Açaí Palm (Euterpe oleracea)
The açaí palm can be found throughout much of Central America and northern South America. This slender palm naturally grows in shaded areas of the rainforest, reaching heights of 50 – 100 feet (15 – 30 m). It is a multi-stemmed palm, with the average adult tree having 4 – 8 stems converging into a single root system. The tree displays a beautiful crown of green feather-like palm leaves and produces bunches of nutritious berries, which the tree has become famous for. The açaí berries are approximately ½ inches (1.5 cm) in diameter and contain a single seed in the center. The berries emerge green, and ripen to their dark purple color, ready for harvest during the dry season between July and December. Each tree stem will produce 4-8 bunches of fruit each year, each bunch weighing close to 13 lbs (6 kg)!
Native to South and Central America, the açaí palm is most commonly found in regularly flooded regions of rainforest and often forms large groves along lowland river edges. This slow-growing, shade loving palm takes 4 – 5 years before it begins to produce fruit. It depends on the many birds and animals that eat its fruit for the majority of its seed dispersal throughout the forest.
Significance to Humans:
In recent years, açaí has become a popular ‘super fruit’ in United States and European markets. However, açaí has been a staple of many Amazonian communities for generations. The açaí palm heart is a commonly used vegetable, while the dark purple fruit is used to make a juice or even as a natural dye. The berries are soaked in water to soften the thin, outer shell, before the juice is squeezed out. The dark, purple juice is often mixed with sugar and tapioca powder to make a thick and nourishing drink. The juice is also used to produce ice cream, liquor and a variety of sweets. The palm fronds are even used to help thatch roofs. Traditionally this tree has had many medicinal uses as well. The oil from the fruit is used to treat diarrhea and the seeds are toasted and crushed to treat fever. The root is used in decoctions and infusions to treat everything from liver issues and diabetes to hair loss and muscle pain.
- The Nature Conservancy: http://www.nature.org/ourinitiatives/regions/southamerica/brazil/explore/acai-the-roots-of-a-super-fruit.xml
- Raintree Nutrition: http://rain-tree.com/acai.htm
- Palm and Cycad Societies of Australia: http://www.pacsoa.org.au/palms/Euterpe/oleracea.html
- Photos by Angela Rutherford and Elena Machado