This section is from the book "The Gardener's Monthly And Horticulturist V21", by Thomas Meehan. See also: Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long.
Now that palms have been found not to require such a high skill to grow them, nor that all need be supplied with so much artificial heat, as some natives of the hottest parts of the world, and that they enter so largely in the decoration of parlors, halls and conservatories, it may not be amiss to make their friends better acquainted with the important part they play in the economy of nature and of the relation they bear to the human race, apart from their imposing grandeur and sublime beauty. In those countries, where the permanent high temperature of both atmosphere and soil prevent man from becoming as industrious as is natural and necessary for him to be in the temperate zone, nature has produced plants which yield almost without labor all man needs to maintain a life of dolce far niente. Besides the banana, no plant occupies such an important position as the palm. Furnishing food, drink, clothing, building material, condiments and in short everything man needs where so little is required to satisfy his primary necessities.
Since the space allowed in this magazine is not sufficient to exhaust the subject, I will only mention some few of the most useful members of this aristocratic family, the princes of the vegetable kingdom, as Humbolt called them.
At the head of them all stands indisputably the Cocoa Palm, of which not less than twelve different species with numerous varieties are known. They are perhaps the most cosmopolitan, since they grow in Asia, America, Africa and Australia, but principally on the Indian Archipelago and the islands of the Pacific Ocean, thriving best near the coast, a few feet above high tide, but occur also in the interior of the continents, in the cultivated districts of the Magdalena River, near Patna, in Bengal, Merida, in Yucatan, and under the equator, even as high as 3000 to 4000 feet above the sea. In Asia they grow in the West of India as far north as 22° N.; on the coast of Bengal and China they extend their limits to 25° S., to which degree they also go in Australia. Thus they inhabit a zone of 50° on the west of America, whilst on the east of our continent and the west of Africa they become scarcer and their range is considerably reduced. They are of rapid growth, attaining a height of from sixty to one hundred feet, and acquire their greatest capacity of bearing at the age of from twenty to sixty years, after which period they lose their elastic appearance and upright position, becoming crooked and unsightly. Every part of them is useful.
The leaves, fifteen to twenty feet long, are employed in the manufacture of baskets, mats, screens, parasols, hats and roofing. Both in Europe and in this country the fibre of the nuts is extensively used in the manufacture of hats, mats and brushes. The young and tender leaves, when cooked, furnish a vegetable dish similar to our cabbage. The kernel of the nut gives the well-known cocoanut oil, and the curry or mullagatawny, is a dish indispensible for the table of a Cingalese. When the tree becomes too old to bear any more fruit it furnishes that valuable wood known as Palmyra-wood. The wine made from the juice of the flowering shaft called Toddy, when in full fermentation is much relished by the inhabitants of East India. The species called by botanists Cocos nucifera being the most useful of the tribe is cultivated on the Canary Islands. In Brazil we meet the C. coronata, C. capitata, C. schizophylla and C. oleracea. In New Grenada and Venezuela C. butyracea, which, when felled and a cavity cut into the trunk yields an average of eighteen bottles of wine, said to be equal to the best champagne.
C. guinensis and C. aculeata furnish that valuable article of African commerce, the genuine palm oil.
Next to the Cocos we find the Areca palm, with twenty species, belonging exclusively to the Eastern Hemisphere. Of these the most important is the A. Catechu, a slender, most lovely and graceful tree about fifty feet high, furnishing the catechu or Japan earth, the extract of the fruit. It is an adjunct to every Indian and Cingalese village whenever it can be made to grow, but being naturally a lover of moisture it finds its most congenial home in the well watered valleys of Ceylon. The nut forms the principal part of the material for betel chewing, a luxury in which the Cingalese and Tamil people, old and young of both sexes freely indulge. With this we must mention the A. oleracea or Cabbage Palm. Then the Arenga with five species of which the most important is A. saccharifera, yielding palm wine from which the Batavian Arac (Aarc de Soa) is distilled. In Malacca it is cultivated for the purpose of making sugar, and from the marrow, sago. Next come the Borassus Palms, growing both in Asia and Africa, about seventy feet high. B. HEthiopium, the Delep Palm of Nubia, valued for its fruit and the roots of the young plant which are eaten.
This palm gives character to the whole country South of the Lake Tsad, and is to the inhabitants of middle Africa of the same importance as the Date Palm is to the Arabs. B. flabelliformis, the Tala, Palmyra or Contar Palm forms extensive forests on both coasts of the Persian Bay, also along the coast of Malabar and on the banks of the Indus; on the coast of Coromandel as far as Madras ; the North of Ceylon; the Sunda Islands ; the Moluccas and so forth, thus occupying about a quarter of the circumference of the Earth between 10° S, and 30° N., and between 54° and 140° E. L. On the peninsula of Jaffna, Ceylon, it is estimated that upon about thirty-three square miles upwards of six millions and a half of this Palm grow, furnishing the main sustenance to between six and seven millions of people. The adaptability of this precious tree to various purposes is almost unlimited. A poem in the Tamil language mentions 801 of them.
The Date Palm with about twelve species, growing in Asia and Africa, and of which the Phoenix dactilifera is the best known is cultivated since time immemorial. It is supposed to be derived from the East Indian species, the Ph. sylvestris. Though not cultivated in India, yet there are nowhere such vast forests of it found as on the Delta of the Euphrates, which probably is the home of this providential tree. The manifold uses of this palm are too well known to need repeated enumeration; suffice it to mention that the sap of Ph. sylvestris is so rich in sugar that one tree yields from seven to eight pounds of it annually and that the yearly production in Bengal alone amounts to about one hundred million of pounds.
To describe all the palms which so largely constitute the wealth of the tropics and supply so bountifully the means of life and commerce to the inhabitants of the warmer countries would require volumes, and this enumeration of a few of the most useful and interesting ones is expected to induce some of your readers to seek for more information elsewhere.