This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V23", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
Of all the graceful palms of the tropics, the Betel or Areca Palm of Linnaeus probably holds the first place, both because of its beauty and the value of its fruit. This tree attains its greatest perfection upon the plains of Siam. Frequently it raises its slender trunk crowned by a tuft of plume-like leaves, ninety feet into the air. The average diameter of the Betel Palm, about two feet from the ground is about six inches, and it diminishes but little in size till the extreme top is reached. The wood is of little value, the grain being too open for use, save for rough purposes. In the place of a heart it has a fibrous pith occupying about half of its diameter. The bark is of a light ash color with parallel circles about six inches apart, marking the places from which leaves formerly sprung. Its trunk is remarkably straight and upright, without a knot or limb to its very summit, at which point it has only a tuft of feathery leaves six or eight in number. The leaves are pinnate, each being five feet or more in length, curving gracefully upward and outward.
It is probably owing to the smallness of their tops that they stand so remarkably upright, while their neighbors, the cocoanut palms generally lean in all directions. These feel much more than their slender sisters every blast of wind that touches them. The roots of both are about equally strong, being made up of small tough ramifications from one common centre. The Betel trees in Siam are generally planted in orchards. They are placed eight or ten feet apart in rows, with a deep trench between each row. The spaces between the trees are usually profitably occupied by the ceri plant, which is a beautiful vine, twining upon poles ten or twelve feet high, standing two or three feet apart. It belongs to the pepper family, and is raised only on account of its spicy cordate leaves which are always chewed with the Betel nut. In order that this plant may flourish on the same bed with the Betel trees it is supplied with large quantities of putrified fish, placed close to the roots. The stench thus produced is horrible to all unaccustomed to it, but is generally regarded as both healthful and agreeable by the natives living in or about the orchard.
The Betel trees begin to bear about the third or fourth year of their age at which time they are about eighteen feet high. They continue producing fruit for about forty years, when they begin to decay at their roots. A Betel nut with its coverings much resembles a small orange. They grow in large clusters a hundred and fifty to three hundred nuts in each. Each cluster is attached by its stem to the tree a little below the leaves and hangs gracefully under their shade. When ripe the fruit is of reddish yellow color. The outer part is simply a tough hull about a quarter of an inch in thickness. The nut itself is about the size and shape of a large nutmeg when stripped of its envelopes. It is very prettily marked with white and flesh-colored stripes. The natives prefer the nut in its fresh state before it is fully ripe. The nut with its hull is divided into quarters with a peculiar knife used only for this purpose. It is the women's place to prepare the Betel nut. It is always kept ready and offered to visitors as soon as the usual greetings have been exchanged. The Siamese all chew Betel. A section of the nut is placed in the mouth; a ceri leaf is then spread with fresh lime paste, rolled up with the lime butter inside and placed in the mouth to join the Betel already in the mill.
A pinch of tobacco is then placed between the upper front teeth and the lip. This combination colors the saliva blood-red, the lips a deep vermilion, and the teeth jet black. But all this is considered beautiful. They say persons with white teeth look like ghosts. If for any reason a Siamese cannot chew Betel he blackens his teeth with a kind of varnish, produced by charring a cocoanut shell in a small earthen pot covered with a plate of iron. A fire is placed under the pot and the products of combustion are condensed on the cold iron. They are at first dark brown but soon become jet black. Both the Betel and the lime are astringents. They cause the gums to contract, and make the teeth look very long; for the same reason they often become loose and drop out, but they never decay.
Dr. Gowen, who has resided in Bangkok many years, said he had never known a Siamese who used Betel to have decayed teeth, and be never knew one who did not use it who did not suffer from this disease. A Siamese would rather do without all other food for a day than abstain from his Betel. Each Betel tree on an average bears annually six hundred nuts. A native on an average uses eight nuts per day. The retail value of the Betel nuts is fifty for a fuang or eight cents.