Final: The Natural History of the African Oil and Pejibaye Palms of Costa Rica

This discussion topic submitted by Ken Spencer ( at 12:01 pm on 7/6/99. Additions were last made on Saturday, July 31, 1999.

A worker unloads Oil Palm Fruit in SW Costa Rica

I often start out by telling my economic botany class that in our country, most people have no appreciation of the natural history of the plants we consume for our everyday sustenance. Ask a child, or most adults, where bananas come from, and the most likely response would be " the grocery store". That is the extent of most peopleís knowledge of the plants we consume, and take for granted, on a daily basis. Most might be surprised to learn that the majority of the plant foods we eat do not originate in North America. In the early 1900ís, the Russian botanist Nikolay Vavilov proposed the notion of eight centers of origin for domesticated plant species. This trip places us squarely in one of those centers ñ the Mexican / Central American center of domestication.

During our travels, in addition to Costa Ricaís two most important economic crops, bananas and coffee, we will witness the great diversity of tropical crops produced in this tiny country. A short list of these would include some familiar and possibly many unknowns such as: pina (pineapple), mango, papaya, cacao, guava, litchi, carambola (star fruit), chayote, Palma de Aceite, sour sop, yuca (cassava), avocado, cana (sugarcane), macadamia nut, cashew, pejibaye, limon, naranja (orange), black pepper, coconut, vanilla, and arroz (rice). Temperate and sub-tropical crops will include familiar American grocery store staples such as potatoes, beans, tomatoes, peppers, maize, cilantro, squashes and melons. Without much effort, we will likely encounter most of these during the course of our wanderings around the cities and countryside. My favorite destinations in Costa Rica include the many mercado centrals found in most larger towns. The Mercado Central in San Jose should be a required side trip for any class during its Costa Rica visit. With its cornucopia of tropical fruits and produce, the hustling, bustling central market is the perfect classroom for economic botany. I donít know if weíll visit it, but we will surely have an opportunity to see and sample most of the above mentioned products somewhere along the way. So, for the two weeks we are in country, try to forget the about foods to which you are so accustomed. Get ready for plenty of arroz con frijoles and whatever. Put aside any preconceived notions or prejudices you may have about those you are about to encounter. Donít pass on the opportunity to sample something new ñ you might just be surprised!

My discussion will center on two of the above mentioned products, the African Oil Palm and Pejibaye Palm. We will transect enormous plantations of African Oil Palm in the vicinity of Palmar Sur as we travel to Drake Bay. Their size is quite impressive from the air. These expansive United Fruit Company plantings replaced sprawling banana plantations years ago and are an important export crop. Along the way, we are likely to see Pejibaye, an ancient subsistence and modern up and coming crop, that has tremendous export potential. In fact, Costa Rica is now the worldís number two exporter of hearts of palm. You will have opportunity to sample Pejibaye nuts from the street vendors in San Jose and taste fresh hearts of Pejibaye in your dinner salad. Enjoy!

. My discussion of each plant will include: 1) Natural, 2) Ecology, 3) Description, 4) Uses 5) Cultivation & Harvesting

Elaeis guineensis

* Natural History
* Center of origin is West Africa
* Taken to Brazil 200 years ago with the slave trade
* Today its most rapid expansion is into Malaysia and Indonesia
* United Fruit Co. first established plantations in Costa Rica in the 1060ís

* Ecology
* Occurs in riverine forests
* Requires a minimum temperature of 21-24C
* Can withstand flooding and a fluctuating water table
* Does not regenerate in secondary forests
* In Costa Rica, it is always associated with humans
* Primarily found in plantations in the Atlantic and Southwest lowlands of Costa Rica
* United Fruit has extensive plantings in the Quepos and Palmar areas

* Description
* Tall erect palm 20+ meters with a heavily rigid trunk covered with epiphytes
* Natural life span may be 200 years
* Monoecious, with separate male and female clusters
* Produces 2-6 inflorescences / year each weighing 8+ kgs
* Fruits are 2-3 cm, weighing 3.5 gms, with 200-300 per cluster
* Flowers are wind pollinated over a 2-3 day period

* Uses
* Palm Oil and Palm Kernel Oil are second only to soy oil in consumption
* The oil yield is the highest of any oilseed crop, approximately 2.5 metric tons per hectare per year (MT/ha/yr)
* Palm Kernel Oil
* Kernel is 50% oil and similar to coconut oil
* High in saturated fatty acids, solid at room temperature and nearly colorless
* Uses: Edible fats, ice cream, mayonnaise, baked goods and confectioneries, soaps and detergents
* Press cake containing 20% protein is used as fodder
* Palm Oil
* Extracted from the fleshy mesocarp which is 45-55% oil
* Light yellow to orange-red in color, melts at 25C
* More highly unsaturated than kernel oil or coconut
* A rich source of beta carotene
* Manufacture of soaps, margarine and cooking fats
* Industrial oils for the textile and rubber industries
* Toddy Wine
* Male inflorescence is tapped and the exudate fermented
* Sap is 4.6 g / 100 ml sucrose and 3.4 /100 ml glucose
* An important source of vitamin B for indigenous people
* Edible Cabbage
* Meristem is extracted in effect killing the palm
* Thatching and Fencing Materials

* Cultivation & Production
* Normally propagated by seed
* Spaced 9 m x 9 m thus a 410 ha plantation would have 50,000 trees, each w/ 5 bunches of fruit = 1 kg of oil = 250,000 kg / ha
* Harvest begins in 3-4 years
* Bunches ripen 5-6 months after pollination

Bactris gasipaes

* Natural History
* Most important palm in pre-Columbian America
* Dated in Costa Rica to 2300-1700 BC
* Main crop and subsistence of the indigenous population of Costa Rica when the Spanish arrived
* Indigenous dependence has decreased due to:
* Reduction in indigenous population
* Loss of traditions
* Its perishable nature
* Introduction of new short cycle crops
* Expansion of stock farming

* Ecology
* Requires high temperatures averaging 18C
* Requires heavy rainfall, 250 cm per year w/o prolonged drought
* Well drained soil
* Elevations to 700 meters
* Ranges from subtropical dry ñ wet through tropical moist - wet

* Description
* Tall, spiny, clump producing monoecious palm, 110-15 meters tall
* Black spines 5-10 cm long, densely spaced at the nodes
* Extensive root system
* Fruit
* Inflorescence a raceme with male and female flowers
* Fruit a drupe of variable size, shape and color
* Inflorescence a cluster of 75-300 fruits, 12 kg
* Fruits 2-6 cm in diameter, weighing 200-300 gms
* Fruit color is yellow to green, orange to red
* Fruit produced 2X per year, typically September ñ December
* Pollination cycle is 3 days by insects, gravity and wind
* Fruit is taken by parrots, oropendulas, toucans and mammals

* Uses
* A basic energy source, a maize substitute, surpassing it in nutritive value
* High in vitamins A & C
* Fruit is cooked (boiled), dried or fermented
* Processed to form flour, as is maize
* Cooking oils expressed
* Chicha an alcoholic beverage produced by prolonged fermentation
* Wood products including ñ bows, arrows and spears
* Modern Uses
* Boiled in salty water and eaten plain or with mayonnaise or cheese, deep fried or roasted
* Tortillas ñ ground and mixed with egg and milk
* Hearts of Palm
* Chicha Beer
* Fodder
* Potential Insecticide ñ trypsin inhibitor

* Cultivation & Production
* Palmito Production
* Primarily propagated by seed with some tissue culture and division
* Spacing 2 m x 2 m with 4-6 shoots per rootstock
* Harvest in 12-18 months, 3+ stems per year
* Yield is 2 MT per ha = 9% of the biomass produced
* No major pests
* Fruit Production
* Spacing 7 m x 7 m
* Diseases / Pests ñ parrots and rodents
* Harvest
* Typically September to December
* Flower 2x per year with up to 13 racemes
* Trees typically live 50+ years, harvest begins after 6-8 years
* Fruit cluster contains 5-300 fruits, weighing 12 kgs
* Clumps may produce 90 kg /yr w/ 100 clumps / ha = 9,000 kg / ha
* Duke (1978) reported 3,00 kg / ha

Partial List Of References

Vaughn, J. G., & C. A. Geissler, 1997. The New Oxford Book Of Food Plants: A guide to the fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices of the world, Oxford University Press

West, J. A. 1992. A brief history and botany of cacao. In Chilies To Chocolate: Food the Americas Gave The World, ed. N. Foster and L. S. Coirdell, 105-21. Tucson and London: University of Arizona Press

Young, Allen M. 1994. The Chocolate Tree: A Natural History of Cacao, Smithsonian Institution Press

Simpson, B. B. & Ogorzaly M. C. 1995. Economic Botany: Plants In Our World, 2nd Editon, McGraw-Hill Publishers

Janzen, D. H. 1983. Agriculture. In Costa Rican Natural History, pp 66 ñ 117. University of Chicago Press

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