Of the many palms grown in the world today, only the coconut, date and African oil palm have been widely exploited. There are many others which could become useful sources of oil and food. One such example is the Pejibaye or Bactris gasipaes; sometimes called the Peach Palm. It is probably the most balanced of all tropical foods, as its fruit contains carbohydrates, proteins, oil, minerals and vitamins.
An exact place of origin cannot be pinpointed as isolated trees can be found in virgin forests in Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Columbia where it can be considered a native. In Central America, it is well-known and utilized by man but it is not known to grow in a completely wild state. Trees are found in Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua and can be found sporadically as far north as the southern tip of Mexico.
There are over 200 common names for the Pejibaye which reflect variations among tribes of original Latin American people and their dialects. The botanical name has also been changed from Bactris gasipaes to Guilielma gasipaes by L.H. Bailey. However informed botanists now prefer to call it by its original scientific name, Bactris gasipaes. The English name, Peach Palm, is clearly a misnomer. Although the fruits of some varieties superficially resemble peaches, there is no other way in which the peach and the Pejibaye resemble each other.
It has a unique growth habit in which one seedling tends to form clumps of trunks. Solitary trunks are seldom seen. Each trunk is erect and reaches a mature height of 12 to 20 metres and a basal diameter of 20 to 30 centimetres. As each frond dies, scars are left leaving the trunk marked with rings. Up to 3 or 4 trunks can reach maturity at the same time. A big drawback is the large sharp black spines growing perpendicularly from the trunk. These 8-centimetre-long spines are arranged in circular zones of varying width. Those near the base of the stem are four to six inches wide, while those higher up decrease in width from one to two inches. Between the zones of thorns is about an inch of smooth trunk. Cutting off too many spines can kill the palm. The Amazonian Indian used these spines as needles. The trunk of the palm consists of a black hard wood which resists water, termites and other insects. It polishes well and was used as bow and spear shafts by the Indians. The wood is also made into handles, yokes, ornaments and furniture.
When the palm is young, the leaves are very graceful in appearance. They grow to a length of 2.4-3.6 metres (8-12 ft) and are deep green in colour. All parts of the frond are covered with spines shorter and softer than those on the trunk.
The Pejibaye is monoecious, which means it has male and female flowers on the same plant. It has two to six flower racemes each year. Its panicles originate below the fronds .and consist of a central axis and a large number of simple side branches, each covered with numerous small cream to light yellow male and fewer female flowers. Racemes of mature fruit can weigh up to 12 kilograms or more and five or six racemes are often produced by the palm in a single crop. A bunch of fruit can contain from 70 to 300 fruits. As long as the racemes are not cut when the first fruit is ripe, the other maturing fruit will remain in good condition on the palm until needed. In Costa Rica the first fruits mature in September.
On the Yeppoon Coast, an orchard has recorded a first fruiting of a Pejibaye this year in May-June. One panicle of fruit was found on an approximately 6-7-year-old tree.
The fruits vary in shape, some being top-shaped, conical or ovoid and vary in length from one to two inches (2.5-5cm). A green leathery, three toothed calyx nearly covers the base of the fruit. The skin surface varies from smooth to deeply-fissured transversally. The fruit also displays a wide variation in colour at maturity from light yellow, deep orange or reddish orange to brown. A thin tough skin adheres closely to the flesh, which is dry, mealy, yet firm in texture and pale orange to yellow in colour. The flesh separates easily from the single seed after the fruit has been boiled. The seed is conical, somewhat angular in outline about three quarters of an inch long, black with a thin but hard shell enclosing a white kernel resembling that of a coconut in flavour and texture.
Some trees, commonly called 'males' bear fruits without seeds which are more convenient to eat and are considered a better flavour. Also spineless palms are highly valued because of the ease of picking. The fruit has to be harvested carefully as damaged fruit rots easily. Fruit can be knocked down by a long pole, but the preferred method is to use a ladder, cut the racemes and lower the bunch to the ground using a rope.
Usually the fruit is prepared by boiling the entire fruit in salted water for three hours. The skin is removed before eating. The fruit is appealing and delicious cooked in this simple way. However the flesh is not sweet; its flavour and texture is reminiscent of chestnuts. It is used in meals, as a snack or as an hors d'oeuvre. Sometimes it is eaten with mayonnaise or other sauce. Freshly-boiled fruit lasts only 5 to 6 days.
To preserve the fruit, it is boiled and then dried. This dried pulp is then ground to a yellow meal that is very versatile. It replaces some of the flour in many dishes. Tortillas are made with Pejibaye flour, eggs and vegetables. It can also be used as a stuffing in roasted poultry.
A popular drink containing a small amount of alcohol is also made from the Pejibaye fruit. After boiling mature fruits, the pulp is separated, drained, mashed and mixed with water to ferment. The liquid is sieved to remove residues and is served as a refreshment.
The kernel of the fresh seed is sweet, very oily and similar in flavour to a coconut. It is often ground and used in a drink usually sweetened with sugar. The cooked seed can also be cracked and eaten.
Another important product obtained from the Pejibaye palm is the 'heart' or 'cabbage'. This 'heart' is the still folded young leaves within the growing tip of the trunk. Usually old trunks are cut down to renew the clump, and the 'heart' is obtained by cutting open the wood. It is usually used fresh, cooked or canned. When raw or cooked it is used mainly as a salad ingredient. It keeps its appearance, texture and flavour very well.
Pejibaye fruit has twice the protein content of a banana, is a good source of carbohydrates and is a fair source of oil. It not only has a high food value, but is delicious as well.
The palm is adapted to a wide range of climatic conditions in the tropics. In Costa Rica it is found at sea level to 1,500 metres but yields are less at elevations above 700 metres. In Ecuador and Peru it is found no higher than 1,200 metres and in Bolivia it is found at elevations between 200 to 2,000 metres. Pejibaye palms will not grow where frosts occur but it will tolerate cool subtropical temperatures. High temperatures won't restrict growth as long as the moisture is sufficient. It can withstand dry seasons and it will grow successfully in a moderately dry monsoon climate. It is not successful in areas of heavy rainfall in the tropics.
Its soil requirements are not exacting, however it does best in rich alluvial deposits. It will grow in deep acid clays, in clay loams and occasionally pure clay soil.
Most of the existing trees have been propagated from seed. This is the easiest method but seedlings are variable and a large proportion produce poor quality fruit. Planted as soon as possible after opening, the seed will germinate between 60 days and 6 months. From seed to fruiting can take 6-8 years but it will continue fruiting for up to 75 years or more.
To obtain trees with superior quality fruit, the best method is to propagate vegetatively from superior quality trees. Because the palm is multistemmed, one or two of these suckers can be removed by cutting at ground level and below, ensuring that roots are still attached. All the fronds are removed to prevent dehydration. The sucker is then planted and watered. However only a small percentage survive.
Pejibaye doesn't appear to require much care and few plants get it. However since any cultivated plant grows better when well cared for, it wouldn't hurt to mulch around the trees, add a light complete fertilizer, and water adequately. Large trees can resist drought, but they do benefit from extra water during a dry spell.
One pest noticed overseas, despite the large spines, are rats. which climb the palms and eat the pulp of the ripe or almost ripe seeds. Cylinders of galvanized sheet metal are nailed to the trunk to prevent them climbing the palms.
In Yeppoon, Central Queensland, the biggest pest is the Peach Moth which pierced the fruit and the only evidence of its existence was the tailings and excreta.
From all appearances, the Pejibaye palm has great potential for commercial uses. The major barrier being the lack of superior cultivars available from which to take suckers. Seedlings vary in quality and performance and seedless types are not as productive as seeded types. Spineless cultivars, mostly found in the northwest Amazon region should be collected and selected for use in crossbreeding and propagations. Also ways of transporting, storing and preserving the fruit should be looked into.
Research problems aside, it is an attractive palm with a highly delicious fruit that makes it very acceptable as a backyard fruit tree in Australia.
(1) Popenoe: The Pejibaye, a neglected food plant of tropical America
(2) The Pejibaye: Underexploited Tropical Plants
DATE: November 1987
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