A date with history: The past, present, and future of palms…

Palm by Fred Gray 2018. Reaktion Books Ltd.

Fred Gray’s Palm [hereafter referred to as … Palm] is the second title in Reaktion Books’ Botanical series I’ve reviewed. The first was Stephen Harris’ Sunflowers, a super little book that dealt with the huge sunflower family, the Asteraceae. Palm, in contrast, covers the much smaller palm family, the Arecaceae (alternatively known as the Palmae) which has approx. 2,600 (and maybe up to 3,000) species, i.e. about a tenth of the number in the Asteraceae. Arguably, Gray does an even better job with his topic than Harris did with his. That’s not to criticise Harris, but to applaud Gray for delivering more in-depth insights into his chosen family because it’s a smaller number of species to handle. In that regard, Gray pays particular attention to coconut, date palm, and oil palm. Although Gray provides plenty of information about other members of the Arecaceae, those three are the major players in the millennia-old associations between humanity and this remarkable flowering plant family, and appropriately handed centre-stage in Palm.

Palm begins with a terrific arecacentric account of the UK’s capital city – London – which introduces us to many facets of our long-standing relationship with palms. Or, in Gray’s own words, “London has a particularly rich palmography”. Palms are not only iconic plants – they assuredly typify the romantic image of a sun-drenched, far-away, tropical island (with or without a hammock suspended between a pair of coconut trees) – they are also botanical record-breakers par excellence. For example: the coco-de-mer bears not only the world’s biggest, heaviest (up to 30 kg), but also the most ‘buttock-becoming’ seed; the African raffia palm has the longest leaf at 25 m; the talipot palm is the planet’s largest inflorescence, containing up to 24 million flowers; a species of climbing rattan has the world’s longest stem at approx. 200 m; some of these ‘tree-like non-trees’ are only 12 cm tall, and some have stems that are only 3 mm in diameter; and the commonest plant in Amazonia is the assai palm with an estimated 5 billion individuals.

Ecologically, palms have important roles to play, but, and as befits the brief of the publisher’s Botanical series, it’s the part that palms have played in human history that is one of the main points of focus of the book. And what an important role it is; one where the palm’s resources “have helped civilizations to bloom, economies to proper and cultures to flourish”. Probably nowhere is that point more dramatically argued in Palm than in Chapter 3. Entitled, “The civilizing date”, it recounts the tale of the date palm, and its modest 17 pages can be summed up in another quote from the book, “Without the date palm the modern world, as it is now, would not exist”… Dramatic stuff!

And, at the other end of the temporal scale, Gray has lots to say about the oil palm, Elaeis guineensis, source of both palm oil and palm kernel oil. Native to west Africa, its oil was a major export from Nigeria to the European colonial powers that formerly reigned over Africa for many years. [Almost as an aside, Gray highlights the commercial exploitation of this particularly prized palm product in helping to end the west African slave trade.] But, since the oil palms have been transplanted to south-east Asia, Nigeria’s dominance of the palm oil trade has been challenged – and, by the end of the 20th century, beaten – by Indonesia and Malaysia. With mention of southeast Asia and palm oil plantations, Gray doesn’t shy away from discussing the negative aspects of that particularly aggressive form of agroforestry and the associated effects on biodiversity, traditional lifestyles, and climate change. In those respects, there are more than a few echoes of the saga that is The Story of Soy, another book from Palm‘s publisher Reaktion Books. And there are further parallels between soy and palm – especially when one is made aware of how many modern-day products contain one or more derivatives of palm oil [listed on p. 108…]. Although, and interestingly, palm oil has an advantage over other vegetable oil crops, such as soy, on the grounds of “bountiful harvests, low cost and utility”. There’s no denying, palm oil is a global commodity, and in 2014 accounted for over 60% of the vegetable oil traded internationally.

Aside from their economic value as traded commodities, palms are also extremely rich in symbolism and utility. And Gray provides many accounts of the relationships that have developed over millennia between plant and people that highlight those more human sides to our association with this plant family. In doing so he ranges from napalm in the Palme d’Or-winning film Apocalypse Now, to its religious use, from architectural exploitation to sun-seeking hedonism in Las Vegas and on the French Riviera; from record-breaking attempts to create glasshouses to grow and show palms in Europe to creating artificial palm islands in Dubai; from its use as a writing material that appears to predate papyrus to creating an essential of one’s daily hygiene routine [soap] that led to development of a model settlement for workers and their families at Port Sunlight (near Liverpool, UK)… Yes, there’s not only great depth, there’s also tremendous breadth in this comparatively slim volume, and you never really know where your palm adventures will end up. But, that’s a big part of the delight and surprise in this book, and one which is not only abundantly illustrated, but also stylishly and well-written.

Summary

Fred Gray’s Palm is a smashing little book and an effortless read. You’ll be entertained, informed and educated, and rewarded with more than enough ‘palm trivia’ about the relevance and importance of this amazing flowering plant family. Palm is a great book, and one I enjoyed reading.