SCIENTIFIC NAME: Bactris gasipaes or Guilielma gasipaes
FAMILY: Arecaceae

The palm Bactris gasipaes (syn. Guilielma gasipaes, previously G. speciosa), is a native of the Amazon regions of South America and is commonly cultivated in the countries of Costa Rica, Brazil, Panama, Columbia, Peru, Venezuela and Ecuador. The Pejibaye is known only from cultivated specimens. It is thought to have originated in the Andes of Eastern Peru. Here a similar palm, G. microcarpa is known as 'wild pupunha'. Pupunha is the common South American name for the Pejibaye.

Alexander von Humboldt made the first botanical description of the Pejibaye: on maturity it forms a slender (to 150 mm), tall (to 20 m) palm. The trunk has prominent rings from old leaf scars and is studded with sharp spines. The size of the spines varies within the species. They can be of sufficient size to support a scaffolding, made by the Indians, for the harvesting of its fruits. Removal of too many spines can kill the palm. Spineless varieties are known. Timber from the mature palm is hard and durable.

The leaf stalks (petioles) are about 1 m long. The leaf is 3 m long and is curved with numerous leaflets which arise in several planes from the upper two thirds of the leaf stem. The crown is full and almost round. The leaves have a characteristic sway in the breeze.

The Pejibaye grows best on heavy clay or clay loams. The root system is extensive; it covers a surface area of 5 m and it is dense to a depth of 2 m. However, the root density decreases logarithmically. Vandermeer, who has studied the Pejibaye root system, thought this palm would be particularly suitable for interplanting with other tree crops. An annual rainfall of 2,500 mm or slightly less is preferred. The Pejibaye is tropical in its requirements but will tolerate elevations of 1,500 m near the equator.

Flower spikes develop among the leaves. Both male and female flowers appear on the same spike. Palms first flower when between 6 and 8 years of age. There can be up to 13 pendulous flower spikes per palm with numerous creamish-white, small flowers. Each inflorescence can develop up to 300 fruits, which are slightly elongated and 20 to 60 mm long. One bunch may weigh as much as 12.5 kg. Single palms can produce up to 70 kg of fruit. Since three to five suckers form one clump, productivity per hectare is excellent.

This palm forms suckers from its base, which is fortunate, for palms cannot be grafted. Therefore, suckers are the only possibility for the propagation of superior types. However, most plantings are probably from seeds. Suckers are most successfully separated when they are between 1.2 and 1.8 m tall. It is advantageous to cut the sucker from the mother plant several weeks prior to uprooting. This allows the formation of a stronger, separate root system. The separated suckers are protected from drying out through the removal of all leaves except for the growth tip. Some success has been claimed by Arias for the chemical induction of suckering through the application of a foliar spray of 10 ppm (0.001%) of fluorenol (9-Hydroxyfluorene). 200 ppm inhibited sucker formation.

For cultivation, palms are planted at 6 m intervals. 3 to 4 suckers are allowed to reach maturity. Others can be used to extend a plantation. The Pejibaye's ability to form suckers makes this palm one of the most attractive for the production of 'heart of palm', a much-sought delicacy. This can reduce the period before the grower can expect a return on his investment.

In the southern hemisphere, flowering occurs between April and June, and the first fruits ripen in September. From then until the arrival of the next flowering period the fruit can be harvested as required.

The colour of the ripe fruit is yellow to orange. The under-ripe fruit is usually prepared by boiling for 3 hours in salted water. In that form it is a staple food, but it can also be dried and ground into a flour. Whole, boiled and dried fruit will return to excellent conditions after several months, after a short re-boiling. The character of the flesh after boiling is dry and mealy but firm in texture. The fruit can also be roasted and it has been compared in taste with the Spanish chestnut.

Pejibaye is not a sweet fruit, rather it is a very nutritious staple for millions of people in South America for whom the Pejibaye is a sought-after principal food for several months.

Pejibaye (boiled),100
Banana75.31.30.6 220.8500
Avocado66.31.826.66.61.5600 - 1,300

(From Popenoe and Jiminez, 1921. Values in %. Calories per 100 g.)

The Pejibaye's seed is conical and about 20 mm long. It is hard and black and has a white interior.

The U.S. National Academy of Science has considered this palm as an underexploited tropical plant with a promising economic value for its high productivity, its balanced and nutritious food value. Disadvantages considered were the availability of superior, preferably spineless, sucker planting material.

Although economically important, the Pejibaye is a particularly beautiful palm. Humboldt has extolled the beauty of pupunha. He praised stands of these, with clusters of its colourful fruits, as one of the finest sights of the Amazon.

James J. Darley, Townsville,
(Was also printed in the N. Qld. Palm Society Newsletter)

DATE: November 1983

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