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Edible Fruit - Tropical Palms As Foods - Nipa Palm

Have You Had Any Palm Lately?

Just like everything you "need" is found within you, much of what you "need" to sustain you as a food source -- "lays in waiting" in your personal environment, no matter where in the world you live.  In the Western world, particularly in the United States, many of us see food daily and don't recognize it. Such is the case, in the warmer climate portions of the U.S. -- where palm trees are standard landscaping decoration, very few people will recognize them as a food source.

Nipa Palm, Source: Original Art - Owner: Jerilee Wei

Nipa Palm, Source: Original Art - Owner: Jerilee Wei

So popular are they, that in some states, there is a chronic problem of thefts of palm trees. Palm trees come with hefty price tags and the temptation to steal them and resell them, is a big underground business. Living in Central Florida, this phenomenon is not unusual.  Palm trees also have a surprise, because many of them are edible food sources both in times of emergency, and as a daily food source outside of the U.S. It's time to take a new look at one of earth's most recognizable trees.

The Incredibly Edible Palm

For those of you who don't know, most of the palm trees seen here, are not native to the state of Florida. It's also not well known that not all palm trees are "trees," as some are cycads. Since both of these points aren't well known facts, it stands to reason that most people do not know that tropical plant foods, including palm trees -- are great sources of edible plant foods. If you live in an area where palm trees are found, you will not have to worry about starving in a time of disaster.

Examples of palm tips, Source: Original Art - Owner: Jerilee Wei

Examples of palm tips, Source: Original Art - Owner: Jerilee Wei

Ask most people about palm trees and they'll also tell you that coconuts grow on them. A few may concede that dates grow on palm trees. The average American, however, hasn't got a clue as to what other palm trees are edible, or how many different types of palm trees exist. Nor, can they tell you what the various non-food uses are of the palm. I have deliberately not included a discussion of Coconut palms, Cabbage palms, or Date palms in this this article. It's time to broaden some food horizons.

Palms are native throughout the tropical world, and generally are found in the most numbers around the equator. They grow in all sorts of areas, vary in that they can vary in variety from tall trees to merely shrubs and vines. Now, maybe some of you are thinking everyone knows palm trees have edible fruit, they have coconuts. While true, the coconut palm isn't the only incredibly edible palm.

While it isn't likely that any of us will be stranded on a tropical island, it is important to know that in a matter of survival, palms are one of the best sources of plant food for the inexperienced individual seeking food. Palms contain drinkable sap, and have edible fruits. Additionally, the buds or starchy cores within many of the trunks are also excellent food sources.  Almost without exception, the terminal bud or growing point of most palms is edible either cooked or raw.

To locate the terminal bud, simply look on the tip of the trunk, and you'll see that it is enclosed by the frown of leaves or sheathing at the base of the leaf stem. The rule of thumb is that they are completely edible as long as they don't taste bitter.  Like many plants and trees, the sap of palms is both drinkable and nourishing. Additionally, the fruits of palms of many are completely edible, but it is important to understand that the fruits of some palms are not edible -- learn the difference.

One important thing to remember is that palms have a tremendous amount of starch stored in their trunks.  Another key fact, however, is that without an axe or machete, this food source is almost unobtainable or at least very difficult.  In an emergency, these facts should not deter you.

Inflorescence (bud) of a Nipa Palm - Source: Eric Guinther (Marshman), Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

Inflorescence (bud) of a Nipa Palm - Source: Eric Guinther (Marshman), Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

Nipa Palm (Nipa fruiticans)

Among the most important tropical palm fruits to know is the Nipa Palm.  Outside the Western world it is widely known.  Here in the United States, hardly anyone knows what delightful food source the Nipa plam is.  

The Nipa palm looks like a stemless coconut palm. It has long leaves rising in typical palm like tufts from the root stock  It grows to be about fifteen feet tall. In bloom, it has short, erect flowers that have a cluster of seeds that are also edible while young and tender. They are said to taste somewhat like coconut meat.  Like many plants, the Nipa palm has a variety of local "names" -- so depending on where in the world you are, you may find it called:

  • Attap Palm (Singapore)
  • Nipa Palm (Philippines)
  • Mangrove Palm (Indonesia and Malaysia)
  • Dừa Nuớc (Vietnam)
  • Gol Pata (Bangladesh)

Note: Other spellings Nipah and Nypa.

This type of palm is found growing only in brackish waters, mangrove swamps, and tidal marshes. The flower stems provide an edible food source of sugary sap. The cabbage of this palm is completely safe to eat.

Nypa fruticans with fruits (Bohol, Philippines) - Source: Photographer: Obsidian Soul, Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons
Nypa fruticans with fruits (Bohol, Philippines) - Source: Photographer: Obsidian Soul, Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

Other Uses of the Nipa Palm

There are many other uses and things to know about the Nipa Palm, some of them are:

  • It is the source of an alcoholic beverage called “Tuba”
  • It is the source of a pure vinegar known as “Sukang Paombong” in the Philippines.
  • It is the source of a Chinese dessert known as “Attap chee.”
  • It is a source of hog food.
  • Some indigenous peoples use it in place of tobacco.
  • It is a source of fermented ethanol.
  • It’s leaves have been used both for thatching houses, and for bouncy in floating on water.
  • It is an endangered species in Singapore.
  • A Warning and a Few Thoughts!

    First A Warning! -- The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only. Be sure you have properly identified a wild edible plant BEFORE you consume it. Remember that some palms, like the Sago palm have look-a-likes, that are poisonous.  Additionally, you can be allergic to some edible plants, just like you can be allergic to foods that others can consume safely. If you at all unsure, just eat a little at first.

    Bottom line -- you are 100% responsible for proper plant identification, and thoroughly researching the plant you are considering eating.  Finally -- I'm not advocating you kill a palm tree just to experience eating one. I'm much more interested in opening closed food minds, into being knowledgeable about foods that aren't generally found on the shelves of our generic American grocery stores. Also, remember in terms of a plant being edible, that doesn't always translate to a plant tasting good.