Monday, July 16, 2012

Avoid the poisonous palm tree

We stepped carefully from rock to rock. They were wet and slick.  It was the second day of my Amazon visit, and a guide was leading us to a jungle camp. I stumbled and instinctively reached out to brace myself on a tree. The guide yelled, "NO! NO!"

I looked at my hand. It rested on a cleared space of the trunk of a palm tree. Above and below my hand, the trunk was covered with hard, sharp needles. If my hand had been six inches higher i would have had a dozen poisonous spikes through my palm.  We were four hours by trail, boat, and taxi ride from any kind of medical care.

I was lucky. Someone had carefully cleared the tree trunk of needles, exactly where a clumsy visitor's hand would land if he stumbled and fell.

I learned my first big lesson about the jungle: Look carefully before you put your hand anywhere.

I was too freaked out to remember to take a picture of the needles. When I got home I searched the Internet for several days before I finally found the tree. Its latin name is Bactris gasipaes. The tree trunk shown below has been cleared of spines every foot or so.

Four inch spines. Used for needles, weapons and fish hooks.
It seems like every plant in the Amazon has a dozen unexpected uses. The Pijuayo palm tree is no exception.

In the past, indigenous peoples used the spines for needles, fish hooks and weapons. The tree has been cultivated since pre-Columbian times, and today it is an important part of the economies of Central and South America. The tree is a source of food. The trunk is harvested for palm hearts. The fruit is eaten raw, reduced to edible cooking oil, processed into  flour, or cooked into jelly.

No comments: