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The Palmyra Palm of Many Uses

by Vanessa Ting

Above: Two handsome Palmyra Palms at the centre of Rimba Ilmu's carpark.

If there is any argument about University of Malaya's stand on the importance of nature, look no further than our Coat of Arms. Flora and fauna are almost exclusively represented - but there is also a very clear symbol of ecology's heritage in education.

The Chief, or the upper part of our Coat of Arms, is made out of the leaves of the Palmyra palm, which were used as a writing surface in ancient Malay literature. On the centre of these strips is our University's motto: Ilmu Puncha Kemajuan.

Above: The University's Coat of Arms (inset) with a close up of the Palmyra Palm leaf.

The leaves of the Palmyra Palm are large and fan-shaped. In ancient Indian and Southeast Asian culture, the leaves were dried, polished and used as paper, with the leaf veins conveniently providing parallel lines for neat records. Holes were made at the top of the pages, which were tied together with twine. This is beautifully illustrated in UM's Coat of Arms (above).

Also known as the Toddy Palm (Borassus flabellifer), the Palmyra Palm is a tall, robust tree, able to grow up to a height of 30 metres. Borassus is the Greek referring to the fruit of the date palm, and flabellifer means fan-bearing, describing the shape of its leaves. It is native to Southeast Asia, including Malaysia, and the Indian subcontinent, which accounts for its cultural significance. It has 801 uses according to a traditional Tamil song!

The male inflorescence is large, with spiky, multiple branches, and the female inflorescence is a single fleshy branch. The flowers are tapped for sap, which is traditionally collected in hanging earthen pots.

When collected before sunrise, it is cool and sweet, but if left in the heat of the day, it ferments and can consumed as a raw alcoholic beverage, or distilled into arak. The fresh juice can be boiled and reduced into palm sugar or gula melaka. Each tree can produce up to three or four litres of sap daily.

Above: Close up of the Palmyra Palm fruits.

The fruit grows in clusters, has a black husk and is around 10 to 15 cm in diameter. When young, the kernel is soft, translucent and filled with sweet liquid. It can be eaten raw, sun-dried or cooked into desserts. The fibrous outer layer of the kernels can be eaten raw or cooked.

The seeds can be germinated for further culinary pleasure, resulting in fleshy sprouts that can be cooked for consumption. The kernel of the germinated seed tastes like sweet water chestnut.

Above, left: Stalk detail of the Palmyra Palm. Above, right: Trunk of the Palmyra Palm.

The trunk of the Palmyra Palm makes heavy and durable timber, resistant to termites. The stalks of the leaves are tough and fibrous, and are used to make cords and brushes.

Describing its 788 other uses would make for an increasingly dry article, but suffice to say, this tree is the official tree of Tamil Nadu, and is described as karpaha Veruksham (celestial tree). The Borassus flabellifer is also a symbol of South Sulawesi and Cambodia, and is the affectionate subject of many Myanmar tourism campaigns.

Even for us here at the University of Malaya, the Palmyra Palm is very much a big part of our heritage, so do look up the majestic specimens at the carpark of Rimba Ilmu - just remember not to park your car under them!

Happiest when surrounded by books, Vanessa Ting finds herself thriving in the no-less-fascinating world of conservation biology. This mostly involves exponential (learning and topographical) curves, tagging behind ardent, energetic botanists and zoologists. She can be reached at vcc.ting@gmail.com.

#treesofum #borassusflabellifer #palmyrapalm #vanessating #rimbailmu #articles

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