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SUGAR PALMS

Arenga microcarpa Becc. - (Kew Gardens. Photo P. Pavone)

Arenga saccharifera Labill.

Etymology - Its generic name derives from the Javanese word for sugar palm (Arenga pinnata). Its specific name, from Latin saccharum and Greek saccharon, comes from Sanskrit sarkara, meaning sugar.

Area of origin - Malaysia.

Botanical description - It exhibits a trunk 7-12 m tall, thickly covered with the leafbases forming a mass of black fibres and extending into protruding, long spines. Leaves are large, erect, pinnate, dark green on upper face and whitish on lower face. The inflorescences, borne on an axis 2-3 m long, comprise both male and female flowers (monoecious plant). Fruits, globose and brownish, are severely irritant when touching the skin.

Uses - In its native countries or wherever this plant is grown, sugar is extracted from the sap; it is economically quite important. This unrefined sugar (jaggery, gur) is brown in colour, pleasantly tasting and it contains 50-75% saccharose. It can also be refined so as to obtain refined substances (akrah, dobarrah) where saccharose percentage is much higher (up to 98%). A kind of wine, commonly known as toddy, as well as a distilled liqueur known as arrack is extracted from this sugar sap by fermentation.