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The World's Best
By Franklin W. Martin
Edited by Craig Elevitch
Copyright © 1999; reprinted with permission

Chapter 2. The Uses of Palms Throughout the World

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.


Contents 1. Palm Facts 2. Uses of Palms Throughout the World 3. The Coconut Palm 4. Palms for Staple Food
5. Palms for Edible Fruits 6. Palms for Drinks, Sugar and Starch 7. Palms for Vegetables 8. Palms for Oil 9. Cultivating Palms

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