Areca catechu: Areca nut palm

Family: Arecaceae
Common name: Areca nut palm, Arecanut palms, Areca nut tree, Areca palm, Betel palm, Betel tree, Betelnut palm, Indian nut, Catechu, Pinang palm, Supari palm

Areca nut palms are very common in the Southern states of India, Kerala, Karnataka, and Tamilnadu, especially along coastal areas. They are stately-looking single-trunked trees that grow to a height of 30 meters with a trunk diameter of 20-30 cms.

Leaves are 1.5-2 meters long with 20-40 pairs of leaflets which are about 40-50 cms long. Petioles of the leaves are quite long and form a sheath around the trunk of the tree. The trunk shows white rings where the bases of leaves were attached before they fell off.

Lower portion of the trunk is brown and the white rings are not visible, the portion above that is green. The part of the trunk immediately below the leaves is light green because of the leaf sheaths.

Inflorescences are branched racemes or clusters containing both male and female flowers, female flowers towards the base, and male flowers towards the tip. Both are creamy-white, lightly fragrant, and arranged very close to each other.

They look like greenish-white pompoms projecting from the tree just below the level of the leaves. Male flowers are small having stamens and anther, whereas female flowers are slightly larger with the ovary and stigma.

Once pollinated, the female flowers produce green, ovoid fruits which later turn yellow and later orange on maturity. The fruits contain a single brown-colored seed inside, which is almost round with a flattened top.

These are called areca nuts, which are eaten along with betel leaves and tobacco, and also used in medicines. Areca nuts are protected with a thick fibrous covering and impervious skin, allowing water dispersal of seeds.

These nuts are popular cash crops in many regions, but plucking areca nuts is a tricky job that requires a lot of expertise. People do not climb each tree but swing the tree enough to reach another, catching hold of one trunk while letting go of the other one. This is risky and has caused many accidents to climbers. Of late, there are some rudimentary machines invented to make it easier to pluck them.

Areca nuts are popular for chewing and added to paan in many Asian countries. They are addictive and are used as a narcotic, but they are also carcinogenic causing mouth and oesophageal cancers. Areca nuts can also cause heart rhythm changes, ulcers, lung diseases, intestinal blockages, seizures, vomiting, nausea, etc.

In spite of this, they have some medicinal uses in traditional herbal medicine and Ayurveda, in the treatment of obesity, ulcers, anemia, leprosy, fits, leucoderma, malaria, dysentery, and stomach ailments.

Arecanut palm leaves are used for thatching houses and making temporary fences. The large leaf sheaths are used to make disposable plates, cups spoons, stirrers, water buckets, and bags. Wood from the tree is used for posts, bridges, and for small-scale construction. Husk fiber is used for making packing materials, filling for beds, cushions, etc.

Propagation is through seeds.

Image credits: Durga Prasas,