Object lesson No 28

14th July 2000 at 01:00
If the sea is turquoise and the sun is blazing, what is the beach? Yes, you're right. It's palm-fringed. No holiday brochure can resist the cliche - and not many humans can either. But before you dig out last year's lilo and drift off into the sleepy lagoons of your mind, pause to remember that palm trees are far more than one of Mother Earth's fringe benefits.

Palms flourish mainly in the tropics of Asia, Africa and the Americas. They are one of the world's oldest flowering plants, with fossils of the salt-water Nypa tree dating back 100 million years.

Of the many hundreds of species rooting and fruiting every day, some grow in mangrove swamps, some in river mud, some in rain forest and some on the promenade in Torquay.

Palms have been vital to life in the tropics for centuries. Agro-economists have only recently woken up to the fact that no other plant family provides humankind with such a range of goodies. Raffia, rattan for furniture and betel for Asian chewing gum all come from palms. The gru gru tree is used to make wine, the gebang provides starch and the ceroxylon is a source of wax. Up to 200 species of palm can roduce oil - though to date only about 20 have been exploited.

Indonesians say that coconut palms have as many uses as there are days in the year. A 15-year-old tree will yield between 50-100 nuts annually for about 35 years. From these we extract copra, source of the world's most common vegetable oil, as well as the bountiful white flesh and the milk. The husk is turned into coir, a strong fibre for ropes, baskets and mats. Its inner layer is used as cups or burned to make charcoal. The trunk provides timber, the leaves thatching, the leaf stems fence poles.

Fermenting the coconut's flower stalks yields an alcoholic drink called toddy. Thus the tree that has fed and housed you can also send you happy to bed.

The date palm has almost as many uses as the coconut. Cultivated for centuries for the sake of its brown fruit, more than 1,000 dates can appear in a single bunch weighing up to 18lb. Quite a burden for a tree already weighed down with religious significance. Its leaves were laid down before Jesus when he entered Jerusalem on what is now Palm Sunday. Now that was a date to remember.

Stephanie Northen

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