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Overview of the Economic Importance of Palms
by Jody Haynes

Many of the approximately 2,800 known species of palms are economically important. Palms furnish food, shelter, clothing, timber, fuel, building materials, fibres, starch, oils, waxes, wines, and a host of minor products for indigenous populations in the tropics. Among the most important palms are:

Arenga pinnata (black sugar palm) occurs in Malaysia. It grows about 12 m tall and frequently has 20 to 28 feather-shaped leaves. Sugar, wine, and arrack, a distilled liquor, are processed from the sap. Sago, a starch, is made from the pith. The leaves yield a moisture-resistant fibre.

Attalea cohune (cohune palm), occurring in Central America, grows about 18 m (60 feet) tall and has erect, plume-shaped leaves. Oil from the seeds is used in soap. The related A. funifera of the Amazon region of South America yields a water-resistant fiber.

Borassus flabellifer (palmyra palm), occurring in tropical Asia, grows about 20 m tall and has fan-shaped leaves. Fiber from various parts of the plant are made into brooms, hats, and mats. The fruits and seeds are edible.

Cocos nucifera (coconut palm) originated in Malaysia but has been widely distributed in tropical coastal regions. The tree grows about 30 m tall and has feather-shaped leaves. The nuts--40 to 100 are produced each year--grow to about 25 cm (10 inches) in diameter. The fiber of the nut husk is called coir (q.v.). The liquid in the core of the nut is a tasty beverage, and the white meat of the nut is eaten raw. The meat is shredded and dried to make copra, from which coconut oil may be extracted. The meat is also grated, mixed with water, and pressed to obtain coconut milk, used in cooking or as a substitute for cow's milk. Palm wine, arrack, and vinegar are made from sap of the flower stalk. Baskets and mats are made from the leaves. The trunk yields a useful timber.

Copernicia prunifera (carnauba wax palm), occurring in tropical South America, grows to about 10 m tall and has fan-shaped leaves. The trunk is swollen near the base. Carnauba wax--used in polishes, varnishes, and candles--is obtained from the leaves.

Elaeis guineensis (African oil palm), occurring in western and central Africa, grows to a height of 18 m or more. It bears black, oval-shaped fruit in clusters of 200 to 300. Palm oil is obtained from the fruit coat and kernel oil from the seed.

Phoenix dactylifera (date palm), native to the Middle East and cultivated for its fruit since about 6000 BC, grows 30 m tall and has feathery leaves. A tree may bear as much as 250 kg (550 pounds) of dates annually for 100 years or more.

Roystonea regia (Cuban royal palm), an erect, beautiful species native to the southeastern United States, the West Indies, and tropical America, grows to about 30 m tall and has graceful feathery leaves and a smooth, pale gray trunk resembling concrete in color and texture. It is often grown as an ornamental.

Sabal palmetto (cabbage palmetto), occurring in the southeastern United States and the West Indies, grows to about 24 m tall and has fan-shaped leaves. The water-resistant trunk is used as wharf piling; the trees are commonly grown for shade and as ornamentals along avenues. The buds are edible, mats and baskets are sometimes made from the leaves, and stiff brushes are made from the stems. Sabal texana, a similar species, occurs in the southwestern United States and in Mexico.

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