Popular Science Monthly/Volume 36/January 1890/Palm-Trees and their Uses
By M. J. POISSON.
AFTER the grasses, with their various adaptabilities for the purposes of food and the arts, the palm-trees hold the first place; and this, not only on account of the uses for which they are fit, but also by reason of the beauty and amplitude of their foliage and the stately size which many of them attain. Their worth in decoration and their usefulness have been celebrated in all times and in many languages. In the time of Linnæus, eight or ten species, belonging to half a dozen genera, were known. At this time the number of determined species exceeds a thousand, and these are distributed among about one hundred and thirty genera. In a short article like this we can only touch upon the subject and indicate the principal useful species.
The date palm was the one of most interest to the ancients. It is the fortune of the peoples of northern Africa and the ornament of the oases of that region. It sports into numerous varieties, which are easily obtained from the seed. When quarrels arise between tribes, the first thought of the hostile factions is to ruin their enemies by attacking their date crops. The male and female flowers being borne on different trees, a few male plants are sufficient for the fecundation of a great many females; and the destruction of the former—not a very hard task—will make the latter worthless. Date-trees the fruits of which are not palatable are used for building purposes, or for making palm-wine—the fermented sap, which is drawn from the tree by tapping it as we tap maple-trees. The sap is also much drunk fresh, when the Arabs call it lagmi. The dates are eaten directly, or their expressed juice is used for sirups and flavorings. Those which, because of being grown too near the sea or in unfavorable situations, as at many places in the regency of Tunis, do not become fully ripe, are mixed with bread and fed to horses and cattle.
The dwarf palm of Algeria and southern Spain (Chamærops humilis) is not a profitable sort, but is rather a detriment to the Algerian plains. When it gets possession of a spot, it is very hard to exterminate, and the place becomes little to be preferred to the desert. The palm lands have, however, been cleared to a considerable extent since the French occupation of Algeria. The leaves are used in making brooms, baskets, and minor articles, for paper pulp, cords, and "vegetable hair."
The tender, plump buds of many species of Indian and American palms supply a choice food which is called "palm cabbage." The young tissue, which is very like salad-heart, is eaten raw or cooked and seasoned in different ways, or pickled. The leaves that are large enough are used on the roofs of houses or in the manufacture of a diversity of articles. Hindu characters are sometimes traced with a bodkin on strips of the leaves of the fan palm (Corypha) of the Indian islands, and these are folded like letters and sent in the mail. The flexibility of the leaves adapts them to many purposes of art. From the young leaves of the coco (Lodoicea seychellarum), whose enormous and strange-looking fruit is an object of curious interest, the natives of the Seychelles Islands make some handsome basket-work. The extremely light and durable hats called Panama are made from the leaves of species of this family. The pellicle of the leaves of the Baphia, or sago palm of Madagascar, from which the natives of that island make fine cloths, is used for ties in gardening and in the manufacture of artificial flowers, and is good for many other purposes.
Bridges over torrents and small rivers are made of the solid trunks of palm-trees. When the wood is fine and close, it is split into pieces that are turned and polished. Highly esteemed umbrella-handles—called laurel handles—are made from several kinds. If the central part of the stem is filled with tender pith, not too much stringy and tough, it is collected as sago; of which the sago palm of Madagascar and the corresponding regions of Africa affords the most highly prized quality.
Stems of small diameter are equally desirable. The jungles in the East Indian Archipelago—Java, Sumatra, and the peninsula of Malacca—abound in climbing palms or palm vines, the stems of which wind among the limbs of the trees to the top. Some have been measured that were a hundred yards long before they became interlocked with the network of the forest. They are the rattans (Fig. 4) which are so handy where a cane or any kind of flexible stick is wanted. Chairs are caned with the outer part of the rattan, and from the rest of the stem children's chairs, baskets, and many useful articles—including even dish-cloths—are made. The author of this essay has had considerable success in making such ornamental articles as earrings, scarf-pins, etc., out of the handsome fruits of some of the rattans. And the continued abundance of wild beasts, like the tiger, etc., in the East Indian forests, in spite of the activity with which they are hunted, is
explained by the growth of rattans which make the jungle impenetrable to hunters. Some palm-trees furnish a sweetening juice. The most famous of these is probably the Areng, or sugar palm of Amboyna (Arenga saccharifera), which grows in India and the archipelago. It is a superb tree, with pinnate leaves twenty-five feet long, and is as Fig. 5.—Chamærops excelsa. handsome as it is useful. A number of species belonging to different genera furnish a kind of hair of finer or coarser texture. It is found in the fibrous sheaths of the leaf-stalks and in the jagged edges of the leaves. Cables made of the black, tough fibers of the Areng are preferred by the coasting sailors of the Spanish colonies on account of their elasticity and durability; and they are, moreover, very fine. The hemp palm of Japan and China (Chamærops excelsa, Fig. 5) is available in the hands of the industrious people of those countries for making the finer brooms, light strings, and a thousand articles of daily use. Palms of coarser fiber, like the Piaçaba of Brazil (Leopoldina piacaba), furnish material for blinds, brushes, brooms, and the rollers of mechanical sweepers, which are much more durable than rollers fitted with steel teeth. A waxy exudation forms on the trunks of the wax palm of the Andes (Ceroxylon andicola) and is collected by the natives for purposes of illumination. The Carnauba of Brazil (Copernica cerifera) forms a cerous efflorescence on the inside of its leaves. The natives climb upon the trees of the latter species and beat the leaves with rods, when a fine snow falls from them and is collected on cloths spread upon the ground for the purpose. The wax of the Carnauba is used in commerce, both by itself and associated with other similar substances.The fruits of the palm are inferior to none. Every child knows what Robinson Crusoe did with his cocoanuts. After dates, this is the most generally diffused fruit of the palm. No drink is more in demand among the Creoles and blacks than the milky kernel of the green cocoanut. When the fruits reach us, the albumen has hardened and become somewhat tough and indigestible. This nut is one of the sources of wealth—in some cases, perhaps, the only one—of the coral islands of Oceania and some other tropical regions. With the top in the sun and its roots bathed by the sea-waters—its favorite station—the cocoa-tree (Cocos nucifera) continues in good condition to the age of seven or eight hundred years. The dry nut, called copra, is marketed by the thousand tons every year, to be employed in various uses for which fats are
Fig. 6.—Cabbage Palms in the "Savannah" of Cayenne
wanted. The thick, fibrous envelope of the nut has been much used of late years in Europe. After being macerated, the fibers, called coir or cair, are combed. Ropes made of them are elastic and hardy against decay. They are worked into articles of esparto and brushes, and we tread them under feet in cocoa mattings. From the hard shell of the nut are made cups and dishes, which are susceptible of a ready polish, and can be carved. The leaves can be utilized, like those of other palms, but lack the suppleness of the leaves of other kinds.
Not all the species of Cocos bear fruits as large as those of nucifera. The small species also contribute to the maintenance of man and industries. A considerable trade is carried on in the little cocoa of Central America (Cocos lapidea), which is sometimes called the "convicts' cocoa," because prisoners polish or carve the hard egg-sized shells of the nuts, and make of them balls for mending stockings, bead-boxes, tobacco-boxes, and toys to sell to visitors. The same shell is in favor for making fancy buttons.
Some other species of palm bear eatable or oleaginous fruits. The reddish-yellow, acorn-shaped fruits of the Paripon of Guiana (Guilielma speciosa) is highly esteemed. It is cultivated under different names in all the Central American countries. Beverages, and often alcohol, are obtained from the fruits of several other species. The Avoira, or oil palm, of Africa (Elæis guineensis) is, after the cocoa, the most important of the palms as a commercial object. The numerous fruit-clusters of this palm, twice as large as a man's head, contain many fruits of the size of a walnut, the Fig. 7.—Fruit and Nut of Betel Palm, entire and in section. external envelope of which is charged with "palm-oil," a fat that is much used in soap-making, and is esteemed by Africans as an aliment. The kernel of the fruit affords an oil superior in limpidity and savor to that of the pericarp. The African product of avoira fruits is estimated at one hundred thousand tons a year. The manufacture of textile fabrics from palm-leaves has not been fully experimented upon. A few Central American palms and the oil-palm afford a strong and very fine fiber.
Horticulturists have made much of palm-trees, and they are now abundant in the flower markets. The Bourbon palm (Livistonia sinensis); date palms of several species; dwarf palms and the tall Chamærops; the Corypha; Weddell's cocoa, and two or three other species, are common as room ornaments. Other species do not bear the close air of apartments well, and are very liable to die if taken from the greenhouse or conservatory.
Fig. 6 represents an avenue called the "Savannah of Cayenne," which is composed of the straight-stemmed cabbage palm (Oreodoxa oleracea of the Antilles), and has been much admired by travelers. Whenever one of the trees is blown down, or removed by any other cause, another one is at once planted in its place.
Palm-trees rarely grow in numbers together. There are, however, groves of a few species. The Attalea excelsa of America, which grows to the height of more than fifty feet, forms small woods. The Oreodoxa oleracea, or cabbage palm, is one of the largest species known, with its head often rising above the foliage of the virgin forest. Specimens of it have been found by measure to be about a hundred feet high, and the royal species of Havana rises to nearly one hundred and twenty feet. These plants are for the most part evergreen. They do not love climates of intermittent temperatures and abrupt changes, except in rare cases, of which the Areca palm of India (Areca catechu) affords an example. This species is extensively cultivated in the Indies, where the firm and astringent kernel of its nut (Fig. 7) is chewed with the betel-leaf by every native, as other people smoke or chew tobacco.
A considerable number of fossil palms have been found, chiefly in the Miocene Tertiary of America, India, and Europe.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from La Nature.