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(Palm family)


Also known as the Arecaceae, this family comprises 2500 species of palms in 217 genera. They are found in tropical and subtropical regions. The family furnishes many of the necessities of life in the tropics.

Allen (1943) noted that thorn injuries from palms in Panama almost without exception set up an immediate infection. Every effort should be made to remove such thorns immediately. In Southern California, Cozen & Fonda (1953) investigated 11 cases over a period of 12 years in which children had sustained thorn injuries from the sharp-tipped palm fronds lying beneath trees in places that children use for play. Injuries mostly involved the knee. Several months after removal of visible thorns that had penetrated the skin, foreign body reactions developed around the remains of broken thorn tips under the skin surface that had been overlooked at the time of the original injury. Surgical excision of the buried thorn is the only satisfactory treatment.

Inhalation of mouldy thatch dust can produce Papua or New Guinea lung, a form of allergic alveolitis (Morgan and Seaton 1975).

[Summary yet to be added]

Acrocomia aculeata Lodd. ex Mart.
[syns Acrocomia panamensis L.H.Bailey, Acrocomia spinosa H.E.Moore, Acrocomia vinifera Oersted, Cocos aculeatus Jacq.]

The leaves and the spathes which enclose the flowers possess long needle-like black spines which can penetrate the skin (Allen 1943). He listed 14 other species of the genus which have this property.

Acrocomia hassleri W.J.Hahn
[syn. Acanthococos hassleri Barb.Rodr.]

[Information available but not yet included in database]

Aiphanes Willd.

[Information available but not yet included in database]

Areca catechu L.
[syns Areca cathechu Burm.f., Areca faufel Gaertn., Areca hortensis Lour., Areca macrocarpa Becc., Areca nigra Giseke ex H.Wendl., Sublimia areca Comm. ex Mart.]
Areca Nut Palm, Betel Nut Palm, Arec Cachou, Arequier, Betelnußpalme

This species is cultivated in tropical Asia for its seeds, areca or betel nuts. The seed is cut into slices and rolled up in a leaf of betel pepper (Piper betle) with a little lime; when chewed it turns the saliva bright red. The habit is an ancient one and the variations complex (Burkill 1935, Muir and Kirk 1960). Acacia catechu may be added to the quid as well as various spices.

Betel-chewers maintain that the chewing keeps the gums healthy but continual betel-chewing ultimately destroys the teeth (Burkill 1935). Muir and Kirk (1960) concluded from their observations that cancer of the mouth occurring in habitual chewers is due to tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum L., fam. Solanaceae) added to the chew. Cheilitis can occur in chewers (Mendelson 1924). There are many ill-defined races of the palm which are cross-pollinated by insects. Some of the races of palm are unsuitable for the betel nut chewer producing an unpleasant sensation of tightness in the throat with profuse secretion of mucus. The nuts of such races are called by the Malays "pinang mengkelan" (the pinang which chokes). Therefore when a good tree is recognised it is well cared for (Burkill 1935).

Arenga Labill.

Eleven species are found in Indo Malaysia, except in Guinea, and in the Caroline and Christmas islands. The plants yield sugar, sago and fibre.

Arenga obtusifolia Mart.

This species, which has been said to be irritating, is inconstantly so in Hawai‘i (Arnold 1968).

Arenga pinnata Merr.
[syns Arenga saccharifera Labill., Saguerus pinnatus Wurmb]

The fruit-wall is full of needle-crystals (raphides) and is exceedingly irritant to the mouth. There is a story of the capture of the town of Surabaya in 1545 A.D. by means of the artifice of throwing the pulped fruits of this palm with carcasses into the river which supplied drinking water to the inhabitants. The pulped fruit brings fish to the surface of a pond; crushed fruit is placed along the margins of fishponds both to discourage poachers whose bare feet are irritated by the fruit-walls and to discourage the fish from approaching the edge of the pond (Burkill 1935). Polunin (1951), referring to Arenga saccharifera, confirmed in experiments on himself that the pulp of the fruits, when rubbed into the forearm, produces marked irritation and urticaria. Souder (1963) also refers to the microscopic stinging crystals present in the fruit.

Arenga westerhoutii Griffith

The fruit is poisonous from the irritant needle-crystals in its tissues. The Malays may give the juice in coffee for criminal purposes and irritation and swelling of the mouth and throat results (Burkill 1935).

Astrocaryum G.Mey.

50 species are found in tropical America. Several species yield fibre and oil. The genus includes a number of intensely spiny palms.

Dermatitis of the arms and general constitutional symptoms occurred in men working with palm wood (Astrocaryum spp.?) in Brazil. Patch tests with a wax extracted from the wood produced positive reactions (Freise 1937).

Astrocaryum aculeatum G.Mey.

Menninger (1967) provides a photograph of the trunk of this species with its "formidable barrier of thorns".

Astrocaryum alatum Loomis

The midribs of the leaves, particularly towards their base, are covered with flattened brown or black needle-like spines which can penetrate the skin through light shoes (Allen 1943). He listed eight other species of the genus which have this property.

Astrocaryum mexicanum Liebm.
[syn. Hexopetion mexicanum Burret]

Hexopetion mexicanum is armed with spines which can penetrate the skin (Allen 1943).

Astrocaryum standleyanum L.H.Bailey

The trunks possess long, flat, black, needle-like spines. The leaves are also armed with spines which can penetrate the skin of the feet through light walking shoes (Allen 1943).

Bactris Jacq. ex Scop.

Between 180 and 250 species have been described from America and the West Indies.

According to Standley (1937a), the trunks of these palms are armed with very long and slender spines; the leaves are often furnished with spines; and the spathes are armed with sharp spines. He added that the palms of this genus often form dense and impenetrable thickets. The following is a representative list of spiny species; others are considered separately in the monographs below:

Bactris caudata H.Wendl. ex Burret
[syn. Bactris dasychaeta Burret]
Bactris glandulosa Oersted
[syn. Bactris fusca Oersted]
Bactris hondurensis Standley
[syns Bactris pubescens Burret, Bactris standleyana Burret, Bactris wendlandiana Burret]
Bactris longiseta H.Wendl. ex Burret
[syn. Bactris polystachya H.Wendl. ex Hemsley]
Bactris pliniana Granv. & A.J.Hend.
Bactris riparia Mart.
[syns Bactris coccinea Barb.Rodr., Bactris inundata Mart., Guilielma mattogrossensis Barb.Rodr.] 

Dermatitis of the arms and general constitutional symptoms occurred in men working with palm wood (Bactris spp.?) in Brazil. Patch tests with a wax extracted from the wood produced positive reactions (Freise 1937).

Bactris augustinea L.H.Bailey

A heavy armature of spines on the canes and leaf petioles often inflict painful wounds on the forest traveller (Allen 1943). He listed 35 other species of the genus having this property.

Bactris gasipaes Kunth
[syns Bactris speciosa H.Karst., Bactris utilis Benth. & Hook.f. ex Hemsl., Guilielma gasipaes L.H.Bailey, Guilielma speciosa Mart., Guilielma utilis Oersted]
Peach Palm, Pejibay, Pejibaye, Pejivalle, Pfirsichpalme, Palmier Pêche, Palmier Pejibaye

Referring to Guilielma utilis, Allen (1943) notes that the entire plant, particularly the trunks and leaf bases, is covered with spines which are a ready source of skin injury and infection. Menninger (1967), referring to Guilielma gasipaes, notes that the trunk is armed with exceedingly sharp, needle-like spines; and that even the big feathery leaves carry spines.

Bactris guineensis H.E.Moore
[syns Bactris horrida Oersted, Bactris minor Jacq., Cocos guineensis L., Guilielma piritu H.Karst.]
Coyolito Palm, Peach Palm, Tobago Cane

[Information available but not yet included in database]

Bactris major Jacq.
[syns Augustinea major H.Karst., Bactris augustinea L.H.Bailey, Bactris balanoidea H.Wendl., Bactris superior L.H.Bailey, Pyrenoglyphis balanoidea H.Karst., Pyrenoglyphis major H.Karst.]
Black Roseau, Pokenoboy, Pork-and-Dough-Boy

[Information available but not yet included in database]

Calamus L.

The plants are troublesome in tropical forests because the hooks of the plant catch on clothing. The stripped stems (rattan canes) are used for making chair bottoms, baskets, cables, etc.

Rotan (Rattan) dermatitis was described by Simons (1952) who contracted it in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. The disease most frequently occurs on the lower arms and backs of the thighs. It is characterised by urticaria, papules and sometimes also by prurigo. It is caused by the varnish or by the bites of insects, usually the common bed bugs living in the twisted curls of used cane chairs.

Calamus caesius Blume

Scrapings from the canes, which have glossy coats from the presence of silica, are irritant to the mucous membranes and have been used for criminal poisoning together with powdered glass (Burkill 1935).

Calamus rotang L.
Elanewel, Pontyanac

The hands of basket-makers are sometimes covered by a white mould which is shaken out by splitting, hammering and cutting the canes, known as rhattan canes, derived from Calamus rotang or Calamus draco. The palms of the hands develop painful longitudinal fissures which curiously tend to spare the palmar and digital flexural areas. The fungus present on the canes is thought to be the cause of these changes (Prosser White 1934).

Caryota aequatorialis Ridl.

Irritant crystals are present in the plant tissues (Burkill 1935).

Caryota mitis Lour.
[syn. Caryota sobolifera Wall.]
Tufted Fishtail Palm

The pulp and juice of the fruit are irritant to the skin from the presence of stinging crystals. Persons in Florida who cleaned the seeds for propagation have found that the painful skin inflammation lasts for hours (Morton 1962a).

Caryota urens L.
Toddy Fishtail Palm

This species yields palm sugar, sago, fibre and wood.

The fruits contain irritant needle-like crystals (Burkill 1935, Souder 1963). Eating the crushed berries can produce stomatitis. The pulp and juice of the fruit have an effect on the skin similar to that of Caryota mitis Lour. [see above] (Morton 1962a). The fibres at the bases of the leafstalks are also a source of dermatitis (Morton 1962a, Arnold 1968).

A gardener, when carrying the ripe fruit on both forearms, immediately felt an acute stinging pain which lasted five hours at the sites of contact (Flecker 1945).

Cocos L.

The single species in this genus probably originated in tropical Asia or Polynesia and is now cultivated throughout the tropics.

Cocos nucifera L.

This species is the world's chief producer of vegetable fat at the present time.

The fruits falling from the trees can inflict blunt injury. In Florida, they are left on the trees as a tourist attraction but removed at the time of a hurricane warning.

The tar obtained by burning the shell is used as a rubefacient (Quisumbing 1951).

Copra itch is not an allergy to copra (dried coconut flesh) but an infestation (Simons 1952, Laarman 1952, Nasution et al. 1973). Copra mite dermatitis, seen in workers in copra mills and dock workers, presents as an eruption resembling scabies but without burrows (Macleod 1915, Schwartz et al. 1957). It is localized on the hands, arms and legs. Sometimes the whole body, except the face, is affected. The lesions are fairly numerous, itch extremely and consist of papules, papulo-pustules, pustules, crusts and excoriations. The eruption begins on the hands and spreads to the arms, legs and trunk. There is no tendency to heal spontaneously as long as the patient continues at work (Cleveland 1940, Nixon 1944). Whitfield (1915) noted that the mite had been identified as Tyroglyphus longior Gervais var. Castellani.

Saturated acids of lower molecular weight (caproic, caprylic and capric acids) in coconut oil used in soap are skin irritants. As the molecular weight rises above that of capric acid, the irritant action decreases (Blank 1939). Coconut oil and soaps made from it produce dermatitis in some persons (Greenberg and Lester 1954). Lauric acid is derived from coconut oil; lauryl gallate, used in fats, can cause dermatitis (Brun 1964).

Application of coconut oil, probably impure and possibly perfumed, can cause hyperpigmentation of the face in Indians (Khare and Naik 1973).

Copernicia prunifera H.E.Moore
[syns Arrudaria cerifera Macedo, Copernicia cerifera Mart., Corypha cerifera Arruda, Palma prunifera Mill.]
Wax Palm, Carnauba Palm

Carnuba wax derived from the leaves of this species has been reported to produce dermatitis (Kohn 1913, Greenberg and Lester 1954). Carnauba wax is often used together with candelilla wax, which is derived from certain Euphorbia species (Budavari 1996). Candelilla wax has not been reported to cause dermatitis (Greenberg and Lester 1954). Esparto wax derived from Stipa etc. (Budavari 1996) may be used as a substitute or extender for carnauba wax (Greenberg and Lester 1954). Negative reactions were obtained in all of 968 persons patch tested to carnauba wax, 10% in vaseline (Fregert & Hjorth 1969).

Daemonorops Blume

A kino derived from the fruit and used for colouring varnishes, etc. is known as dragon's blood. This name is also used for a product of Dracaena (Howes 1950). A dragon's blood produced negative patch test reactions in 13 individuals who were contact sensitive to balsam of Peru (from Myroxylon balsamum Harms, fam. Leguminosae) (Hjorth 1961).

Desmoncus Mart.

65 species found in tropical America are climbing palms with hooks like Calamus.

Desmoncus orthacanthos Mart.
[syns Atitara costaricensis Kuntze, Desmoncus chinantlensis Liebm. ex Mart., Desmoncus costaricensis Burret, Desmoncus horridus Splitg. ex Mart., Desmoncus leptochaeta Burret, Desmoncus major Crüger ex Griseb., Desmoncus schippii Burret]
Climbing Palm, Liana Palm, Palm Vine

The canes of Desmoncus horridus are heavily armed with black needle-like spines. The terminal pairs of leaflets have been transformed into recurved barbs, fashioned as the barbs of an arrow, which may tear the clothing and inflict dangerous wounds (Allen 1943). He listed six other species of this genus with these characteristics.

Elaeis oleifera Cortés ex Prain
[syns Alfonsia oleifera Kunth, Corozo oleifera L.H.Bailey, Elaeis melanococca var. semicircularis Oersted]
American Oil Palm, Noli Palm, Amerikanische Ölpalme, Palmier à Huile d'Amérique

[Information available but not yet included in database]

Gastrococos crispa H.E.Moore
[syns Acrocomia armentalis L.H.Bailey & E.Z.Bailey, Acrocomia crispa C.F.Baker ex Becc., Cocos crispa Kunth, Gastrococos armentalis Morales]
Corojo Palm

[Information available but not yet included in database]

Hyphaene thebaica Mart.
[syns Chamaeriphes thebaica Kuntze, Corypha thebaica L., Cucifera thebaica Delile, Douma thebaica Poir., Palma thebaica Jacq.]
Doum Palm, Egyptian Doum, Gingerbread Palm

[Information available but not yet included in database]

Jessenia bataua Burret
[syn. Oenocarpus bataua Mart.]

The long spines of this palm are used for darts in blow pipes (Howes 1974).

Lodoicea maldavica Pers. ex H. Wendl.
[syns Cocos maldioica J.Gmelin, Lodoicea callipyge Comm. ex J. St.-Hil., Lodoicea sechellarum Labill.]
Coco-de-Mer, Double Coconut, Palm Nut Tree

This slow-growing palm occurs only in the Seychelles. The genus is monotypic (Mabberley 1987). It is commonly referred to as "Lodoicea maldivica".

The fruit resembles a coconut, but is two-, three-, or very rarely six-lobed. Its jelly-like interior (endosperm) is eaten. Menninger (1967) notes that the solid fruits weigh from 30 to 40 pounds and that there may be as many as 70 such fruits on a tree. These fruits falling from the tree constitute a serious hazard.

Mauritia flexuosa L.f.
[syns Mauritia minor Burret, Mauritia setigera Griseb. & H.Wendl. ex Griseb., Mauritia sphaerocarpa Burret, Mauritia vinifera Mart.]
Buriti Palm, Ita Palm, Wine Palm, Mauricie, Moritz-Palme

[Information available but not yet included in database]

Phoenix L.

17 species are found in warm regions of Africa and Asia. Phoenix dactylifera L. is the date palm.

Phoenix canariensis hort. ex Chabaud
Canary Date Palm

Punctures by sharp thorns on the petioles of these palms are commonly experienced by nursery and landscape gardeners in Florida. The spine-tip may be broken off and retained in the wound. Such material is not revealed by x-ray. A chemical irritant may also be present on the thorns (Morton 1962a). A date-palm thorn produced a bony reaction simulating Ewing's sarcoma of bone; no puncture wound could be found (Maylahn 1952).

Two women engaged in sorting partially damaged dates that had become infested with an acarine mite identified as Carpoglyphus passularum developed a scabies-like eruption of the arms and face (Oppenheim & Taglicht 1925, Prosser White 1934, Schwartz et al. 1957).

Phoenix loureiri Kunth
Pigmy Date Palm

Punctures by sharp thorns on the petioles of these palms are commonly experienced by nursery workers and landscape gardeners in Florida (Morton 1962a).

Sabal Adans.

25 species are found in warmer regions of America and the West Indies. The leaves of Sabal palmetto, the thatch or palmetto palm, are used for thatching.

Sabal palmetto Lodd. ex Schult. & Schult.f.
[syns Chamaerops palmetto Michx., Corypha palmetto Walter, Inodes palmetto Cook, Sabal bahamensis L.H.Bailey, Sabal jamesiana Small, Sabal parviflora Becc.]
Cabbage Palmetto

This species was listed as an irritant plant without clinical details (Schwartz et al. 1957).

Salacca wallichiana Mart.
Rakum Palm, Salak Palm, Salakpalme

[Information available but not yet included in database]

Serenoa repens Small
[syns Brahea serrulata H.Wendl., Chamaerops serrulata Michx., Corypha repens W.Bartram, Sabal serrulata Nutt. ex Schult. & Schult.f., Serenoa serrulata Nutt.]
Saw Palmetto

[Information available but not yet included in database]

Wallichia disticha T.Anderson

The berries and perhaps the leaves of this species have irritant properties (Burkill 1935, Behl et al. 1966).


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Richard J. Schmidt

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