Note: This post was originally posted on April 1, 2008, just re-posted it today. It was not revised, not even the layout. Thanks for reading.
At the Royal Palace entrance in Phnom Penh, the big palm fascinated me. It looks like the buri palm but the fruits are not terminal. The two adjacent palms are of different sexes, male and female (dioecious to us horticulturists, botanists). I looked for the name, and will you believe the label in my picture? Of course not, the trunk was not fully shown and only the ferns were seen. The common name is sugar palm, but only the scientific name is placed in the trunk, Borassus flabellifer L. Palmier. It has a lot of uses in Cambodia. The male and female inflorescences are both tapped for sap production, eventually boiled to produce sugar or fermented into vinegar, or liquor just like our "tuba". You can also drink the fresh juice. The leaves are also used for roofing or walls for houses in the villages. In the ancient times, the leaves were used by monks for writing. The big trunks can be used as timber or sometimes the decaying trunks serve as natural media for bettle larvae which we found are being eaten there (stories about this later).
On the 6:00am bus ride from Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, these sugar palms are scattered in the landscape. Many trunks have bamboo ladders for gathering sap and fruits. The fruits have 2-3 kernels, each kernel with juice inside. So it is eaten by putting the whole kernel in the mouth. It tastes good, but not as sweet as the name implies. Stores along the way and near some temples in Siem Reap are selling these ready to eat kernels. There are also small stores cooking the sap in big vats into sugar pieces. These also serve as tourist attraction. (Bottom left to right: female plant, the nuts green when young and black when mature, female and male inflorescence with bolo and implement to press the inflorescence for producing sap, ready to eat kernels, sap cooking in earthen stove, landscape with many sugar palm plants)