The Betel palm (Areca catechu L., 1753) is an arboreal species belonging to the Arecaceae family.
From a systematic point of view it belongs to:
Species A. catechu.
The terms are synonymous:
– Areca faufel Gaertn.;
– Areca himalayana Griff. ex H.Wendl.;
– Areca hortensis Lour.;
– Areca macrocarpa Becc.;
– Areca nigra Giseke ex H.Wendl.;
– Sublimia areca Comm. ex Mart..
The term Areca comes from areek, the vernacular name of this plant used on the coasts of Malabar, a region in southwestern India.
The specific epithet catechu comes from the Malay vernacular name cachu.
Geographic Distribution and Habitat –
Areca catechu is a palm native to the Philippines. This plant grows throughout much of the tropical Pacific, Asia and parts of East Africa. It is also widespread in cultivation and is considered naturalized in southern China (Guangxi, Hainan, Yunnan), Taiwan, India, Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, New Guinea, many of the islands of the Pacific Ocean and also in the West Indies.
Its habitat is that of the undergrowth of tropical forests with high rainfall, from sea level to 1,000 meters or more.
Areca catechu is a medium-sized, single-stemmed palm that grows straight up to 20 – 30 m in height.
The straight, unbranched stem can be 25 – 40 cm in diameter, topped with shiny dark green leaves.
The leaves are 1.5–2 m long, pinnate, with numerous crowded leaflets. In young plants, the leaves spread from the base of the stem.
In their places of origin, plants of the genus Areca, also called palms, grow majestic and elegant up to 30 meters in height, they flower and many of them, such as the Areca catechu palm, produce large woody fruits.
The fruits, gathered in panicles, contain characteristic seeds known as betel nuts, widely used for food.
The ovoid fruit is 4 – 5 cm long and produced in large clusters of 200 – 300.
The Areca catechu is widely cultivated also outside its basin of origin. It produces betel nut, which is used as a stimulant in several Asian countries.
Plants thrive in humid tropical climates where temperatures never drop below 10°C, average annual rainfall is 1,500mm or more, and the driest month has 25mm or more of rain.
This palm prefers an average annual rainfall of between 1,500 and 5,000 mm, evenly distributed throughout the year.
Although it tolerates moderate altitudes in the mountains, it generally does best at low altitudes, especially near the coast.
From the pedological point of view it prefers a pH between 5.5 and 6, tolerating between 4.5 and 6.8; it prefers moist, well-drained soil and a position in full sun.
Also, being a shade loving species, it always does well when grown as a mixed crop with fruit trees.
The plants are sensitive to drought.
Trees can start bearing fruit 6 to 10 years after planting and can flower all year round.
The sweet-scented male flowers are visited by bees and other insects for nectar, but no insects have been observed visiting the female flowers. Most flowers are thought to be wind pollinated.
Propagation is by seed. Sowing is done in containers and the seed has a short viability, so only fresh seeds should be used. Germination usually occurs in 6 – 13 weeks.
Nut seeds are allowed to fully ripen on the tree and then sun dried for 1-2 days before sowing 1 inch apart in shallow pits. Drying does not appear to improve germination rate.
Among the main adversities, one of the most fearsome parasites of this plant is underlined, which is the Rhynchophorus ferrugineus, known as the red palm weevil. It is a weevil-like beetle native to Asia, which spread in the eighties of the last century in the Middle East and subsequently throughout the Mediterranean basin, proving to be resistant to all conventional means of control.
Customs and Traditions –
The areca nut is important in the Austronesian civilization, especially in present-day Indonesia and Malaysia.
The seed of the Areca catechu, erroneously called Betel nut, is considered economically important for its properties as a stimulant, digestive and cardiotonic. In fact, it is used to extract alkaloid substances such as the active ingredient arecoline, used as an anthelmintic, arecaine (or arecaidine), and guvacine.
For these reasons it is widely cultivated not only in India and Malaysia but also in many other tropical regions, not only in Asia, from Pakistan to the southern Pacific islands and Taiwan as well as in Africa.
The consumption of Betel nuts is a very ancient practice, widespread and deeply rooted in the customs of many populations, among people of all social classes. Information on the uses and properties of betel seeds can already be found in a Chinese document dated between 180 and 140 BC, while in Europe the first information seems to have been introduced by Marco Polo in 1298.
The seed contains alkaloids such as arecaidine and arecoline which, if chewed, are intoxicating and mildly addictive.
The seed also contains condensed tannins (procyanidins) called arecatannins which are carcinogenic.
Among the edible uses it should be remembered that the seed, which has mild narcotic properties, is widely used in some areas of the tropics as a chew, being mixed with the leaves of a pepper plant (Piper betle), a gum and, often, lime.
Betel seeds, due to their tannin and alkaloid content, stimulate the flow of saliva, accelerate the heart rate and perspiration, suppress hunger and offer positive protection against intestinal worms.
The young leaves, the inflorescences and the sweet inner part of the shoots are cooked and eaten as vegetables.
The peel of the fruit is edible.
The nut contains 8-12% fat which has characteristics comparable to hydrogenated coconut oil. It can be made edible by refining it with an alkali.
This palm is an astringent and stimulating herb that relieves hunger, abdominal discomfort, and fatigue. It kills intestinal parasites and other pathogens, and also has diuretic and laxative effects.
It is mainly used in veterinary medicine to expel tapeworms.
The seed is used against anemia, convulsions, leukoderma, leprosy, obesity and worms.
It is also used in the treatment of dysentery and malaria.
In combination with other ingredients, it is also a purgative and ointment for nasal ulcers.
The peel is also used as a laxative in cases of constipation with flatulence and meteorism, as well as a diuretic in the treatment of edema.
Among the agroforestry uses, experimental evidence indicates that intercropping with areca nut is not harmful to the main crop.
When intercropped with black pepper, it serves as a live standard for pepper plant training. Banana, cardamom, cowpea, paddy rice, pineapple, sorghum, greens and sweet potatoes are also grown by farmers as intercroppings with the areca nut.
Among other uses, it should be remembered that the leaves are used for straw while in some parts of Sri Lanka the main containers used to transport water are made with the leaves of this graceful palm, which, being similar in consistency to leather, they easily transform into sturdy and durable water buckets.
The leaf sheath is made into cups, plates and bags to hold bananas, sweets and fish.
From the sheath of the flower, skullcaps, parasols and plates are made.
The fibers of the peel are mainly composed of cellulose with variable proportions of hemicellulose, lignin, protopectin. Based on various tests, it has been proposed that the fiber from the husk can be used to make items such as thick boards, soft cushions, and non-woven fabrics. Experimental trials showed that the satisfactory yield and quality of brown wrapping paper could be prepared from mixtures of areca nut and bamboo pulp or banana pseudostem.
Additionally, areca nut husks can be a good source of furfural. The possibilities of producing activated carbon from husks have been investigated and yields of 25-28% have been reported.
The plant is a good source of tannins which are used to dye clothes, as adhesives in plywood manufacturing, etc.
In one study, a methane extract of seed at a concentration of 10,000 ppm in distilled water reduced root nematode egg hatching by 97% after 21 days compared to a control.
Walnut contains both saturated and unsaturated fatty acids.
The outer part of the betel palm stem makes a useful building material in villages and is used extensively throughout Southeast Asia for a variety of construction purposes. The lumber can also be used to make a variety of utility items such as rulers, shelves, and waste paper bins.
The nails obtained from the areca stem are widely used in the furniture industry.
Among the undesirable effects, it should be remembered that chewing betel nuts predisposes to cancer of the mouth and larynx.
Furthermore, the excessive use of this plant causes profuse salivation, vomiting and stupor.
Method of Preparation –
Areca catechu fruits are harvested when fully ripe and can be dried for later use.
The most common way to consume betel nuts is to cut them into thin slices, wrap them in betel pepper leaves (Piper betle L.), previously sprinkled with lime, sometimes adding other spices, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, catechu, etc. Thus, the real betel is obtained, in the form of morsels that are chewed after meals to perfume the breath and aid digestion, often also for social customs or ceremonial rites. The presence of the betel pepper leaves also adds a mild narcotic effect, in addition to the spicy aromatic taste.
However, betel nuts have the drawback of blackening the teeth and dyeing the saliva red, as a result of the tannins contained in abundance.
Please also note that the use of this herb is subject to legal restrictions in some countries.
– Acta Plantarum – Flora of the Italian Regions.
– Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
– GBIF, the Global Biodiversity Information Facility.
– Useful Tropical Plants Database.
– Conti F., Abbate G., Alessandrini A., Blasi C. (ed.), 2005. An annotated checklist of the Italian vascular flora, Palombi Editore.
– Pignatti S., 1982. Flora of Italy, Edagricole, Bologna.
– Treben M., 2000. Health from the Lord’s Pharmacy, Advice and experiences with medicinal herbs, Ennsthaler Editore.
Attention: The pharmaceutical applications and alimurgical uses are indicated for informational purposes only, they do not in any way represent a medical prescription; we therefore decline all responsibility for their use for curative, aesthetic or food purposes.