The most famous palm used for food would have to be the coconut. I am sure most people are aware of a number of uses for this valuable food crop. I will name just a few.
The water inside the nut is totally sterile and is used as a cooling drink either on its own or mixed with other juices, alcohol, etc. During the Second World War, doctors used it to mix plasma for transfusions and consequently saved a number of lives. It is still used widely by naturopaths as a cleanser for the blood as it is aid to stimulate the liver.
The nut is eaten raw or added to many island and Asian dishes. Many and varied are its uses in cooking, both savoury and sweet. I am sure all Australians are familiar with the "Lamington".
Salacca edulis from Indonesia is the best variety which I assume most of you would have growing.
Bactris gasipaes (peach palm). Eat only after cooking in salty water. There are about 239 species and all are spiny.
Butia capitata (Yatay or jelly palm). The fruit tastes much like apricots. It would make a nice wine for those of you who make it. There are 2 of these palms growing in the car park at K-Mart.
Areca catechu (betel nut). In India $30 million worth is chewed annually. It is said to be a sedative and mildly hallucinogenic. It stains the teeth a reddish colour. The trees grow well in our climate.
Phoenix dactylifera (date palm). This is probably the next best known palm after the coconut. However it is said that date palms need their feet in water and their heads in the fire (sun) in order to bear much fruit. In Australia, they are still found along the routes of the old camel traders and they were brought from the Arab countries as a very valuable food for those harsh conditions as the fruit has over 60% sugar content.
Aiphanes caryotifolia . The fruit is edible but has a very dry texture and taste. The trunk is covered with 6-inch-long thorns and the leaves are very thorny also.
Chrysalidocarpus lutescens (golden cane palm). This also has edible fruit which are very sweet but also very small. One would need a bucketful to get a feed.
Arecastrum romanzoffiana (queen palm). This has a very stringy flesh but is very sweet and pleasant to eat.
Livistona. Many varieties of this group are edible or have edible flesh around the seed. Also the heart is eaten as cabbage. This accounts for one of the common names being 'cabbage palm'. Also the leaves are woven in many ways. Perhaps the most common use is for hats.
Caryota (fishtail palm). This is a much sought-after palm. Sap is tapped via the inflorescence for alcoholic drinks and sugar. Sago is produced from the trunk centre. Seed must not be eaten as they contain caustic crystals of calcium oxalate which will burn the skin, even just picking up the seeds after they have fallen.
Arenga is another palm which contains the same caustic juice in the flesh of the seed (which look and smell very tempting) and again they must not be eaten.
Lodoicea maldivica. This palm, which only grows in one place in the world, the Seychelle Islands, and which I feel deserves a mention, is the double coconut or the coco-der-mer (coconut of the sea). Many and varied stories told of it from the time of sailing vessels when sailors would find them bobbing along on the sea and not know where they came from. It is said that they fetched huge prices on the market back in the "old country" as they were believed to have magical properties. The fruit can weigh as much as 44lbs and it takes a full year for the fruit to set after flowering and a further five years to mature. Also, the palm is usually about 30 years old before it bears fruit. There are 2 plants of this wonderful botanical curiosity in the palmetum at Townsville.
Another unusual novelty of the palm world is to be found in Queens Park. It is the Corypha elata and it is flowering now. It only flowers once and then, sadly, dies. The flower spike towers 20 feet out of the top of the tree and all the leaves die and fall off. The flowering spike covers 200 square feet and has up to 60 million flowers. I guess it has completed then what nature intended and can die happy.
DATE: July 1996
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