Palm Fruit Photos
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Economic Plant Photographs #10

Edible Palm Fruits

Pejibaye Palm, Coconut, Date Palm, Senegal Date Palm,
African Oil Palm, Saw Palmetto, Jelly Palm, Betel Nut,
Amazonian Starnut Palm, and Chilean Wine Palm

Pejibaye Palm (Bactris gasipaes)

The pejibaye palm (Bactris gasipaes) of Costa Rica. Left: Mature palm in Tortuguero National Park bearing clusters of fruit; Right: Fresh palm fruit at the marketplace in San Jose, Costa Rica. The pejibaye palm is a native Costa Rican palm. It is also the called the peach palm because of the delicious, red, peach-like fruits. Like other species of Bactris, the trunk is covered with sharp, stiff spines (barely discernible in photo).

Coconut Palm (Cocos nucifera)

The fruit of the coconut (Cocos nucifera) is technically a large, dry drupe (D) composed of a thin outer layer (exocarp), a thick, fibrous middle layer called a mesocarp (F), and a hard inner layer called an endocarp (E) that surrounds a large seed. The endocarp (A) contains three germination pores at one end, one of which the sprouting coconut palm grows through. The "meat" of the seed is endosperm tissue (B) and a small, cylindrical embryo is embedded in this nutritive tissue just opposite the functional germination pore. The seed is surrounded by an outer brown layer called the seed coat or testa. This is the brown material that adheres to the white "meat" or endosperm when it is removed from the endocarp shell. "Coconut water" (C) is multinucleate liquid endosperm that has not developed into solid tissue composed of cells. Copra comes from the meat of dried coconuts, while coir fibers are derived from the fibrous mesocarp.

Read About The Coconut Pearl Hoax

Sprouting fruit of a coconut Cocos nucifera. The hard inner layer (endocarp) contains the actual seed composed of a minute embryo and food storage tissue (endosperm). The base of the embryo (cotyledon) swells into an absorbing organ that fills the entire cavity of the seed as it digests the endosperm. The endocarp has three germination pores, one functional pore and two plugged pores. [In "blind coconuts" all three pores are plugged.] The three pores represent three carpels, typical of the palm family (Arecaceae). Just inside the functional germination pore is a minute embryo embedded in the endosperm tissue. During germination, a spongy mass develps from the base of the embryo and fills the seed cavity. This mass of tissue is called the "coconut apple" and is essentially the functional cotyledon of the seed. [The white color has been altered in order to clearly differentiate it from the endosperm.] It dissolves and absorbs the nutrient-rich endosperm tissue to supply the developing shoot with sugars and minerals. Eventualy, the developing palm becomes self sufficient, as its leaves produce sugars through photosynthesis and its roots absorb minerals from the soil. The coconut "apple" is rich in sugars and is a sweet delicacy in tropical countries. The endosperm is the coconut "meat" which is dried and sold as "copra." The coconut "water" is multinucleate liquid endosperm inside green coconuts that has not developed into solid tissue composed of cells. It is incorrectly called "coconut milk" in some references. Before the liquid endosperm forms a solid "meat" it is jellylike and may be eaten with a spoon. This stage of the endosperm development is called "spoon meat." The "coconut milk" used in many Asian recipes is made by soaking grated coconut meat in water and squeezing out the oil-rich liquid. "Coir" fibers are derived from the fibrous mesocarp. The saturated fat called "coconut oil" is derived from the meaty endosperm.

Close-up view through the inside of a coconut seed showing a small, cylindrical embryo (A) embedded in the fleshy meat or endosperm (B). The base of the embryo (pointing into the coconut) swells into an absorbing organ (cotyledon) that fills the entire cavity of the seed as it digests the endosperm. The wall of the endocarp (C) is a hard, woody layer that makes up the inner part of the fruit wall. The thick, fibrous husk (mesocarp) that surrounds the endocarp has been removed.

Read About Ocean Dispersal Of Coconuts
Read About Coconuts And The Coconut Crab

Close-up view of the three germination pores on the endocarp of a coconut. Although only one pore is functional, each pore represents one of the three carpels of this monocotyledonous plant. An ordinary paper clip can easily penetrate the functional germination pore. This allows the developing shoot to grow out of the hard, woody endocarp. The other two pores are impenetrable woody depressions. "Blind" coconuts apparently do not have germination pores. They are rarely produced and are the alleged source of coconut pearls.

Do Coconuts Really Produce A Pearl?

Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera)

The date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) is native to desert regions of Northern Africa, where moisture is available from springs or underground water. This is truly a palm of desert oases. It has been cultivated for thousands of years and its fruit was an important food in biblical times, providing desert travelers with a nutritious meal. Like the fig (Ficus carica), dates could be dried and carried on long journeys across vast areas of parched land. The date palm is a dioecious species, with male and female flowers produced on separate trees. Dates are naturally wind pollinated, but humans have assisted in this pollen transfer since great antiquity. As early as 2300 B.C., people had learned to hang a male inflorescence in a female tree to enhance pollination. Modern machines now blow pollen on female flowers when the stigmas are receptive, although many traditional date growers still use hand pollination.

A date palm basket, hand-woven by village women in Pakistan. Hand-dyed strips of date palm leaves are tightly wrapped around primary coils (bundles) of reed fibers.

Aerial view of a date palm orchard (Phoenix dactylifera) in the arid Colorado Desert of Coachella Valley, California. Irrigation ditches between rows of trees are flooded with water every week or two during the hottest months.

In the arid Coachella Valley of southern California, many varieties of dates are grown in orchards that were established in the early 1900s. Although date palms are naturally pollinated by the wind, this is not an effective method for maximum fruit yield in cultivated orchards, especially since the groves are composed of predominately female trees. In Coachella Valley, the dates are hand pollinated with pollen collected from the inflorescences of male trees. One male tree produces enough pollen for a harem of about 50 female trees. In spring, small cotton powder puffs containing pollen are applied to the moist, receptive stigmas of female inflorescences. Some growers use rubber atomizer bulbs to apply pollen, and in some orchards, sprigs of pollen-laden male inflorescences are tied to the female inflorescences. As the bunches of dates begin to ripen, excess clusters are pruned away to allow for the optimal productivity of each tree (50 to 300 pounds of dates, depending on the tree).

Left: Small, shriveled fruits of the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) that were pruned from the bunches to allow for optimal development of the crop. Right: Mature, pollinated dates that were allowed to ripen on the tree. The date fruit (technically called a drupe) contains a hard, seed-bearing pit or endocarp.

Pollinated dates are harvested throughout the fall months, from September to December. Because all dates on a tree may not mature at the same time, they are hand-picked several times during the fall from bunches on the trees. This ensures that the dates are picked at their peak level of sugar content and flavor. [In some parts of the world growers cut entire bunches (like bananas) and allow them to ripen in warm rooms away from the trees, although hand-picked dates are considered the ne plus ultra of dates.] Since pollination and picking requires many repeat visits by workers to the crowns of the palms, large trees have permanent ladders attached the main trunks. During the fall months, paper covers protect the bunches of dates from possible rain damage. [Early fall and winter rains bring out a profusion of desert wildflowers, but cause devastating mold damage to the date crops. There are other textbook explanations for these conspicuous paper covers, but they are mainly used to prevent water damage to the vulnerable dates during the critical fall months when the dates ripen.] Because of genetic recombination and the unpredictability of seeds, choice date palms are propagated (cloned) by offshoots (sucker sprouts) at the base of the trunks.

Date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) photographed in December 1999 at Shields Date Gardens in Indio, California. The paper covers (resembling lamp shades) protect the dates from possible rain damage during the fall months. Rain during the critical fall ripening months can cause sooty black mold to grow on the dates.

Date cultivars are classified as soft, semi-soft and dry or bread dates. Chewy bread dates keep longer and can be used for "survival food" on long trips. In Coachella Valley, the most popular soft variety is 'Medjool,' originally introduced into the United States in 1927 from eleven offshoots from Bou Denib Oasis in French Morocco. In the semi-dry category, the most popular variety grown in Coachella Valley is 'Deglet Noor,' a delicious variety from the Sahara oases of Algeria. Another semi-dry cultivar called 'Zahidi' originated in northern Iraq.

Left: Unripe, seedless, unpollinated fruits of the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) from a female tree in Coastal San Diego county. Right: Pollinated, dried, Medjool dates from Coachella Valley, California. Dates are technically referred to as drupes because the outer fleshy tissue is part of the pericarp. The inner, hard endocarp layer (pit) encloses the seed. The date palm is a dioecious species, like willows, cottonwoods, marijuana and people. Since the fruits occur on separate female trees, they must be pollinated by male trees in order to mature into sweet, delicious dates.

Ripe, pollinated fruits of the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera). They are crispy, sweet and slightly pungent. Most tree-ripened dates are dried before they are sent to markets.

In coastal San Diego County (southern California), female date palms (Phoenix dactylifera) produce parthenocarpic fruits without pollination. The fruits contain rudimentary, seedless endocarps, but nontheless are edible. The unpollinated fruits of P. dactylifera are smaller and contain less sugar and pulp compared with commercial pollinated dates.

An unpollinated female date palm (Phoenix dactylifera) bearing parthenocarpic fruit. The fruits are less flavorful and smaller than pollinated dates and they contain a rudimentary, seedless endocarp. Date palms such as this are planted in the parking areas of shopping centers in San Diego County. The large Canary Island date palm (P. canariensis) is also commonly planted along streets and as a specimen tree in southern California. See close-up view of the parthenocarpic fruit in next photo:

Parthenocarpic fruit from an unpollinated female date palm (Phoenix dactylifera). The fruits have a lower sugar and water content than pollinated dates and they contain a rudimentary, seedless endocarp.

A: Pollinated Medjool dates (Phoenix dactylifera) showing a sectioned, seed-bearing drupe and fertile, seed-bearing endocarp. B: Unpollinated, parthenocarpic dates (P. dactylifera) showing sectioned fruits and a rudimentary, seedless endocarp.

Senegal Date Palm (Phoenix reclinata)

Fruits of the senegal date palm (Phoenix reclinata), another date palm native to tropical Africa. This specimen was grown in the Palomar College Arboretum. Unlike P. dactylifera, this species is smaller and often develops multiple trunks. The fruits are also smaller than the P. dactylifera, but like the cultivated date palm, they are edible and are used for date sugar. Lower right fruit is sectioned to show that it is a drupe containing a hard, stony, inner layer (endocarp). The senegal date palm is often used in southern California landscaping because of its picturesque clumps of curved, multiple trunks.

See Why Drupes Are Not Nuts

African Oil Palm (Elaeis guineensis)

A mature African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis) and cartload of palm fruits near Quepos, Costa Rica. The fruits are harvested for their oil-rich mesocarp (pulp) and seeds. Like coconuts, the seeds are rich in saturated fatty acids such as palmitic acid. Palmitic acid has all single bonds between the carbon atoms and is similar to animal fat (stearic acid), except it has 16 rather than 18 carbons. Palm oils are used primarily for soaps and candles, but they are also found in margarines and candy. Health-conscious people who are concerned about atherosclerosis tend to stay away from foods rich in saturated fats.

See The Chemistry Of Plant Oils

Saw Palmetto (Serenoa repens)

One of the most interesting palms utilized by humans for food and as a valuable herbal remedy is the saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). This palm is native to the southeastern United States, from Florida to North Carolina. Unlike most palms, the stem is typically prostrate with erect palmate leaves. It grows in coastal dune areas and inland pine woodlands, often forming dense, impenetrable thickets in the understory of pines, such as slash pine (Pinus elliottii) and longleaf pine (Pinus palustris). The common name is derived from the leaf stalks (petioles) which are armed with rows of sharp teeth resembling a saw blade.

Left: Forest of slash pines (Pinus elliottii) with dense understory of saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). Right: Leaf stalks (petioles) of saw palmetto showing rows of sharp, sawlike teeth.

The juicy black fruits (drupes) were an important food for native Americans of this region, such as the Seminoles. Early settlers also made a soothing tea from the dried fruits. Therapeutic benefits from saw palmetto tea has been known for decades. It was prescribed for frequency of urination and excessive night urination due to inflammation of the bladder and prostate enlargement. Recent studies indicate that the use of saw palmetto may be more than folklore. The fruit mesocarp is rich in steroidal compounds called sitosterols. According to Herbs That Heal by M.A. Weiner and J.A. Weiner (1994), benign prostate enlargement (benign prostatic hyperplasia or BPH), is caused by testosterone accumulation in the prostate. The testosterone is then converted into dihydrotestosterone (DHT), which causes cellular proliferation and enlargement of the prostate. Saw palmetto extract (beta sitosterol) from the dried fruits prevents the conversion of testosterone into DHT because it inhibits the action of the enzyme testosterone-5-alpha-reductase by competitive inhibition. This is essentially the same action of the prescription drug finasteride (Proscar). Several double blind studies have been conducted that indicate an improvement in men suffering from enlarged prostates; however, there is considerable disagreement among urologists whether this herbal remedy is really an effective cure for this condition. Until more data is available, saw palmetto may be a useful herb to take as a relatively inexpensive preventive therapy.

The ripe fruits (top) and herbal extract capsules (bottom) of saw palmetto (Serenoa repens). At maturity the fruits (drupes) are shiny black. The extract made from dried fruits is taken by men as preventive therapy for prostate enlargement.

References About Saw Palmetto:

  1. Blumenthal, M. 2000. "Saw Palmetto." Herbalgram Number 50: 32-37.

  2. Duke, J.A. 1997. The Green Pharmacy. Rodale Press, Emmaus, Pennsylvania.

  3. Weiner, M.A. and J. Weiner. 1994. Herbs That Heal. Quantum Books, Mill Valley, California.

Jelly Palm (Butia capitata)

Jelly palm (Butia capitata), a South American monoecious palm native to Brazil. The large cluster of yellowish-orange drupes is produced on a stalk near the base of the curved leaves. The drupes have a fleshy, sweet mesocarp with the flavor of apricots. They are eaten fresh or made into jellies, jams, cakes, pies and other delicious deserts.

Betel Nut Palm (Areca catechu)

One of the most interesting uses for palms involves the chewing of seeds from the betel nut palm (Areca catechu). This palm is native to Malaya, but extensively cultivated throughout India, southeastern China, the East Indies, and the Philippines where the seeds (called betel nuts) are chewed. This curious practice dates back to antiquity and was first described by Herodotus in 340 BC. The usual method of chewing involves betel nuts, betel pepper leaves from Piper betel (Piperaceae) and lime powder (calcium hydroxide). Betel leaves come from the same genus as black pepper (P. nigrum) and kava kava (P. methysticum). Slices of ripe betel nuts are placed in the mouth. Then fresh leaves of the betel pepper are smeared with lime (calcium hydroxide) and chewed with the nuts. Sometimes the the mixture is chewed with cloves, cinnamon, tamarind, cardamom, nutmeg or other spices to enhance the flavor. Betel nut chewing is commonly indulged in after dinner. The mass is worked in the mouth without swallowing; the process stimulates a copious flow of saliva which is continuously expectorated. Although it has been compared with chewing tobacco, betel nuts do not contain the harmful ingredients of tobacco. In fact, betel nut chewing may have some medicinal value, such as counteracting overacidity and producing a mild stimulation and feeling of well being; however, recent articles give a different conclusion. According to Cindy Sui and Anna Lacey BBC Health Check 22 March 2015 (Asia's Deadly Secret: The Scourge Of The Betel Nut), betel nuts, and betel pepper leaves are all carcinogens and contribute to the oral cancer epidemic in those countries where the quid is chewed.

Left: A betel nut palm with clusters of seed-bearing fruits produced on inflorescences below the leaves. Right: A betel nut necklace.

Starnut Palm (Astrocaryum huicungo)

A necklace from the Rio Napo, a tributary of the Amazon River in Ecuador. The large seed-bearing fruits and endocarps are from the starnut palm (Astrocaryum huicungo). This palm is named from the starlike design surrounding the three germination pores on the endocarps

Chilean Wine Palm (Jubaea chilensis)

Left: Jubaea chilensis, the famous wine palm native to Chile. The watery sap from the trunk is fermented into palm wine, or boiled down into a thick syrup called palm honey or "miel de palma." The edible endocarps are sold in specialty stores as miniature coconuts or "coquitos." Right: Spathe bracts that subtend the inflorescences of the wine palm.

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