Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Heart of Palm

What most of us know as ‘heart of palm’ are these cans of white stalks. Often prepared for salads, these vegetables have made their way on to plates all over the world. For most of us, the origin of these unique vegetables is a mystery.  At least, it was to me before I first traveled to Costa Rica.  Little did I know, after only few months into my journey, I would be devising a research project based on this unique food.

You can find fresh hearts of palm in the tropics.  As the name suggests, this delicacy comes from the inside of a palm tree stem. What may come to mind is a picturesque sunset with a few tropical coconut palms on the horizon, but the majority of heart of palm you’ll find in the grocery store is produced from a different palm species, the only one that is cultivated - the peach palm.  Compared to the emblematic coconut palm, the peach palm stem is smaller and produces tiny fruits.  Peach palm fruits (or pejibaje in Spanish) are edible and delicious! Their flavour is difficult to describe, slightly reminiscent of a butternut squash but much richer and with a fibrous texture.

Peach Palm Fruits
(photo courtesy of C. Manchego)

Peach palm is found all over Latin America, but North America imports this product primarily from farms in Ecuador. Peach palm plantations look a lot like tree farms, or rows of cultivated plants. Peach palm trees grow surprisingly quickly.  It is estimated that in one year (give or take a few months) one stem will be ready to eat.

Still, how do you go from palm tree to the small white stalk on your plate?

Like any canned vegetable, peach palm processing has multiple steps. First, the stem is cut, sliced open, and its ‘heart’ is removed from the tip of the stem.  Although canned palm hearts are then processed and preserved, many people will eat the heart of palm raw freshly cut from the stem! Here is a quick video of how cultivated palm trees are processed:

One peach palm plant produces multiple stems. Confusing, I know, but it just means that from one palm seed you can get many trees growing in one clump. This is ideal species for palm farming because you can obtain numerous hearts of palm from a single palm plant.

What about all the other palms? 

Interestingly, peach palms, along with many other palms, have been harvested for food in the tropics for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years.  However, the idea of a palm at a North American dinner table is a relatively recent phenomenon, it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that a few species entered into the international market. 

Although only a few palm species make it into the international market, there are approximately 2500 species of palms in the world, and all of them are likely to have ‘hearts’. Here is one example of a heart of palm harvested from the cloud forests of central Costa Rica. This particular species is valued by many Costa Ricans for its ‘bitter’ taste.  Some also report it for medicinal properties.

Cloud Forest Palm > 2000 masl (Geonoma edulis)

Harvested Palm Stem

Palm Hearts (removed from the tip of the stem)

Although the majority of the 2500 palm species are not harvested, more than 10 non-cultivated species are harvested in Costa Rica alone. Although my uncle thinks that the world already has one too many ‘palm-ologists’, I think this group of plants is ripe for further study. My experience with these diverse plants has opened my eyes to the importance of unique forest species to the daily lives of many people. I suppose palm-ology is one of the motivations for starting this blog and it has influenced the research I am involved in now. In part II, I’ll share my experiences with Costa Ricans who harvest some of the less well-known and harder to find species of palms.


Mora-Urpí, J. 2002. Presente y futuro del palmito en Costa Rica. Agronomía Costarricense 26(2): 95-100.

Sylvester, O. and Avalos, G. 2009. Illegal palm heart (Geonoma edulis) harvest in Costa Rican national parks: patterns of consumption and extraction. Economic Botany 63(2): 179-189.


  1. Olivia,

    Please post comments regarding your impression on the variety of different tastes and textures found in other heart of palm species such as Euterpe precatoria, E. edulis, Iriartea deltoidea and Prestoea acuminata. These species produce some of the most delicious heart of palm ever.

  2. The photos of harvested G. edulis are really good.

  3. Gerardo, welcome to my blog and thank you for your comments.

    As you mention I have only featured one non-cultivated heart of palm species (G. edulis), with a very unique bitter flavour. Within the same Costa Rican cloud forests you can find the palm Prestoea acuminata (palmito), also highly valued for its heart of palm with a more widely accepted flavour – akin to artichokes in my experience.

    I have not tried the other varieties (Euterpe precatoria, E. edulis, Iriartea deltoidea), but E. precatoria is reported to taste buttery as indicated by its Costa Rican name manteqilla (‘butter’ in English). In my experience, Iriartea deltoidea was the preferred heart of palm species years ago among many Costa Ricans. However, during my research people mentioned that it is no longer harvested with the same frequency.

    Looking at this list, I will see if I can come up with a blog related to the range of non-cultivated species used in Costa Rica. Gerardo, if I’ve missed anything, please let me know.

  4. The coastal communities where I worked in Brazil are pretty active in the harvest of palm hearts. They harvest mainly two species: Juçara (Euterpe edulis) and a sour one (I owe you the species name, have it somewhere in my notes). While the first one is considered a delicacy that people harvest often, the second one is not everyone's cup of tea. I loved them both. Have a lot of notes and photos on those.

    The peach palm fruit is known in Colombia as "chontaduro". There, it grows semi-wild in forest clearances or in cultivated areas, altogether with inga trees and avocado and other Lauraceace. Currently in my region (Cauca) there are lot of community-driven initiatives to commercialise chontaduro products. A local company is thriving with a product called "chontacones", which is peach palm fruits turned into chips. Very tasty stuff. I brought some for Iain and you last time I was in Colombia, but you were already gone :( I guess next time.

    (this is Julian, by the way!)

    1. Hi, I have to say that right now the company is producting the "Chontacones", you can contact them by writing to nutritost@hotmail.com

    2. Hi and thanks! I am interested to contact them and find out more about their enterprise. This past weekend I tried some bread made from peach palm flour. A unique flavour and a good alternative for people that cannot eat wheat! Interestingly, "chonta" is one of the common names of another palm here in Costa Rica, Iriartea deltoidea, that is mainly harvested for "wood" and for palmito. Thanks again!

  5. Hi Julian! Thank you for all the information. I am continually amazed with all the creativity related to palm-based products. I have never tried palm chips but would love to. In Costa Rica there are also many initiatives to bring alternative peach palm products to the market, one example is peach palm flour (also made from the fruit).

    I look forward to hearing more about your experiences in Brazil at your field site. Could that second heart of palm you mention be Açaí (Euterpe oleracea)? I'm sure these two cases of palm harvest would be interesting to other readers, so if you feel like providing a guest post on these or related topics at any time feel free to let me know!

  6. I'd love to contribute. Let me organise my notes and data (I'm currently working on that). I think I can put together something palm harvesting as a leisure activity (full of political nuances, by the way).

  7. The other day Christina Smith gave me a book on cooking recipes by the Boruca indegenous people of Costa Rica. Many of them had heart of palm as core ingredient. BTW, they harvest palm flowers from understory species (Calyptrogyne spp), something that for me is amazing, considering that these are small flowers (C. ghiesbreghtiana is actually pollinated by bats, the only palm that has this very bizarre mode of pollination). Again, as Olivia indicates, it is amazing the creativity in which people use palm products, for food, artifacts, etc. Hopefully, someone out there is compiling the uses before they are long gone.