Palms: The Trees of Life

Dr. Ranjit K Sahu and Ravi Shankar Behera

Date palm and palm are two lesser appreciated cousins of the more famous coconut palm. These trees have existed since time immemorial and are of immense utility to human race. The increasing catastrophic events like cyclones have brought to focus the importance of conservation and propagation of native trees. Restoration of natural ecosystems in areas susceptible to extreme climate variability by promoting native trees and local flora is the need of the hour. other than ecosystem restoration, the trees need to have some kind of an economic value to be accepted by locals and the corporate sector. The biggest driving force in the introduction of alien species in a native landscape, apart from the aesthetic consideration, has been the rationale that the trees need to provide products of commercial importance. The forest department, private sector and public organizations have succumbed to this view of tree commercialization, overlooking the fact that forests are the most essential part of an ecosystem. Forests cannot be merely evaluated on the basis of their market potential. Most plantations undertaken have seldom considered plantation of wild and native species, best suited to the local agro-ecological conditions. Serious blunders have been made in introduction of alien species to mitigate local ecological problems. This has led to erroneously conceptualized meaning of a forest as a desired plantation in eco-sensitive areas.

(a) Palm trees growing in the coastal districts.

“A forest is not merely a collection of trees. It is a native stand of trees diverse in its composition, including the associated flora and fauna. That is precisely the reason why native stand of trees, which are hundreds of year old are left untouched in cities like New York. A tree is not a part of the ecosystem, but is an ecosystem in itself interacting with organisms at subterranean and aerial spheres and sustaining them and itself. Trees fulfill functions like soil conservation, modifying the environment for increased rainfall and creating niche for the survival of various species, apart from various other ecosystem services. Keeping in view this concept, as well as the fact that we have been witnessing increased incidents of extreme weather, we look at possible scenarios where, a balance maybe reached in trying to increase the green cover while addressing the issues of climate change and extreme weather variabilities.

(b) palm fruit bunch close up

Nearly ubiquitous in distribution from the coastal regions to the interiors, these summer fruiting palms have not been tapped to their full potential. Every date tree can produce 50 to 300 lbs. of dates annually. However, they have at best been denigrated to a minor seasonal fruit category, though the leaf fronds find utilities in the manufacture of several products such as baskets, roofing material in mud-house construction and mats for domestic consumption. Palm leaves are used for making containers and hand fans as well as for thatching. Since these fruits are relatively of better storage capability they can be transported to far off places wholly before the berries/kernels are removed. The kernels of the palm are also nutritious and have a cooling effect, partly helping to re-hydrate during peak summer. As the kernels have to be individually processed, it leads to the employment of local population who would otherwise be unemployed or undertake distress migration to other regions for gainful employment.

Various parts of the trees are used to treat sore throats, colds, ague, toothache, bronchial catarrh, fevers, gonorrhea, edema, fertility related problems, counteracting alcohol intoxication, neutralizing poison, skin allergy and abdominal problems. Gum extracted from the trunk of this tree can treat diarrhea and urinary ailments. The seeds can be used as food for horses, cattle, camels, sheep, goats and chickens feed and making charcoal. The oils can be used for the production of cosmetics and soaps.

The berries of the tree have an ornamental value when used in alleys or in road dividers as they have less extensive root systems. These trees can be planted along roadsides, parking lots and shopping centers because of their ease of care and non-invasive nature. Palms may need periodical removal of suckers to prevent their unwanted spread beyond the dividers. Clumping ability helps palms to survive the high velocity of winds of the coastal regions. The species are fairly drought resistance and hence suitable for the interior regions, especially in the rain shadow areas.

Palms are also a source of the sap, which is sometimes fermented for the generation of liquor or concentrated for the manufacture of sugar. The fruits of both palms are produced during summer and are a source of income. This period synchronizes with the distress migration cycle of millions of poor people from Western Odisha, who migrate out to work in the brick kilns of Hyderabad. These communities could benefit from production and sale of Palm products, if aptly supported by the State Livelihoods Mission/Government. This could be a small step towards preventing outward distress migration at the “Source level”.

The recent devastation caused by Cyclone Fani and the extensive loss of trees in the coastal zones of Odisha may be a reason to revisit the utilities of these palm species. While conventional wild dates that have less flesh is widely prevalent, and has a low market value, it is still a species that can withstand extreme climate variabilities better as compared to coconut palm and can be taken up for mass plantation in the sandy shore lines of Odisha.

The development of large plantations of both these palms along the eastern coast, dry patches of the hinterlands or even their inclusions along the bunds of agricultural fields may help to create commercially viable number of trees. The setting up of cottage industries based on a co-operative model can help in production and marketing of value added products from the palms. This could provide a continuous source of employment and assured income to women, small and marginal land holders. An effective marketing supply chain is very much possible with support from the Government, private sector actors and local communities.

Photos: (Ranjit K Sahu)

About the Author:

Dr. Ranjit K. Sahu is a Research professional and freelance writer with over a decade of experience in biomedical research , currently located in Virginia, USA. His interests include education, environment, sustainability and health care in the underprivileged regions of the world.

Ravi Shankar Behera is a free lance consultant in the development sector and affiliated to several organizations, currently based in New Delhi.



  1. Very good and interesting Article

  2. Ravi Shankar Behera says:

    Thanks dear Sudhir ji

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