Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Food in Unsuspecting Places: Not Fruit, Nor Flowers, but Unripe Palm Inflorescences

In the process of finding a place to begin my research, I have been fortunate to experience a taste of life in farmland surrounded by tropical forests. I was particularly intrigued with the food I found in unsuspecting places.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced trying a new food either while travelling or even from our own backyard. In my garden, I have often discovered something thought a weed was in fact edible. My most recent unique food experience was on a visit to an organic farm, La Finca Agroecologica El Progreso, in the Caribbean Region of Costa Rica near Tortuguero National Park. Because of my interest in plants and particularly in their different uses as food, I asked my host, Nuria, to take me on a short walk to see the foods growing in her garden.

Chamaedorea tepejilote Palm (the arrow is pointing to the edible inflorescence growing on the stem)

Walking only a few hundred meters from Nuria’s house, to my surprise, I found myself in a patch of dense tropical forest. This was not your typical garden that’s for sure. In fact, it was a pasture that had been converted to a forest patch through the dedicated effort and creativity of these farmers. As I marveled at the colourful tropical flowers and fruits, Nuria drew my attention to a skinny green palm tree. At first glance I thought was she was showing me an edible species of heart of palm. Heart of palm is a well-known source of food harvested from the inside of a palm tree stem and often used in salads. But, after a closer look, this palm tree was much too skinny to produce a ‘heart’ worth harvesting. Sure enough, Nuria was not interested in the heart of palm; instead, she pulled off a few green fleshy spikes from the top of the palm stem. She explained that these fleshy spikes were the unripe inflorescences of the Chamaedorea tepejilote or Pacaya palm.

Freshly harvested Chamaedorea spikes or unripe inflorescences

Now I bet you are thinkng, just what exactly is an unripe inflorescence? Let’s start with an inflorescence, which is a plant structure where a bunch of flowers develop; kind of like a stem to support multiple flowers.  Perhaps the best way to explain an inflorescence is to look at a sunflower. As its name suggests a sunflower may appear to be a single flower, but a closer look reveals that one sunflower is a bunch of tiny flowers all growing on a single structure known as an inflorescence. Each one of these tiny flowers produces one sunflower seed. If you get the chance to pick sunflower seeds you are picking them from multiple flowers on one inflorescence. Thus, what we commonly call a ‘sunflower flower’ is actually a ‘sunflower inflorescence’. Now, if an inflorescence is a plant structure where the flowers will eventually develop, an unripe inflorescence is simply a flowerless ‘fruit and flower’ stem.

A Sunflower Inflorescence - here you can see the seeds developing within each tiny flower (photo by bixentro under the Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0)

Ok, back to the topic at hand, what were we going to do with these unripe palm inflorescences? I have eaten fruits, and even flowers in a salad, but what dish could become of unripe flower stems? Back in Nuria’s kitchen we were soon to find out. First, we peeled the palm inflorescences and began cooking.

Peeling the Chamaedorea spike - the edible portion is found inside the green casing

Nuria told me of many different recipes and uses for this delicacy. For example, you can roast the inflorescence in its casing and enjoy it on its own, or you can chop the inflorescence along with spices and other veggies in a Costa Rican dish called picadillo. This particular day Nuria shared her personal favorite, a sautéed mix of these inflorescences and Chayote squash. This simplicity of this option allowed me to experience the true Chamaedorea inflorescence flavour.

Now to the hard part, describing the flavour. I guess I would describe it as slightly bitter with a texture similar to that of cauliflower. Chamaedorea’s bitter flavour reminded me of another species of palm called súrtuba. Súrtuba (also the subject of my Masters research) can be found in Costa Rican cloud forests and this palm is harvested for its bitter tasting heart. For those not familiar with súrtuba, the Chamaedorea inflorescence flavour was also similar to that of cooked Yucca flowers (or Flor de Itavo). Something tells me these comparisons are not much help; maybe the lack of well-known foods to compare to Chamaedorea is an indication this food was unique.

During lunch, I was pleasantly surprised that the Chamaedorea inflorescence was the perfect complement to the mild flavour of the Chayote squash. I don’t know what exactly converted me to a fan of eating unripe palm inflorescences. Maybe I’m a fan of bitter and interesting foods. Most probably, it was the fact that we simply walked into a forest patch and picked this unsuspecting green spike for lunch. Either way, I entered this venture with a palm-bias and left with a greater appreciation for the multiple uses of this incredible group of plants.


  1. Olivia, in El Salvador, the C. tepejilote inflorescenses are sold commercially in jars. If I recall correctly, they call it "PACAYA" there. You might be interested in the following link:

  2. Hi Gerardo,
    Great link! I was surprised to see the similarities between the ethnobotanical species reported from other Central American countries and the species used in many rural areas of Costa Rica.

    Also, I have been reading a lot about the potential of wild or forest plant species to enter local and global markets. I'd like to hear more about this El Salvador case. Although there may be high initial costs to cultivation or for product certifications, I am convinced palms are great plants to cultivate in gardens and pastures. Not only are palm products food for us, but for many other species. I saw an incredible diversity of birds (Tucans included) enjoying palm fruits on Nuria's farm.

    Thanks for posting!


  3. Hi Im 10 years old and live in America, my dad is from El Salvador So my Talented and gifted group let me chose a country so i chose that and im writing a report right here for tomorrow and im half way done cause of you ,yay! Thx! XOXOX , Lilianna

    1. Hello and thank you for reading my blog. I'm glad it was helpful for your report. What was your report about?

      If you have any questions feel free to ask.

      All the best,