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Elaeis guineensis Jacq. (Photo N. Longhitano)

Elaeis guineensis Jacq.

Etymology - Its generic name derives from Greek elaia = olive, on account of its fruits rich in oil. Its specific name refers to the species area of origin.

Area of origin - Guinea's rain forests (West Africa).

Botanical description - Graceful palm resembling the Coconut palm (Cocos nucifera), exhibiting an erect stem, 25-30 m tall when growing spontaneously, 10-15 m tall when cultivated; it is markedly ringed, but spines are lacking. Leaves are pinnate, 4-5 m long, bearing 50-60 lanceolate pointed segments, its petiole, up to 1 m long, is marginally spiny and toothed. Its flowers, unisexual on monoecious plants are clustered in short inflorescences borne among the leaves, they form thick and closely packed groups. Fruits develop somewhat early, already in plants just 3 years old, they appear fleshy, much like small plums, 2-3 cm long, oblong-ovoid in shape, reddish, crowded together in large clusters known as bunches, weighing 3-15 Kg.

Uses - Fruits and seeds of Elaeis guineensis yield a valuable vegetable oil, widely employed for nutritious, cosmetic and trade purposes. For this reason, this palm is widely cultivated not only throughout Africa, its area of origin, but also in other countries, such as Antilles, South America, Malaysia, Indochina, etc., where it is grown in large plantations.

Prime oil, commercially known as palm kernel oil, is extracted from the seeds, which are firstly shelled and ground, then hot-squeezed; it is seldom extracted by means of chemical solvents. Oil content per seed ranges between 43% and 51%.

With regard to its chemical and organolectic properties, this oil is very similar to coconut oil, from which it differs in its higher content of oleic acid; it is solid and buttery below 20C, white-yellowish in colour, pleasantly flavoured, and it smells somewhat like coconut.

Palm kernel oil possesses a variable acidity degree, usually not exceeding 15%, it is employed for nutritious purposes as a kind of margarine or vegetable butter, or again as a partially hydrogenated oil; to this end, it is suitably refined and decolorised.

A kind of high acidity oil, therefore of a purer quality, is extracted from the fibrous flesh of fruits after they have been hot-squeezed. This oil, whose content per fruit ranges between 40% and 70% is mostly employed in the making of soaps and cosmetics or as a machinery lubricant.