by Lye Tuck-Po
Checking the trunk of Caryota mitis
Outside Taman Negara national park, Pahang, Malaysia, August 14, 1999: Cangkay is opening up the trunk of a fishtail palm (Batek gasek; Caryota mitis) to check for edible pith inside. There was no pith (at least none we could eat), even though the tree was matured enough for it. Had there been one, it would have been a good snack or vegetable. Note the fuzz on the surface of the trunk: easily scraped off to make tinder for fire. This one was growing on a streambank in advanced secondary forest, but the species is widely distributed throughout the region. Indeed, there was one growing on the hillside round the corner from my house in Kuala Kubu Bahru, where it stood surrounded by grasses and shrubs, undisturbed by all except a funny-looking frustrated photographer. In Penang, they're everywhere. Wildsingapore has some additional photos here. According to them, T. C. Whitmore considered the fishtail to be "the only palm commonly found in secondary forest."
But the Batek didn't use it much. For them, the most common source of edible piths were Arenga obtusifolia (Batek tabar; Malay langkap) and Oncosperma horridum (Batek taduʔ; Malay pokok bayas; photo below). The most common source of lean-to thatch (seen in almost all my lean-to photos) is Calamus castaneus (Batek cɛmcɔm; Malay rotan cucor). You can google for images of these palms.
In Cambodia, the most famous and culturally significant palm is the sugar palm (Borassus flabellifer), an indelible feature of village landscapes (and elsewhere) throughout the country (see below). I was looking over my photos of Cambodia. There were sugar palms in the background and sometimes the foreground in almost all my photos! The trunk is good for timber, the sap can be made into sugar and/or wine, the fronds are good for thatch. Most sugar palms in the countryside are privately owned; they are tended, treasured, and passed on as inheritance.
Harvesting the sugar palm, Cambodia, 2006
Walking past a row of planted sugar palms, Cambodia, 2006
Palms are aesthetically pleasing. They're also very useful: some species are good for roof-thatch, some for floor matting; some have fruits and/or edible and/or flour-producing piths that make a good staple or famine food; and leaf-stems of the harder varieties are easily transformed into fishing rods.
And let us not forget the climbing palms: thin-diameter varieties are very useful for cordage and basketry, while thicker varieties have great commercial value as rattans destined for the furniture industry and world markets. Collecting rattans for cash or trade goods is a long-standing livelihood option for forest-dwellers in Malaysia and elsewhere. However, many species have become scarce due to over-exploitation and/or habitat destruction.
Freshly harvested rattans (climbing palms), Malaysia, 2009