Thursday, 12 December 2013

The Ethnobotany of Costa Rica's Palms

In Costa Rica, I am known as "chica del palmito" or, the heart of palm girl. I was given this nickname by heart of palm harvesters, national park employees, and univesrity professors while conducting research for my Masters degree and some how the name stuck. But my interest in palms runs deeper than heart of palm; palms are a group of plant species that provide unique sources of food and medicine for people all over the world. In this blog post, I will share a few ways people use palms for food, not only did I study this topic for my Masters research but it was also a part of my Ph.D. For more information on how people use palms, check out our article here.

Eating palm flowers 

Palm inflorescence on top of chopped heart of palm
Palm flowers are edible. But, because palm flowers are often very tiny, people harvest and eat the whole flowering structure, called an inflorescence (see picture on right). So instead of having palm flower salad, you can strir fry, boil, or roast the whole inflorescence. One of the species commonly eaten in rural costa rica is Chamaedorea tepejilote.

While working with Indigenous people in Costa Rica, I learned that people eat palm flowers from many palm species. My favorite palm flower dish was prepared with inflorescences from the versatile peach palm (Bactris gasipaes; pictured above). I first tried this dish while living with a Bribri family and learned the dish was a favorite of Bribri Elders. I like the fact that palm inflorescences are edible because palms produce many of them in their lifetimes; and, you do not have to chop down a whole tree to harvest them. I do require help, however, to harvest an inflorescence for palm species that grow tall. In the case of peach palm, chopping down an inflorecence requires a large pole and it requires careful attention to the stiff peach palm spines that can easily make harvesting unpleasant.  

Drinking Palm wine 

Making wine usually takes a lot of work, from smashing the grapes to fermenting the final product. But palm wine, on the other hand, can be harvested directly from the plant and does not require too much extra processing. Palm wine is basically the natural sap of the palm which is harvested and left to ferment. 

Harvesting palm wine from the Coyol palm (Acrocomia aculeata) is popular in the Pacific side of Costa Rica as well as other areas of Central America. But, to harvest quality palm wine, farmers explained to me that you must work in concert with lunar cycles. To ensure a good harvest of wine you should extract palm sap three days before or after a full moon. 

I first tried palm wine while driving through the Guanacaste province of Costa Rica. During March and April you can buy this wine along the road side, but I chose to seek out a family who produced it at their home. Back in 2008, I was invited to join this family for a cold glass of off-white coloured palm sap. I had two options, with or without sugar. I opted for wine with no sugar added and surprisingly it had a sweet and tart taste. The idea of palm wine reminds me of maple syrup because it is a product produced entriely by a plant and its consumption requires only modest processing by people.

Eating palm hearts

Palm hearts are a unique food that are harvested from the inside of a palm tree stem. Large-scale palm farms can be found in Ecuador, Costa Rica, and Brazil and these farms supply canned heart of palm to supermarkets all over the world. Eating farmed heart of palm is like eating farmed bananas, these species are grown to be harvested and exported. 

The most commonly farmed palm species is the peach palm (Bactris gasipaes). But, in the tropics you can feast on multiple species of palm heart each with their own unique flavour. Some species are bitter and others are sweet, some even taste rich like butter. Many of these palm species are wild. Eating wild palm species is an activity that rural peoples have done for hundreds, or in some cases, thousands of years. Unfortunately, eating these unique wild species has caught on with some upscale businesses in Latin America and resulted in uncontrolled harvesting of wild species. 

In Costa Rica, I worked on the issue of uncontrolled harvesting of palms that occur in forest areas. This is a particularly complex issue. Palms are often harvested from protected forests and by Costa Rican law this is illegal. This makes sense to me for people who are harvesting bags of hundreds of palm hearts to sell in high end restaurants; it does not make sense, to me, for people who harvest only a few palms to eat with their families. Currently, to my knowledge harvesting foods in protected forests in Costa Rica is still illegal and this is something that I have been analyzing with Indigenous peoples as part of my Ph.D.

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