The palm is erect, with a single slender stem or, more often, several stems to 8 in (20 cm) thick, in a cluster; generally armed with stiff, black spines in circular rows from the base to the summit. There are occasional specimens with only a few spines. The pejibaye attains a height of 65 to 100 ft (20 30 m) and usually produces suckers freely. The leaves, with short, spiny petioles, are pinnate, about 8 to 12 ft (2.4-3.6 m) long, with many linear, pointed leaflets to 2 ft (60 cm) long and 1 1/4 in (3.2 cm) wide; dark green above, pale beneath, spiny on the veins. The inflorescence, at first enclosed in a spiny spathe, is composed of slender racemes 8 to 12 in (20-30 cm) long on which the yellowish male and female flowers are mingled except for the terminal few inches where there are only male flowers.
The fruit, hanging in clusters of 50 to 100 or sometimes as many as 300, weighing 25 lbs (11 kg) or more, is yellow to orange or scarlet, yellow-and-red, or brownish at first, turning purple when fully ripe. It is ovoid, oblate, cylindrical or conical, 1 to 2 in (2.5-5 cm) long, cupped at the base by a green, leathery, 3-pointed calyx. A single stem may bear 5 or 6 clusters at a time. The skin is thin, the flesh yellow to light-orange, sweet, occasionally with a trace of bitterness, dry and mealy. Some fruits are seedless. Normally there is a single conical seed 3/4 in (2 cm) long, with a hard, thin shell and a white, oily, coconut-flavored kernel. Rarely one finds 2 fused seeds.
Origin and Distribution
This useful palm is apparently indigenous to Amazonian areas of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil, but it has been cultivated and distributed by Indians from ancient times and is so commonly naturalized as an escape that its natural boundaries are obscure. Of prehistoric introduction into Costa Rica, it is plentiful in a seemingly wild state of the Atlantic side of that country and also much cultivated. Every Indian dwelling has a patch of pejibaye palms. The palm has also been planted as partial shade for coffee. It is not as common anywhere else in Central America, though it is fairly abundant in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala, and has long been grown in commercial plots in Panama to furnish fruits for local markets. In Colombia and Peru, great quantities of the fruits appear in the markets and vendors sell them along the streets. There are large stands of this palm in the Orinoco region of Venezuela and equatorial Brazil. The Indians of Colombia and Ecuador hold festivals when the pejibayes are in season, though in the latter country the fruits are valued more as feed for livestock than as food for humans.
The United States Department of Agriculture received seeds from Costa Rica in 1920 (S.P.I. #50679), but those in the first lot had lost viability. The United Fruit Company shipped whole fruits but they fermented en route and were mistakenly thrown overboard at New York, the stevedores not being aware that they were imported only for their seeds. Another shipment was made with adequate instructions and 1,000 seedlings were grown in greenhouses in Maryland and distributed. Today there are scattered specimens in southern Florida, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Trinidad. The palm was introduced into the Philippines in 1924. In the 1970's, the possibility of growing pejibayes in India was inspired by settlers of East Indian lineage in Trinidad and South America who produce and sell the fruits. In 1978, Brazilian horticulturists undertook a study to determine the feasibility of establishing pejibaye plantations in the State of Sao Paulo with a view to exploiting the fruit and the tenninal bud (heart, or palmito). There has been much interest generated in recent years in the cultivation of the palm solely for its hearts which are of high quality. Costa Rica is a leader in this enterprise and there the hearts are being canned commercially.
Fig. 3: A single-stemmed pejibave palm (Bactris gasipaes), photo'd by the author at Buenaventura, Colombia, in 1969.
Plate I: PEJIBAYE, Bactris gasipaes (green and ripe)
Plate II: PEJIBAYE, Bactris gasipaes (in foreground)
There is much variation in form, size, color and quality of the fruits. Some with longitudinal scars (pejibaye rayodo) are considered of superior quality. These scars indicate low water content, firmness and a minimum of fiber in the flesh. In Costa Rica there are palms that bear clusters having a majority of seedless fruits. These are called pejibaye macho (male pejibaye) and are much prized. It has been found in surveys that only 30 to 60 palms in a seedling planting of 400 will yield highgrade fruit. As many as 100 may yield fruit of such low quality that it is not marketable for human consumption.
In recent years, germplasm collections have been initiated in Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia and Brazil, and there is a great potential for crop improvement and standardization. Spineless forms (tapire), especially, are being sought for breeding purposes.
The pejibaye requires a tropical climate. It is generally restricted to elevations below 6,000 ft (1,800 m). Fruiting is reduced above 5,000 ft (1,500 m). The ideal average annual temperature ranges between 64.4° and 75.2°F (18°-24°C). At low elevations with excessive rainfall, the palm cannot succeed. Optimum rainfall is 78 to 156 in (200-400 cm), rather evenly distributed the year around.
The palm does well even on poor soils but thrives best on fertile, well drained land. In a favorable producing region of Costa Rica, the soil varies from clay loam to nearly pure clay. However, riparian, alluvial soils are deemed most desirable.
The pejibave is grown from seed or from suckers. Seeds can be shade-dried for a few hours, packed in moist sphagnum moss or charcoal and shipped to any part of the world. When planted, they will germinate in 3 months. Young plants must be protected from ants which will destroy the tender shoots.
The palm grows rapidly and reaches 43 ft (13 m) in 10 to 15 years. At low altitudes, seedlings begin to bear in 6 to 8 years. In cool regions, bearing may not begin until the plant is 10 to 12 years old. Productive life is said to be 50 to 75 years.
In fruit plantations, the palms are set 20 ft (6 m) apart. After a few years the suckers emerge and only 2 to 4 are allowed to remain to maturity. When they are 4 to 6 ft (1.2-1.8 m) high and about 3 in (7.5 cm) thick at the base, excess suckers are taken up, cut back severely, kept in the shade and watered until new roots are formed, and then transplanted to new locations. Weeding is done 2 or 3 times a year.
For the production of palm hearts, the spacing is closer, from 5 to 10 ft (1.5-3 m), as the terminal buds can be harvested in 2 1/2 to 3 years. Researchers have found that an application of flurenol (10 ppm) will induce formation of lateral shoots. At 200 ppm, shoot growth is inhibited.
In Colombia, the fruits of cultivated palms mature in January and February. Wild palms may bear twice a year. There are 2 crops a year in Trinidad, one without seeds, the other with seeds. In Costa Rica, the flowers appear in April, May and June in the lowlands, later in the highlands, and fruits mature from September to April.
Because of the spines on the stems, the fruits are knocked down with long poles or harvested with long poles equipped with cutters, unless ladders are available and the bunches can be cut intact and lowered by rope. If the bunch is dropped down, it is caught in a leaf-lined sack held by 2 men, or may land on a deep pile of banana leaves. When the palm gets too tall, the farmer usually cuts it down to obtain the fruits and the heart. If he is fortunate enough to have a number of nearly spineless palms, the spines can be trimmed off and the palm can be climbed. If all the spines are cut off the spiny trunks, the palm will die, but 5 to 8 ft (1.5 2.5 m) of trunk can be despined safely. Special gear of rope and stirrups has been devised to facilitate climbing. Then, too, if the palms have single trunks and are close enough together, the worker need climb only every other tree, using a specially equipped pole to cut bunches from the neighboring tree. Johannessen (1966) provides details of the modes of handling the crop and the economic role of the pejibaye in the lives of Costa Rican farmers.
In the period 1948 to 1963 in Costa Rica, the harvesting cost was calculated as representing 11.4% of the total cash value of the crop. Hunter (1969) has developed data showing that, efficiently managed, the pejibaye crop, in terms of financial return to the grower, compares favorably with maize (corn).
A palm with 4 or 5 stems may produce 150 lbs (68 kg) of fruit in a season.
Undamaged, raw fruits keep in good condition in a dry atmosphere with good air circulation for a long time, gradually dehydrating. Roughly handled and bruised fruits ferment in only 3 to 4 days. The cooked fruits, as commonly marketed, can be held for 5 or 6 days. In refrigerated storage at 35.6° to 41°F (2°-5°C), uncooked fruits can be kept for 6 weeks with a minimum of dehydration or spoilage.
Pests and Diseases
In Costa Rica, a stem borer, Metamasius hemipterus, sometimes penetrates the stalk of the fruit cluster, causing the fruits to rot. There have been no reports of diseases attacking the palm. Fruits injured during harvesting or transport are soon invaded by rot-inducing fungi.
The fruit is caustic in its natural state. It is commonly boiled; in fact, it is customary to boil the fruits for 3 hours in salted water, sometimes with fat pork added, before marketing. Boiling causes the flesh to separate easily from the seed and usually the skin as well, though in some varieties the skin adheres to the flesh even after cooking. It is only necessary to remove the skin from the cooked flesh which can then be eaten out-of-hand. The pre-boiled fruit is sometimes deep-fried or roasted and served as a snack garnished with mayonnaise or a cheese-dip. It is also mixed with cornmeal, eggs and milk and fried, and is often employed as stuffing for roasted fowl. Occasionally it is made into jam. Oven dried fruits have been kept for 6 months and then boiled for half an hour which causes them to regain their characteristic texture and flavor. Peeled, seeded, halved fruits, canned in brine, have been exported to the United States. Dried fruits can be ground into flour for use in various dishes. A strong alcoholic drink is made by allowing the raw, sugared flesh to stand for a few days until it ferments. This is prohibited in some parts of tropical America.
Young flowers may be chopped and added to omelettes. The cooked seeds are eaten like chestnuts but are hard and considered difficult to digest.
The palm heart is excellent raw or cooked. It is served in salads or prepared with eggs and vegetables in a casserole. It is a traditional food of the Indians and its harvesting has greatly reduced the stands of wild palms.
One average pejibaye fruit contains 1,096 calories. Analyses made in Honduras and Costa Rica show the following values for 100 g of ripe flesh and skin combined:
Food Value Per 100 g of Edible Portion
|Crude Fiber||0.8-1.4 g|
|Ascorbic Acid||14.8-41.4 mg|
The protein contains 7 of the 8 essential amino acids: threonine 2.5%/g/N; valine, 2.7%; methionine, 1.3%; isoleucine, 1.7% leucine, 2.6%; phenylalanine, 1.3%; lysine, 4.6%; and 10 others. Tests for tryptophan have given negative results.
The following approximate values are shown for the seed kernels per 100 g: moisture (loss at 212°F [100°C]), 6.9%; protein (N x 6.25), 8.8%; fat, 31.3%; crude fiber, 18.2%; starch (by acid hydrolysis), 20.8%; ash, 1.9%; undetermined material, 12.1%.
Fruit: Excess fruits and peelings are used as feed for poultry and pigs.
Leaves: Leaflets stripped off for better visibility in harvesting are fed to livestock. The leaves have been importent for thatching huts.
Sap: The trunk may be tapped for sap which is fermented into wine.
Bark: The bark is peeled off in one piece, despined and used like canvas to make a substitute for a flat spring in a crude bed or bunk.
Wood: The dark brown wood is very hard but elastic and takes a good polish. It has been used for spears, Indian satires, bows, arrowheads, staffs and walking sticks. More modern uses are siding for houses, veneer and tool handles. Small pieces are fashioned into spindles and other parts used in weaving. Split trunks are used as water troughs.