palm, common name for members of the Palmae, a large family of chiefly tropical trees, shrubs, and vines. Most species are treelike, characterized by a crown of compound leaves, called fronds, terminating a tall, woody, unbranched stem. The fruits, covered with a tough fleshy, fibrous, or leathery outer layer, usually contain a large amount of endosperm in the seed (stored food).

Although the palms are of limited use in the United States and other temperate areas, their economic importance in the tropical regions can exceed that of the grasses. Members of the family often furnish food, shelter, clothing, and other necessities of life for entire populations; an ancient Hindu song about the Palmyra palm (Borassus flabelliformis) of India enumerates 801 uses for the plant. Among the most important palms providing food and other products are the coconut, date, and sago. Palm sugar (jaggery) is obtained from the sap of several palms, e.g., species of Phoenix, Cocos, Arenga (in India), and Raphia (in Africa). Palm toddy, or wine, is made especially in Africa and Southeast Asia. Cabbage palm is a name applied to several species whose young heads of tender leaves are cooked as vegetables; these include the coconut palm, a royal palm (Roystonea oleracea), and the cabbage palmetto (Sabal palmetto). The fruit of the betel palm provides the world's most-used masticatory. Carnauba wax is obtained from a Brazilian species. Among the important palm fibers are raffia and rattan. Daemonorops draco yields dragon's blood, a resin. Another palm-fruit product, tagua, is used as a substitute for ivory.

Species native to the United States include the tall royal palm of Florida and Cuba (usually Roystonea regia in Florida) and the California fan palm (Washingtonia filifera) of the Southwest and Mexico, much planted as an avenue ornamental. The palmetto palm is the characteristic underbrush plant of the SE United States.

The tallest palm is the Quindio wax palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense), which can reach 200 ft (61 m) in height and is found on cool Andean mountainsides in Colombia and N Peru at elevations of 6,500–10,000 ft (2,000–3,000 m). The largest known plant seed, enclosed in a fruit weighing up to 40 lb (18 kg), is borne by Lodoicea maldivica, a palm of the Seychelles, variously called the Seychelles nut palm, the coco-de-mer, or the double coconut. The talipot palm, Corypha umbraculifera, has leaf blades that may be up to 16 ft (4.9 m) across and the largest compound inflorescence, or flowerhead, in the plant kingdom.

Palm oil is the fat pressed from the fibrous flesh of the fruit of many palms, principally the coconut palm, the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), the peach palm (Bactris gasipaes), the babassu palm (Orbignya species, especially O. phalerata), and other South American species. Commercial palm oils are used for soaps and candles, lubricants, margarine, fuel, feed (chiefly the caked residue remaining after the oil has been expressed), and many other purposes. The total output of palm oil equals that of all other nondrying oils combined. In Indonesia and Malaysia, the main producers of palm oil, the rapid expansion of palm oil plantations has become one of the main causes of deforestation.

The palm family is classified in the division Magnoliophyta, class Liliopsida, order Arecales.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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