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Mystery Plant: Peach palm keeps on giving

Pictured are hearts of palm obtained from this week’s Mystery Plant, Bactris gasipaes, or Peach palm.
Pictured are hearts of palm obtained from this week’s Mystery Plant, Bactris gasipaes, or Peach palm. Special to The Herald-Sun

There are two mysteries this week. First off, if you don’t know what these funny-looking things are in the picture, I’ll have to tell you straight away that they are “hearts of palm,” and they do indeed come from a palm tree. The second mystery will be the actual name of the plant involved here.

The palm family (it has two equivalent botanical names: “Palmae” and “Arecaceae”), you will recall, is a big one, with nearly 3,000 named species. They are perennial plants, commonly growing to be tall trees, or sometimes occurring as more shrubby plants. Some species are actually climbers, and rather viny.

Palms occur widely around the world, especially in the tropics, but are also fairly well represented in temperate regions. (I’ll say quickly that in South Carolina, a decidedly temperate place, we have four native palm species.)

The usefulness of palms to humans has been known since antiquity. In various cultures, different palm species have been extremely important as sources of building material, temporary shelters, fuel, charcoal, containers, fiber, clothing, oils, waxes, beverages, and especially as a food source. More recently, palms have increased dramatically in the horticulture business, and are now widely used as street trees and for landscaping accents.

“Hearts of palm” or “palm hearts” or “palm cabbage” (“palmitos” in Spanish) are a traditional and modern food source in Latin America, and more recently, as a sort of gourmet item. They come from any number of different tropical and temperate palm species.

Harvesting the palm “hearts” involves cutting the growing bud from the top, or end, of the plant, along with associated tissue behind it. The sections are then sliced to convenient lengths. These hearts can be eaten raw, pickled, or cooked, and are an important source of vitamins and minerals, as well as dietary fiber.

They also taste terrific.

As a snack, the canned variety (pictured here) serves nicely. They have a sort of soft crunchiness, with a sweetish, nutty flavor. They also work very well in salads, too. I’m thinking that a pickled “escabeche” salad of jicama, corn, and palm hearts would go very well with carnitas (roasted pork, of course) and an ice-cold cerveza.

If you are starting to get hungry, you might find some in the Latin American section of your local well-stocked supermarket.

Unfortunately, cutting the “heart” or bud out of a palm tree basically kills the plant, and this has indeed led to the destruction of large numbers of palms in the wild.

Our mystery plant is a palm species, however, that produces plenty of sprouts from the base, and can be harvested repeatedly.

Bactris gasipaes or Peach palm is a thorny palm which grows to 60-feet tall and is widely grown now in cultivation in much of Central America.

As an extra bonus, this palm also produces delicious fruits which look like small peaches.

For more information on the fascinating palm family, consider David L. Jones’ “Palms throughout the World,” published in 1995 by the Smithsonian Institution Press.

EDITOR’S NOTE: John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia, S.C. 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email nelson@sc.edu.

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