The Palm Tree: the particular etymology and economy of Elaeis guineensis
The latest entry from the wonderful world the intersection of all things botanical, economic, and socio-political brings us to palm oil. Any visit to West Africa (indeed parts of South America ans Asia as well) will bring the traveler face to face with the massive palm oil trade. It is used for a host of reasons, in foods, as fuel, and elsewhere. The particular variety I am discussing today, Elaeis guineensis, comes from the family Palmae (perhaps not surprisingly) and is an amazingly storied, named, and used plant.
According to the fabulous Burkill resource, Useful Plants of West Tropical Africa, the Elaeis guineensis plant has an incredible amount of common names throughout West Africa, including some of the following. The ethnic group name is listed first:
- Akan-Fante (Ghana): sσsεε
- Baga (Guinea): ka-gbe
- Igbo (Nigeria): akw ederi
- Wolof (Senegal): niaye
- Mende (Sierra Leone): mani
Besides being further evidence of the importance of common names for plants in conjunction with the standard Linnaean (ie Latin) taxonomic structure, the variety of names illustrates the stretch of the plant across the whole of West Africa and its myriad of uses. In West Africa, it is sometimes added to the signature dish of fufu. To learn more for yourself about the common names and uses of the palm tree, see the entry for Elaeis guineensis on JSTOR Plant Science.
Palm oil is high in beta-carotene, but it is a naturally occurring saturated fat. Intake increases both LDL and HDL cholesterol. In many parts of the world, it is used as a frying oil in lieau of olive or vegetable oils. It is also a good source of Vitamin E. The red palm oil variety is full of antioxidants and is used in everything from mayonnaise to anti-aging cosmetics. Palm wine is a popular beverage as well in many parts of West Africa.
Traditionally, the palm tree has been used for a variety of medicines (at least in West Africa), although some of the effects of these medicines is disputed in modern science. The cabbage is used to calm upset stomachs and pulmonary troubles, as well as a diuretic. The oil itself is used as an antidote for stings and bites as well to treat infections. The root is used to treat rheumatism and arthritis. All in all, a fairly versatile plants.
Palm oil has a thriving economy, one that has been around for quite some time. According to the excellent Cambridge World History of Food:
West Africa is the classic region of smallholder production, both of food and export crops. The oil palm, which has been both, flourishes in natural association with yam and cassava cultivation throughout the wetter parts of the region. In eastern Nigeria, which C. W. S. Hartley (1988: 7, 16) called “the greatest grove area of Africa,” densities of 200 palms per hectare (ha) were common in the late 1940s, and densities of more than 300 palms per hectare were not unknown.
These palms were typically self-seeded and tended (to varying degrees) by local farmers. Farther west, in the kingdom of Dahomey and in settlements established by the Krobo people near Accra, some deliberate plantings may have been made as the palm oil export trade developed from the 1830s (Manning 1982; Wilson 1991). However, as J. Reid (1986: 211) has noted, the word plantation was often used by contemporary European observers to mean a food farm on which oil palms happened to be growing. Moreover, although in Dahomey descriptions exist of seedlings being transplanted from the bush onto areas cleared for farming by slaves, this does not mean that the practice was universal. In any event, palm oil exports from Dahomey were much smaller than from the Niger Delta, where oil palms were planted deliberately in swampy regions outside their natural habitat, but where the bulk of production was carried out using natural groves. In the 1840s, Dahomey and the Niger Delta exported approximately 1,000 and 13,000 tonnes per annum respectively; by the 1880s these totals had risen to 5,000 and 20,000 (Manning 1982: 352; Reid 1986: 158; Martin 1988: 28—9; Lynn 1989: 241).
It was the Industrial Revolution that truly stimulated the demand for palm oil globally as it was used to lubricate the machinery in the factories. More recently, it is has received another injection of interest due its ability to be used as a biofuel (in some countries, 5% of all fuel must be palm oil). Incidentally, it is Malaysia that dominates the world trade for palm oil at 45% of the total market (most of which is shipped to the US, China, India, and Pakistan for use as margarine and other food products). In World War II, palmitic (palm oil) acid was used in combination with naptha to make weapons grade napalm. Quite a versatile plant.
For more information, see the following: