Wednesday, August 24, 2011


The pupunheira palm tree, native to the rain forests of Central and South America and bearing the fearsome sounding botanical name of Bactris gasipaes, is one of these double-whammy food-bearing plants that offer more than one foodstuff from a single plant. Think of beets with their sweet, earthy root and their bitter and flavorful greens. Other than the reddish tinge in the veins of the greens, there is nothing that would lead one to believe the root and the leaf must come from the same plant. Or think of the coriander plant - its ground seeds are an essential part of Indian curries adding warm, spicy and orange-scented notes, while the fresh, tangy, green leaves of the same plant (better known by its Spanish name cilantro) are an important herb in Mexican, Brazilian and Thai cuisines. Again, there is nothing that would seem to connect ground coriander with fresh cilantro.

The pupunheira palm, which flourishes in all tropical regions of Brazil offers both its fruit and the tender growing bud of its central stalk for human consumption. In an upcoming post on Flavors of Brazil, we'll discuss the stalk-bud, which is known in Brazil as palmito and in English as heart of palm. The pupunheira is only one of several palm species from which palmito is harvested, but it's ecologically the most sustainable one, and its importance in the international heart of palm market is growing rapidly.

The bounty of this palm tree is more than just palmito, though. The pupunheira also bears a bright red fruit with a brilliant orange-yellow interior that's an important food source for dwellers of the rain forest and which is now just beginning to be marketed commercially outside its native habitat. In the Amazon region, where the bulk of the harvest is still sold and consumed, pupunha fruits can be found in markets, on simple roadside fruit stands, and even sold by vendors at traffic lights.

Because the pupunha fruit contains oxalic acid it cannot be eaten raw, as it is toxic in that state. It must be cooked to eliminate the acid, and this is generally done by boiling the fruit for 50 to 80 minutes in salted water, then cooling it and peeling it before consumption. Pupunha fruit is often eaten as part of the breakfast meal. Some prefer to eat it in it's natural state, but many Brazilian add honey or sugar to it to increase the sweetness. For mid-day or evening meals, it's often mashed or ground into a puree which substitutes for other starches such as potatoes or manioc that can't be cultivated in the rain forest. Pupunha puree can be further dried in a kiln or oven then reground to make a type of flour, which can be stored for long periods of time without refrigeration and reconstituted later with water.

Nutritional studies indicate that pupunha fruits have high levels of anti-oxidants and vitamin A and can be an important source of selenium. Pupunha has one of the highest levels of selenium in the plant kingdom. The fruit also has high levels of beneficial oils.

Today, the commercial value of the bud of the plant (the palmito) vastly outweighs the commercial value of the fruit, which is known and eaten primarily in its native habitat. Outside Amazonia there is a tremendous domestic and international market for palmito, but currently almost none for the fruit. Both governmental and non-governmental organizations are working on ways to increase the commercial visibility and viability of the fruit, which in the future could be an important value-added product of the harvesting of pupunheira palms to meet the international demand for hearts of palm..


  1. I like that it is informational and that it gives a lot of detail.

  2. Eating pupunha with sugar or honey is somehow strange to me. I've always eaten it pure when I used to live in Amazon. I haven't eaten pupunha for 3 years since my most recent comeback to Amazon but it's still one of my favorite fruits...

  3. where can buy this in Europe?

  4. I too, lived in the Amazon. I remember it being very oily. Am I right? I also think I are it raw, right off the plant! Yikes!