The peach palm (scientific name Bactris gasipaes) is a variety of palm that can be found in the rainforests of Central and South America. It is quite common in the area because it is planted by humans, usually mixed with other trees but rarely in dedicated plantations as well. While its English name is the peach palm, it is known as the chontaduro in Spanish. It survives for a very long time and will produce fruits for at least 50 years but up to 75 years on average. This tree doesn't have a clear standard and many variations in color and shape can be encountered. Fruits have to be cooked for a few hours but have a great taste and are full of nutrients.
The fruit is unusually rich in vitamin A and a portion of just 100 grams can supply up to 15 times the required daily amount of this nutrient. The fruits are also consumed by many wild animals. Besides the value of the fruits, the peach palms are cultivated for the quality timber and the heart of palms.
Archeologists have found evidence that this tree has been cultivated in the Americas for thousands of years. It is still grown on a large scale for the hearts of palm and the delicious edible fruits. Some cooks name it "the noble Panamanian fruit" because a large proportion of it, up to 92 percent, is edible, including the seed, skin and pulp. Modern chemical tests have discovered that the peach palm actually offers the best composition of all tropical fruits. It is similar in content to an egg but without the harmful cholesterol in it, while having two times the amount of proteins in a banana and more proteins than an avocado. The tree is a typical palm, reaching a height of minimum 20 meters. It has the classic pinnate leaves, which are 3 m long with a petiole of 1 m. The fruits are drupes and have a length between 4 and 6 cm, with a width of 3 to 5 cm. A layer of edible pulp protects a single seed, while the rind varies in color. When the fruit is ripe, it can be yellow, orange or red.
The peach palm is rich in nutrients, especially the vitamins A and C. It provides strong benefits to the immune system, because of the mix of antioxidants like vitamin A, C and others, as well as essential minerals such as calcium or magnesium. These can neutralize the harmful action of free radicals and boost the reaction of white blood cells.
However, the fruit is famous as a massive source of energy. There are no less than 37 grams of carbohydrates for every 100 grams of pulp, which is a considerable amount. These compounds are the fuel used by our body for energy. By separating the carbohydrates into components, we get the needed energy reserve very fast. People in the native range of the tree use the fruit as a natural energy booster, without the downsides of the chemical ones. It is becoming increasingly popular in other parts of the world.
The peach palm is very rich in dietary fibers, like most types of fruits and vegetables. These fibers are excellent for our body in a number of ways. Their most important role is in digestion, where they regulate bowel movements, make assimilation more effective and relieve constipation. Fibers also eliminate gases and relieve bloated stomachs. All of these effects prevent the development of more serious diseases, including gastric ulcers and colon cancer.
Fibers are also important for people who suffer from diabetes. A proper intake of fibers can regulate the level of sugar in the blood stream by balancing the production of insulin. Fibers can decrease the amount of blood glucose and make the pancreas more effective. In this way, peach palm fibers can prevent diabetes completely or reduce its effects on people who already have this disease. Fibers are also excellent for the health of the circulatory system. They eliminate the extra cholesterol that can clog the blood vessels. This greatly reduces the risk of strokes, heart attacks and various other heart conditions.
The fruit is extremely rich in vitamin A and also an assortment of other carotenoid compounds related to it. These act as antioxidants at eye level, protecting the tissues from free radicals and preventing the degeneration of the specialized cells. They are essential for a healthy vision and can heal cataract completely or at least limit its development.
Peach palms also provide a great mixture of essential nutrients required for the protection of the skin. These include vitamins A and C, which are extremely effective when combined with proper hydration. These vitamins protect skin cells from harm but also boost the speed of repair and regrowth of its tissues. At the same time, the fruit provides a large amount of potassium, which is able to balance the internal body fluids. The skin stays healthy as long as the flow of fluids is optimal.
Children can benefit more than adults if they consume peach palms regularly. It provides a powerful mix of compounds required for growth, not only the combination of vitamins and minerals but also quality vegetal proteins and a number of other essential growth nutrients. It is also a great choice for pregnant women, since it offers protection against neural tube issues because of its content of folic acid.
What makes the fruit particularly useful is the very high energy content. Since it can restore energy levels very fast, it can be compared to any staple food rich in carbohydrates, like the potato. It can actually replace potatoes with ease because it has a very similar taste and texture as a sweet potato when cooked. Unlike other palm fruits, it can't normally be consumed raw, due to the very acidic taste. This disappears after cooking and the fruit can also be dried or ground into flour for storage. In raw form, the peach palm must be consumed quickly, otherwise it gets spoiled.
It is an important export crop in its native range. It is also used as an alternative for other local fruits like the acai, which have seen a big increase in demand in recent years on the exotic fruits market and have been overharvested for this reason. The fruit provides significant health benefits due to the right mixture of nutrients in its composition.
The plant has a long history of human usage and has been planted for hundreds of years at least. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived on the Atlantic shores of today's Costa Rica, they found a massive plantation that consisted of over 30000 trees. The natives ate the palm peaches instead of corn.
The traditional way to prepare the fruit is to boil it in water with salt, then remove the skin and the seed and add honey for flavor. The taste is similar to the one of a roasted chestnut or dried squash, while the texture is like the one of a sweet potato, in both the raw and cooked form. Some regional dishes serve the fruit cut in half and filled with sour cream. In raw form, the fruit is not edible because of calcium oxalate crystals, which have an irritating effect. These are destroyed by heat and street sellers normally cook it for at least 5 hours to make the fruits edible. However, a pressure cooker only needs about 30 minutes to destroy the crystals, while a microwave can be even faster. These modern methods don't change the flavor of the fruit at all. Since the fruit doesn't last long in raw form, it is often transformed into preserve, dried, pressed into oil or grounded for storage purposes.
The fruit is very popular among the natives of Panama, who normally prepare it by simply simmering it in hot water with salt, then peeling it. They also prepare it as a jelly or compote, with added honey.
The fruit is considered to be extremely nutritious, due to the high amounts of vitamin A, dietary fibers, calcium, thiamine, ascorbic acid and others. It also has a content of niacin, which benefits the eyes, and riboflavin, a compound useful for the blood.
Because it grows very fast, the peach palm is one of the best species for heart of palm harvesting. It only needs one and a half or two years after the initial planting until the first harvest. Heart of palm is increasingly popular all over the world and Brazil is an important market for this product. The tree is widely cultivated for this purpose in Costa Rica. The peach palm provides an alternative for other species that have been overharvested for hearts of palm, these include the juçara (Euterpe edulis) and the acai (Euterpe oleracea). It is also considered a possible alternative for sago palm (Metroxylon vitiense), a species overexploited in Fiji.