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What is an Oil Palm?

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  • Written By: Greer Hed
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 01 September 2016
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The genus Elaeis is made of up two species of palm tree, both of which are referred to by the common name "oil palm" because their fruits and kernels are used to produce palm oil. These species are Elaeis oleifera, or the American oil palm, and Elaeis guineensis, or the African oil palm. The former species is found in Central and South America, while the latter is native to west Africa. These palm trees are usually grown on commercial plantations because the oil they produce has a wide variety of uses.

An oil palm is a perennial tree that can grow as tall as 50 feet (15 meters) and can live as long as 30 years. The tree typically has large leaves divided into many feathery fronds, with the American variety having showier leaves than the African. These leaves become increasingly sparse as the tree reaches adulthood, with a mature tree usually having no more than 20 leaves. The oil palm tree also has flowers, which are tiny white blossoms with three petals found growing in clusters. When the flowers are pollinated, they take five to six months to mature into ripe, orange palm fruits that each have a single large seed called a palm kernel.

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Both the pulp of the fruit and the meat of the palm kernel contain palm oil, a type of oil that is high in fatty acids. Palm oil is edible, and because of its high fat content, it is often used for deep-frying. It is also a common food additive, and can be used for making soap. Compounds derived from palmitic acid, one of the fatty acids found in palm oil, can be combined with a flammable solvent called naphtha to produce the variety of napalm that was used during the Vietnam War era. Palm oil is also a viable source of biodiesel, a kind of fuel that is made from naturally occurring fats.

Since the oil palm is usually grown for commercial purposes, choosing to grow the trees is more of a business venture than a landscaping decision. In order to grow oil palms, a large amount of acreage must be cleared and tilled for them. Holes can then be dug in the tilled soil for planting, and the oil palm seeds or seedlings can be placed in these holes. Young trees must be kept well fertilized and protected from weeds, insects, and other pests. Generally, the trees prefer tropical climates and damp, fertile soil.

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