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Über dieses Buch

This book explores the degree to which landscapes have been enriched with palms by human activities and the importance of palms for the lives of people in the region today and historically. Palms are a prominent feature of many landscapes in Amazonia, and they are important culturally, economically, and for a variety of ecological roles they play. Humans have been reorganizing the biological furniture in the region since the first hunters and gatherers arrived over 20,000 years ago.



1. Palms and Cultural Landscapes

Palms are ubiquitous in Amazonia, in both upland and floodplain environments. Approximately 150 palm species are native to the region, and palm diversity increases as one approaches the Andes (Balslev et al. 2011; Kahn et al. 1988; Kristiansen et al. 2011). However, new palms species have recently been discovered and described, especially in the genus


, a diminutive palm used extensively to thatch buildings, so the total is likely to be much higher.

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2. Acrocomia aculeata

A widespread palm ranging from Mexico to Argentina as well as parts of the Caribbean, this palm has a strong affinity with humans. People have increased the density of this palm by creating disturbed habitats and by discarding seeds near their dwellings. At least one indigenous group believes that groves of the palm were planted by their ancestors. The creamy, energy-rich fruits are relished as a snack.

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3. Aiphanes aculeata

This palm grows in forests and home gardens in the foothills of the Andes from Bolivia north to the mountainous coast of Venezuela. Both the think pulp and the small seeds are consumed. It is both wild and cultivated.

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4. Aphandra natalia

One might regard

A. natalia

as the broom palm because its principal use is to make brooms. Fibers, remnants of leaf stems, persist on the trunk and are cut to make brooms that are sold in urban and rural areas. Even with the advent of nylon brooms, these palm brooms still claim a sizeable regional market. This wiry palm is found in the understory of forests in the eastern slopes of the Andes in Ecuador and Peru as well as in lowland forest in the southwestern portion of the Brazilian Amazon.

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5. Astrocaryum acaule

This spiny, understory palm is confined in its natural setting to floodplain forests along black and clear water rivers in Amazonia and the Guianas. In spite of its punishing spines, people have recruited this diminutive palm for its golf ball-sized fruits which contain an oily pulp rich in vitamin A. The palm is therefore found in the home gardens of some river dwellers.

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6. Astrocaryum aculeatum

Known as tucumã in the central part of Amazonia where it is mostly found, this fire-tolerant palm proliferates when people cut and burn the forest or second growth. Cattle pasture or cultivated fields peppered with this prickly palm are a common site in Amazonas, Brazil. The fruits are gathered and after peeling the green skin, the yellow pulp is consumed. Because of its utility, the palm is typically spared when weeding. The liquid endosperm (immature nut) provides emergency water when away from home and some indigenous groups use fiber obtained from the fronds to make twine. The endocarps (nut shells) are used to make ornaments and trinkets.

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7. Astrocaryum chambira

This is another fiber producing palm that also yields edible fruits. The liquid endosperm is also drunk and is similar in taste and texture to coconut milk. Confined to uplands, this palm takes over from

A. aculeatum

in western Amazonia and has been planted by indigenous groups in some areas because of it is so useful.

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8. Astrocaryum gynacanthum

A short palm of upland forests in central and eastern parts of the Amazon Basin, the fruits are consumed in some areas, such as in the Upper Rio Negro region. The heart-of-palm is also eaten as a vegetable and one indigenous group burns the palm to obtain ash salts.

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9. Astrocaryum jauari

This aquatic palm grows along rivers of all water types and furnishes fruits that are gathered to feed pigs. The palm fruits also contribute indirectly to the human diet because they are eaten by frugivorous fishes, such as the much esteemed tambaqui, known as gamitana in Peru. Petiole strips are used to make baskets in some areas, especially in Peru.

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10. Astrocaryum murumuru

Armed with enormous spines, people nevertheless take the trouble to harvest the fruits in floodplain forests. This pin cushion palm has a strong affinity with humans and it can be difficult to tell distinguish stands are “natural” and from those that are a result of planting by people and the passing of seeds by cattle in their dung. Indeed, this relatively short, sprawling palm is often associated with archaeological sites containing anthropogenic dark soil. In addition to eating the pulp and nuts, grubs are removed from the endocarps for use as fish bait.

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11. Astrocaryum vulgare

As the species name suggests, this palm is common, but only in disturbed habitats in eastern and central Amazonia. The yellow-orange fruits are relished and the palm was spread by indigenous peoples in precontact times up the Amazon to the central part of the Basin where it grows in close proximity to its cousin

A. aculeatum

. The fiber of

A. vulgare

is also used to make twine and to fashion hats. This fire-tolerant palm proliferates in the vicinity of settlements as people cut and burn forest to plant crops. The hard endocarps are used to make ornaments, such as necklaces.

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12. Attalea butyracea

This majestic palm with its fountain-like spray of generous fronds is found in forests in both uplands and floodplains but is more common in seasonally-inundated habitats. It is found in western Amazonia north to Mexico and throughout its range the enormous fronds are gathered to thatch houses and to make mats. The endocarps are also chopped open to obtain beetle grubs for fish bait. The grubs are also cooked and eaten. The palm is typically spared when clearing forest and is planted in some areas.

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13. Attalea maripa

A quintessential camp follower in upland areas, concentrations of this palm are a sure indicator that people are, or have been, in the area. Although the palm survives in second growth it is eventually shaded out and disappears if mature forest returns. The palm is a welcome “weed” because it supplies many useful products including fruits that provide snacks, especially for children. The hard endocarps are cracked open and the nuts are also eaten as well as fed to livestock. The large elongated bowl-shaped bracts that cover the emerging fruits are used as water basins for animals in backyards while the fronds are made into baskets, mats, and interior walls. The frond midribs are used to make shrimp traps and sieves. The fronds are also used to thatch houses and huts, as well as to provide partial shade in vegetable beds. Some indigenous groups fashion ornaments from the hard wood obtained from the trunk. Given its widespread cultural value, the palm not surprisingly surfaces in some of the regional folklore and mythology.

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14. Attalea phalerata

A denizen of floodplains along sediment-rich rivers, this large palm with its impressive spreading fronds is found from the mouth of the Amazon upstream to Peru and Bolivia. It also occurs along some of the southern affluents of the Amazon. The tall palm has a wide range of uses including fruit, nuts, thatch, folk medicine, and crafts. Because of its multiple uses, some areas have been enriched with the palm, such as on indigenous mounds in the seasonally-flooded savannas of southwestern Amazonia and around home sites along forested rivers.

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15. Attalea racemosa

This is one of several stemless palms in the genus


. It is an understory palm of upland forests and locals gather the fruits to eat the nuts and cut the fronds for thatch. Leaflets are also used to make head bands and toys, especially in the Upper Rio Negro region.

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16. Attalea sagotii

Another stemless palm in uplands,

A. sagotii

occurs north of the Amazon River stretching into the Guianas and is also found as far west as Peru. The fronds are gathered to thatch dwellings and external kitchens, as well as to make exterior and interior walls.

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17. Attalea speciosa

A disturbance indicator

par excellence

, this majestic palm dominates some landscapes, especially in eastern and southern Amazonia. Babaçu, as the palm is known in Brazil, is well adapted to fires because when seeds sprout the nascent stem first grows downwards before emerging at the soil surface. The nuts are extracted from the hard endocarps to extract oil for use in cooking. Babaçu oil is also an ingredient in some hair conditioners and body lotions, while the seedcake is sold as bait for shrimp traps. The hard wooden casing that surrounds the nuts makes excellent fuel for cooking. The fronds are used for thatch and to make mats and baskets. In parts of Amazonia, such as Mato Grosso, heart-of-palm is extracted and sold along the side of roads and in street markets.

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18. Attalea spectabilis

Another of the palms in this genus without a trunk, this short palm is common in second growth in parts of central Amazonia. The palm proliferates in disturbed habitats and can be a nuisance to cattle ranchers because it crowds out pasture grasses but is a blessing to rural folk who gather the fronds to thatch their houses. Strips torn from the frond midribs are also used to fashion baskets.

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19. Bactris acanthocarpa

An understory palm in upland forests of central and western Amazonia, its main use is for making arrows to fish. The straight, light weight leaf axis makes and ideal arrow, although with the widespread use of gillnets, this use of the palm is in decline.

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20. Bactris bidentula

Confined to wetlands, this short grows along river banks and the margins of lakes in western Amazonia north and east to the Upper Orinoco and Guianas. The purple fruits are gathered to eat and make juice.

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21. Bactris bifida

This diminutive palm is confined to western Amazon south of the Amazon River and is found mostly in floodplain forests though it occurs occasionally on uplands. The pointed, dark purple fruits are gathered as a snack, especially by children.

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22. Bactris brongniartii

This water loving palm can be recognized by the flattened, light color spines that festoon the trunk, leaf stems, and the underside of the fronds. Sometimes forming dense groves, people tarry in their canoes during the flood season to pick the dark red fruits. As with many other aquatic palms, the fruits are an indirect source of food for people because several important game fish feast on the fruits.

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23. Bactris concinna

An aquatic palm in diverse water types in central and western Amazonia, the fruits are produced in the rainy season. Locals snack on the fruits and occasionally take them to urban markets. When soft and immature, the nut is also eaten as a snack.

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24. Bactris gasipaes

This is one of the most economically important palms in Amazonia where it was domesticated long ago. In fact, it is only known in cultivation. The farinaceous fruits are rich in vitamins and fiber and are consumed locally as well as in towns and cities. A mild beer is also made from the fruit pulp in central and western Amazonia. In the Peruvian Amazon, youngsters use the pulp as fish bait. Widely cultivated in home gardens and fields, the palm was taken in precontact times into Central America. In addition to its nutritious fruits, this tall palm is an important source of palmito both for local consumption and for export. The hard wood is used to fashion tools for farming and weaving. Historically, indigenous groups have used the dense wood to make weapons, such as bows and blowguns. Certain indigenous groups hold festivals in honor of the palm.

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25. Bactris hirta

Widespread in upland forests in Amazonia, this is one of a dozen or so species in the genus with edible fruits. Indigenous groups in the Rio Negro region tarry in the forest to snack on the fruits.

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26. Bactris major

This palm tends to occur in clumps in uplands of the central and eastern portion of the Amazon Basin. It is found on higher parts of floodplain and near streams in upland forests. However, it appears to be more common in secondary forests. People gather the grape-sized fruits to snack on the juicy pulp.

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27. Bactris maraja

Another wetland palm in this large genus,

B. maraja

also produces edible fruits much appreciated by river dwellers. The fruits are also occasionally taken to urban markets. The hard stems of the palm are used by some indigenous groups to make weapons, such as bows and blowguns, as well as ornaments.

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28. Bactris martiana

The fruits of this species are among the largest in the genus, attaining the size of a damson or small plum. Confined to the banks of water courses in western Amazonia, this species is ripe for domestication. Some groves contain hundreds of the palm and they may have arisen from discarded seeds at now vanished settlements.

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29. Bactris riparia

As the species name suggests, this palm grows on river banks where it forms picturesque clumps. The fruits are eaten by certain fish who can swim right up to the fruit bunches during the annual flood. Although not generally consumed by humans, fishermen occasionally make a juice from the fruits in their canoes.

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30. Copernicia alba

A relative of the better known carnaúba palm from which a valuable wax is obtained for car polish, the main uses of

Copernicia alba

are to make posts and to obtain fiber from the fronds for weaving. In some areas, the fruits are eaten and the heart of palm is harvested. The palm is found in southwest fringes of the Amazon Basin.

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31. Desmoncus polyacanthos

One of the few palms with a vine-like growth habit, this palm occurs in various forms in upland forest and along water courses and in seasonally-flooded savannas. Widely distributed in the Amazon and Orinoco Basins, the main use of this palm is to obtain strips from the stem to weave baskets and sleeve-like devices for squeezing manioc dough. Strips from the stem are still occasionally used to bind tobacco leaves into salami-like rolls; some indigenous groups also wrap the strips around their blowgun tubes to secure them and as well as to attach arrow points. The fruits are occasionally eaten or used for fish bait.

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32. Elaeis oleifera

A cousin of the widely planted African oil palm,

Elaeis oleifera

is the only representative of the genus that occurs naturally in the New World where it usually grows on floodplains. But deciphering “wild” stands of the American oil palm from groves that have been established by people in the past is a difficult task. Indeed, American oil palm is considered an indicator species of archaeological sites with anthropogenic black earth. American oil palm has naturalized in some upland areas where it was introduced by indigenous peoples long ago. The oil-rich fruits are gathered to make juice and to prepare remedies for a wide range of health problems. This palm was likely taken to Central America in precontact times. In addition to the fruit, the fronds of this palm are used to shade vegetables and to create a mat to dry fish. This palm has also been used by plant breeders working to improve African oil palm (

Elaeis guineensis


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33. Euterpe catinga

A slender palm confined to patches of sandy soils in parts of central and western Amazonia, the fruits are occasionally gathered locally but they never enter markets. Its cousins

Euterpe oleracea


E. precatoria

are much more important in this regard.

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34. Euterpe oleracea

Euterpe oleracea

is one of the most economically important palms in the Amazon Basin because its fruits are widely used to make a savory juice. Propelled by a growing interest in fruits with antioxidant properties, açaí fruit juice can now be found in many industrial countries. Widespread in lowland northern South America, it is difficult to ascertain the range of this palm before people arrived on the continent. Groves of the palm can often be attributed to abandoned homesites where seeds were discarded. Some farmers also sow the seeds in their fields so that they can come back after annual crops have been harvested in order to gather the fruits. Old palms are often cut down for palmito.

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35. Euterpe precatoria

Another widespread representative of the genus,

E. precatoria

is similar in many respects to

E. oleracea

except that the former also occurs in upland forests whereas the latter is generally found along the margins of streams and rivers. Both produce highly-sought after fruits for making juice. Some populations of

E. precatoria

allegedly bear fruits with higher levels of antioxidants than

E. oleracea

. Oil is obtained from the fruit pulp for cooking and for use as a hair conditioner. Indeed, over a dozen medicinal uses have been attributed to this palm. In addition to palmito, the palm is also used to furnish poles for house construction.

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36. Geonoma deversa

The main use of palms in this genus is for thatch. Such is the case with wide-ranging

Geonoma deversa

which occurs from Central America into parts of northern South America. Mostly confined to upland forests, this understory palm is arguably the most commonly used palm in the genus for thatching dwellings.

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37. Geonoma macrostachys

This bushy palm occurs in upland forests throughout the Amazon and can form dense stands. In addition to thatch, the fronds are also sliced off and spread on the forest floor to cut up game meat. In some areas, overharvesting of the fronds has occurred but in other parts of the region, such as in Brazil, a widespread shift to metallic roofs has undoubtedly reduced pressure on the palm.

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38. Geonoma maxima

This highly variable species is widespread in Amazonia, the Guianas, and in some valleys in the northern Andes. It is widely used to thatch houses and huts used for processing manioc flour.

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39. Iriartea deltoidea

This tall, stilt-rooted palm develops a distinctive bulge in its trunk towards the top in some areas, the purpose of which remains unclear. A denizen of upland forests in central and western Amazonia it can form relatively dense stands in the foothills of the Andes. The cultural uses of this widespread palm appear to be waning with modernization. For example, the trunks are rarely split in the Brazilian Amazon for flooring since sawn lumber has become widely available in recent decades. However, the Matis still fashion their famously long blowguns with the palm stem. The fruits are not eaten, though game animals consume them. In some areas, grubs are extracted from the fallen trunks and cooked.

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40. Iriartella setigera

Similar in many respects to its larger cousin

Iriartea deltoidea

, this palm is shorter and with a much more slender trunk. Historically, the main use of

Iriartella setigera

has been to make blowguns, though this custom has declined dramatically with the widespread adoption of shotguns. The slim trunks are still used in some rural areas to fashion floors and walls of homes.

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41. Leopoldinia major

Arguably one of the most beautiful palms in all of Amazonia, few tourists or other visitors to the region ever have the chance to see this palm because it is confined to certain stretches of black water rivers in remote areas of the Upper Rio Negro watershed. Sometimes forming dense stands of several thousand individuals, the fruits are gathered in the high water season. Formerly, the fruits were also burned to generate a salt substitute.

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42. Leopoldinia piassaba

This palm with its distinctive fibers hanging down the trunk is also confined to the Rio Negro Basin, where it occurs inland from rivers in patches that may flood periodically and where the groundwater is close to the surface. The hanging fibers, which are remnants of leaf sheaths, are gathered in the wild to be made into brooms. Formerly the tough fibers were also made into ropes, especially for boats because they float and are strong. The fronds are occasionally used for thatch and the fruits are sometimes eaten.

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43. Leopoldinia pulchra

Confined to wetlands like its larger cousin

Leopoldinia major

, this palm has a wider distribution in central Amazonia and occurs along both black and clear water rivers. The fruits are eaten fresh or dried and pulverized to make flour. The fruits are also consumed by several species of turtles which are captured for food. Fisherman pull worms out from the fibrous mat covering the palm stems to bait hooks.

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44. Lepidocaryum tenue

This low-lying upland palm is eagerly sought out for the durable fronds for use as thatch. The fronds turn a distinctive coppery color when dry and are also used to repair leaks in roofs made with fronds obtained from other palm species. The fronds are also used to protect passengers and goods on small boats from the fierce equatorial sun and to wrap fish for cooking.

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45. Manicaria saccifera

This palm is easily recognized by its broad, sweeping fronds that grace the waterways of some parts of the Amazon, especially in the estuary. The fronds are highly sought after for thatch because of their durability. The fronds are even brought to urban areas for sale. When the fruits are still immature, the endocarps are sometimes cut open to provide a refreshing drink. The fruits float and are gathered in some places to feed pigs.

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46. Mauritia carana

This medium sized relative of

Mauritia flexuosa

, the tallest palm in Amazonia, also has scaly, edible fruits. But unlike its larger cousin, the fronds of

Mauritia carana

are sought after for thatch, especially in the Rio Negro watershed. Known as caraná in Brazil, this palm has a more restricted distribution than

M. flexuosa

since it is confined to sandy soils in black and clear water river basins. Caraná fronds are a highly desirable commodity in the Upper Rio Negro and overharvesting has led to a diminished supply. In some parts of that basin, indigenous peoples plant the palm in their fields to increase the availability of fronds.

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47. Mauritia flexuosa

Along with açaí and peach palm,

Mauritia flexuosa

is one of the most important palms in Amazonia from various perspectives, including its role in aquatic ecosystems and its many cultural uses, especially fruit. Widespread in the Amazon and Orinoco Basins, this majestic palm towers over other palm species and can form dense stands, sometimes stretching for tens of kilometers. The vitamin-rich fruits are consumed locally and are also sent to urban areas. Eventually, the fruit pulp may penetrate international markets as well. In addition to fruit, the palm provides fiber for making hammocks and belts while petiole strips are woven into baskets. The beetle grubs extracted from the fallen trunks are a regional delicacy in both rural and urban areas especially in western Amazonia. The palm is planted in home gardens as well as in fields and is so entwined in the regional cultures that it often features in folklore.

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48. Mauritiella armata

Another of the many wetland palms in Amazonia, this slender-trunked palm typically forms clumps and produces scaly fruits which are peeled to feast on the pulp surrounding the single seed. The trunks are armed with sizeable conical spines so the fruits are obtained either by picking them up from the ground or chopping the palms down. Eventually, the latter practice will lead to a growing scarcity of this elegant palm.

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49. Oenocarpus bacaba

The most important product of this palm is the fruit which is highly prized for making juice. The enormous fruit bunches, similar in shape to horse tails, are cut in upland forests in the northern and western parts of the Amazon Basin. The palm also occurs a little south of the Amazon River in certain places. Some stands of the palm in forest are likely vestiges of human intervention. Indeed, the palm has a close affinity with some archaeological sites that contain anthropogenic dark earth. In addition to fruit, palmito is harvested from the palm and the strong wood is used to make bows. Petiole strips are used to make a sleeve-like press for manioc dough and the fronds are fashioned into make-shift baskets for carrying produce and game.

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50. Oenocarpus bataua

This widespread palm in both uplands and the higher parts of floodplains provides many useful products the most important of which is the fruits which are used to make a rich juice. As many as 2,000 fruits can be produced on a single tree. Throughout the palm’s extensive range from the mouth of the Amazon to the Andean foothills up to 1,400 m, the fruits are soaked and then sieved to render a delicious, calorie-laden juice. Rich in oil, the juice is a significant source of calories in some areas as noted by Victorian naturalists. The oil is similar to olive oil and was once a brisk trade item. The purple, protein-rich juice is consumed in both rural and urban areas. The fruits are used in various folk remedies while the long black spines emanating from the leaf bases of young specimens are used as blowgun darts. Indigenous people use the hard wood obtained from the trunk to make blowguns and clubs as well as to make fish weirs.

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51. Oenocarpus distichus

The fruits of this palm resemble its close cousin

Oenocarpus bacaba

, but the palms can be easily distinguished because the fronds of

Oenocarpus distichus

splay out in a single plane on either side. Although both species are found in some home gardens, they generally have separate distributions with

O. distichus

occurring in eastern and southern Amazonia. The palm is typically spared when clearing forest to create cattle pasture or to plant crops, and the seeds are also sown in fields and home gardens. The fruits are used to make a juice which is often mixed with manioc flour to form a rich and highly nutritious porridge.

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52. Oenocarpus mapora

The fruits of this palm are similar in many respects to those produced by

Oenocarpus bacaba


O. distichus

, but

O. mapora

can be easily distinguished from its cousins because it tends to form clumps along river and stream banks and the trunks are much more slender. It is hard to distinguish “natural” stands of the palm from those that have arisen from discarded seeds or plantings around rural houses.

Oenocarpus mapora

is found in central and western Amazonia and reaches north into Venezuela and parts of Central America. The fruits are gathered to make a much appreciated juice. Since the trunk has no spines, people either shimmy up the trunk to gather the fruits or use a ladder. Children use catapults to knock down the fruits. The sturdy trunks are used for posts and flooring in some areas and the trunks of young specimens were once used to fashion blowguns.

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53. Phytelephas macrocarpa

This palm with its characteristic trunk that lies flat on the ground before bending upwards so that the fronds can capture light in the understory, has two main uses. The fronds are used for thatch and when the endosperm hardens it turns into vegetable ivory that can be harvested for the trade in vegetable ivory. Confined to western Amazonia in Peru south to Bolivia, the palm also extends into the Upper Purus River in the southwestern portion of the Brazilian Amazon. The palm grows on higher parts of floodplains, such as abandoned river banks often forming extensive groves. Some of the groves likely resulted from artificial mounds created by indigenous peoples for their settlements and to grow crops. People likely planted the pam in the past, as they do in some areas today.

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54. Raphia taedigera

Raphia taedigera

is the only New World representative of a genus more commonly found in Africa. Although the palm has the longest fronds of any palm native to the Americas, they are not used for thatch. In the past, the fruits were used to extract oil used in cooking, to make soap, and for use in folk remedies. Now the main use of the palm is to make shrimp traps from the frond midribs. The midribs are also used to make flexible fishing poles and to fashion roll up fences to trap fish that have been stupefied with piscicides. Strips torn from the petioles are used to make baskets and laundry hampers. The palm is confined to wetlands, especially in the southern part of the Amazon estuary.

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55. Socratea exorrhiza

Sometimes referred to in English as the walking palm,

Socratea exorrhiza

is easily recognized by its large, cylindrical stilt roots that are studded with spines. The latter are sometimes cut for use as graters, but the main use is the trunk which is split to make durable flooring and walls in rural houses. The durable trunks are also used to make fish traps in some areas, such as at the mouth of the Amazon and indigenous groups use the hard wood to fashion a variety of weaponry. This wetland palm is widespread in the Amazon and Orinoco basins and also extends into Central America.

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56. Syagrus inajai

Although this palm does not figure prominently in the diet and crafts of Amazonia, the fruits are occasionally eaten and the stems have been used to make bows. It is confined to uplands in the central and eastern portion of the basin.

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57. Wettinia maynensis

Confined to the eastern slopes of the Andes from Ecuador south to Peru, the trunks of this palm are split to make flooring and the fruits are consumed in some areas.

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