most common application in the United States. It was commonly used in its purest form as a coating on speedboat hulls in the early ’60s to enhance speed and aid in handling in salt water environments. It is also the main ingredient in surfboard wax, combined with coconut oil. Because of its hypoallergenic and emollient properties as well as its shine, carnauba wax appears as an ingredient in many cosmetics formulas where it is used to thicken lipstick, eyeliner, mascara, eye shadow, foundation, deodorant, various skin care preparations, sun care preparations, etc. It has many industrial uses as well. [Source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carnauba_wax]
Oil Palms

Several species of closely related palms are grown to create the common food ingredient pal oil, extracted from the seeds by crushing them. Malaysia and Indonesia are the primary places of cultivation but oil palms are native to Africa and Central America.

Açaí Palm

The fruit of this South and Central American palm, often called the acai berry, is harvested for food. It often dried and powdered for use as a food ingredient. The fruit is thought to have various health qualities and is commonly sold in capsules, drinks and other forms around the world.

Importance of Palms

W.H. Barreveld wrote:

“One could go as far as to say that, had the date palm not existed, the expansion of the human race into the hot and barren parts of the “old” world would have been much more restricted. The date palm not only provided a concentrated energy food, which could be easily stored and carried along on long journeys across the deserts, it also created a more amenable habitat for the people to live in by providing shade and protection from the desert winds (Fig. 1). In addition, the date palm also yielded a variety of products for use in agricultural production and for domestic utensils, and practically all parts of the palm had a useful purpose.”[17]

An indication of the importance of palms in ancient times is that they are mentioned more than 30 times in the Bible.

Today, the palm, especially the coconut palm, remains a symbol of the tropical island paradise. Palms appear on the flags and seals of several places where they are native, including those of Haiti, Guam,Saudi Arabia, Florida and South Carolina.

Now when you see a palm tree on your next Southern Holiday you will have a little more appreciation for the tree and its bounty.

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