PALM-TREES. Two or three varieties only, of the four or five hundred which are said to exist, are imported into this country from the East and West Indies: they are known in England by the names, palm, palmetto, palmyra, and nutmeg, leopard, and porcupine wood, etc, from their fancied resemblances, as when they are cut horizontally, they exhibit dots like the spice, and when obliquely, the markings assimilate to the quills of the porcupine.
The trunks of the palms are not considered by physiological botanists to be true wood, they all grow from within, and are always soft and spongy in the centre, but are gradually harder towards the outside: they do not possess the medullary rays of the proper woods, but only the vertical fibres, which are held together by a much softer substance, like pith or cement, so that the horizontal section is always dotted, by which they may be readily distinguished from all true woods. The colours and hardness of the two parts differ very materially, and I am enabled, through the kindness of Sir James Sutherland and Colonel Sykes, to give the distinctive names of three to which I shall advert
The Areca Catechu, or be tie-nut palm, is remarkably perpendicular; it grows to the height of about 30 feet, and rarely exceeds 4 or 5 in. diameter; it bears a small tuft of leaves, and the fruit is in clusters like grapes. The betle-nut is chewed by the Indians along with quicklime, and the leaf of the Piper Betle, in the manner of tobacco. The general colour of the wood is a light yellow brown; the fibres are large, hard, and only a few shades darker than the cementitious portions.
The Cocos nucifera, or cocoa-nut palm, flourishes the beat in sandy spots near the sea-beach, and sometimes grows to 90 ft in height and 3 ft in diameter, but is generally less; it is rarely quite straight or perpendicular, and has broad pendent leaves from 12 to 14 feet long, in the midst of which is a sort of cabbage, which, as well as the fruit the cocoa-nut is eaten: the husk of the nut supplies the material for coir-rope and matting. No part of this interesting tree is without its grateful service to the Indian: the leaves are used for making baskets, mats, and the covering of his dwelling; he also obtains from this tree, oil, sugar, palm-wine and arrack; and although the upper part of the trunk is soft and stringy, the lower supplies a useful wood, the fibres of which are of a chesnut brown, and several shades darker than the intermediate substance, the wood is employed for joists, troughs for water, and many purposes of general carpentry. The Asiatic Society has specimens marked, male, 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th sorts, and the same number of female varieties; no material distinction is observable between them.
The Niepere palm is much darker than either of the preceding kinds; the fibres are nearly black and quite straight, and the cement is of a dark brown, but in other varieties with these black fibres, the softer part is very light-coloured, and so friable that it may be picked out with the fingers. Colonel G. A. Lloyd informs me, that at the Isthmus of Darien, they use the fibres of some of the palms as nails for joinery-work.
Palmyra-wood, or that of Borassus fiabelliformis, says Mr. Laird, is largely imported into Madras and Pondicherry, from the Jaffna district at the northern part of Ceylon, for the construction of flat roofs, the joists of which consist of two slabs, the third or fourth part of the tree, bolted together by their flat sides so as to constitute elliptical rafters. They are covered first with flat tiles, and then with a white concrete called Chunam, consisting of shell lime, yolks of eggs, and Jaggree, (sugar,) beaten together with water in which the husks of cocoa-nuts have been steeped.
The palm woods are sparingly employed in England for cabinet and marquetry work, and sometimes for billiard cues, which are considered to stand remarkably well; they are also turned into snuff-boxes, etc. The smaller kinds are imported under the names of Partridge canes, (called also Chinese or fishing canes,) Penang canes from the island of that name, together with some other small palms which are used for walking-sticks, the roots serving to form the knobs or handles. The knobs of these sticks exhibit irregular dots something like the scales of snakes; these arise from the small roots proceeding from the principal stem, which latter shows dotted fibres at each end of the stick, and streaks along the side of the same.
The twisted palm sticks, are the central stems or midribs of the leaves of the date palm; they are twisted when green, and stretched with heavy weights until they are thoroughly dry: they are imported from the Neapolitan coast, but are considered to be produced in Egypt.
The bamboos, which like the palms are endogens, are used in India and China for almost every purpose in the arts; amongst others, in working iron and steel, as the bamboo is preferred as fuel in this art, the large pieces serve as the blowing cylinders, the small as the blast-pipe, and also when combined with a cocoa-nut shell constitutes the hookah, of the artisan. In England the bamboos, and several of the solid canes, are used as walking-sticks, and for umbrella and parasol sticks.
The shells of the cocoa-nut and coquilla-nut, and the kernels of the arcca or betle-nut, and those of the corosos or ivory-nut, have likewise their uses in our workshops. See Scpplement, pages 111 and 112, of this Catalogue.