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THE BETEL PALM

 

Areca catechu L.

Etymology - Its generic name derives from the Tamil word areec, native common name of these plants, then changed into Portuguese areca. Its specific name refers to the native for a strongly astringent drug, extracted from the wood of Acacia catechu (fam. Leguminosae), often added to this palm seeds when preparing chewing betel.

Area of origin - East Indies, Malaysia.

Botanical description - It is a palm exhibiting a slender single trunk, up to 30 m tall and about 20 cm wide, green at first, subsequently greyish and ringed by the remains of leaf scars. Its leaves, borne at stem apex, are pinnate, with a rigid but recurved rachis and several rigid, closely packed segments. Flowers, yellow and fragrant, are unisexual, clustered in inflorescences basally arising from the leaves, and enveloped by two spathes; male flowers are more numerous and located at inflorescence apex, whilst female flowers, less numerous, are to be found near the base. Fruits are hard, ovoid, red-orange coloured; they possess a fibrous mesocarp and a thin woody endocarp enveloping one seed.

Uses - Seeds of this palm, incorrectly known as betel nuts, are widely employed, notably in South-East Asia, as a masticatory, due to its stimulating, digestive and cardiotonic properties, exerted by tannin and alkaloid substances present in them.

For these reasons this palm is widely cultivated, making up huge plantations, in many tropical regions, not only in Asia, but also from Pakistan and India to Malaysia, and as far as the Pacific Southern Islands and in Africa.

In addition, its vegetating buds are often used as palm cabbage.