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«J. Winter 1995 Ethnobiol. 15(2):161-176 THE KITUL PALM: ETHNOBOTANY OF CARYOTA URENS L. IN HIGHLAND SRI LANKA YVONNE EVERETT Department of Landscape ...»

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J. Winter 1995

Ethnobiol. 15(2):161-176

THE KITUL PALM: ETHNOBOTANY OF

CARYOTA URENS L. IN HIGHLAND SRI LANKA

YVONNE EVERETT

Department of Landscape Architecture

202 Wurster Hall

University of California

Berkeley, CA 94720

ABSTRACT.-Caryota urens, known as the kitul in Sri Lanka, is a native rainforest species of tropical Asia. It is also one of the most common trees in the perennial forest gardens of highland Sri Lanka. Kitul is traditionally tapped for sap from which sweet syrup, sugar, and alcoholic beverages are prepared. The syrup and sugar have a special richness and are highly valued for culinary purposes in Sri Lanka.

Tapping palms is the domain of "toddy tappers" who traditionally divide the yield with palm owners. This paper focuses on the tappers' knowledge and management of kitul palm, its products, and tapping and processing activities. The potential economic value of kitul is assessed. The ecological and economic importance of developing markets for kitul and other forest garden products in relation to forest and landscape conservation in highland Sri Lanka are emphasized.

The paper is based upon the author's interviews with tappers and palm owners, study of kitul yields and participant observation during dissertation field research on home gardens in highland Sri Lanka in 1989-91 1• RESUMEN.-La Caryota urens, conocida como kitul en Sri Lanka, es una especie nativa de los bosques lluviosos del Asia tropical. Es tambien uno de los arboles mas comunes en los huertos forestales perennes de la zona alta de Sri Lanka. El kitul es sangrado tradicionalmente para obtener su savia, de la cual se preparan jarabe dulce, azucar y bebidas alcoh6licas. El jarabe y el azucar tienen especial riqueza y son altamente valorados para fines culinarios en Sri Lanka. El sangrado de las palmas es el dominio de los "palmeros de vino," quienes tradicionalmente dividen el producto obtenido con los duefios de las palmeras. Este articulo se centra en el conocimiento de los palmeros y el manejo de la palma kitul, sus productos, y las actividades de sangrado y procesamiento. Se evalua el valor econ6mico potencial de kitul. Se enfatiza la importancia ecol6gica y econ6mica de desarrollar mercados para el kitul y otros productos de los huertos forestales en relaci6n a la conservaci6n de los bosques y el paisaje en la zona alta de Sri Lanka. El articulo esta basado en las entrevistas de la utora con palmeros y duefios de palmas, el estudio de los rendimientos del kitul, y la observaci6n participativa durante la investigaci6n de campo para su tesis doctoral sobre los huertos familiares en la zona alta de Sri Lanka de 1989 a 1991.

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ainsi que des boissons alcoholiques sont prepares. Le sirop et Ie sucre ont un gout distinctif, tres apprecie dans la cuisine du Sri Lanka.

Le tirage du nectar est Ie domaine des "tappers", qui traditionellement partagent Ie produit avec les proprietaires des palmiers. Nos recherches se concentrent sur Ie savoir-faire des tappers, l'exploitation du kitul,et la preparation des produits palmiers. La valeur economique potentielle du kitul est evaluee. Nous soulignons l'importance ecologique et economique du developpement de marches pour Ie kitul et d'autres produits jardiniers forestiers, a- l'egard de la protection ecologique dans les hauteurs du Sri Lanka.

Ces recherches sont fondees sur les interviews de l'auteur avec des tappers et les proprietaires des palmiers, des recherches sur la preparation des produits abase dekitul, et des observations participantes faisant partie des recherches de these sur les jardins forestiers des hauteurs du Sri Lanka.

INTRODUCTION

In Sri Lanka palm treacle (syrup) and jaggery (sugar) are important traditional sources of sweeteners. In arid areas treacle and jaggery are produced from palmyra (Borassus flabellifer), in the coastal zone from coconut palms (Cocos nucifera), and in the wet interior and highland regions from fishtail palms (Caryota urens 1.). Thus sugar can be locally produced from one or another palm on most parts of the island (Fig. 1). The fishtail palm or kitul, as it is locally known in Sinhalese (tippilipana in Tamil), is a very common tree in the lowland rain forest and in mixed species forest gardens managed in highland Sri Lanka. This palm yields a rich, dark syrup with a highly valued, distinctive taste. In comparative testing of raw sugars reported from the Fairchild Botanical Gardens in Florida, kitul jaggery ranked among those of highest quality (Lotschert 1985). Its export potential is being tested with success in the Australian consumer market.

The purposes of this paper are twofold. First, to present an ethnobotanical description of the kitul palm, and second, to discuss the palm in its ecological and socioeconomic context as one of many species with potential market value found in the forest gardens of highland Sri Lanka. The topic is important as there is considerable economic pressure to convert existing forest gardens to less diverse and less ecologically valuable annual cropping systems. I gathered data during field research on forest gardens in the Welimada and Kotmale areas of the Upper Mahaweli Watershed in the Central Highlands from 1989-1991.





BOTANY AND ECOLOGY OF KITUL

Caryota urens is native to lowland rain forests of tropical Asia including Sri Lanka (Fig. 2). The genus Caryota has 27 species found across tropical Asia to the Malay archipelago, Australia, and New Guinea. (Lotschert 1985). The name Caryota stems from the Greek karyotes, meaning "nutlike." This is in reference to the small, hard fruits of the palms. Urens translates as "burning," and is linked to the irritating, needle-like crystals found on the outer shell of the fruits (McCurrach 1960). A tall, unarmed palm, kitul grows to an average height of 15-20 m and diameter of 30-50 cm. It has a sparse crown of very large bipinnate leaves, often 2-3 meters long and 1-2 meters wide (Jayaweera 1982). The leaves are glabrous, dark Winter 1995 163

JOURNAL OF ETHNOBIOLOCY

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green, and shiny. The fishtail-like shape of the outward-turned 15 cm long leaflets give the palm its English name.

Blatter (1926) reports that kitul reaches maturity and begins flowering after 10-20 years. Flowers appear from the upper leafaxils and bloom successively downward to the mainstem. The inflorescence is a stalk 3-4 m long on which male and female spadices alternately bloom. An average flower lasts for 3-4 months and several flowers may bloom simultaneously from the main stalk. Therefore, the same individual may bear buds, flowers, and fruits at the same time. McCurrach (1960) suggests that kitul typically blooms for a year or two, though a palm may flower periodically for up to seven years as the leaves successively drop. When the last bloom appears above the mainstem and produces fruits, the palm dies. Sri Lankan farmers substantiated these reports during my interviews, and also said that they estimate how many florets a palm will have from the head of the first flower to emerge-usually from one to twelve flowers (as described below).

Winter 1995 165

JOURNAL OF ETHNOBIOLOGY

FIG. 3.-A species diverse, uneven-aged forest garden in highland Sri Lanka.

In Sri Lanka kitul palms are common in the mid and low country interior up to 1,500 m. In the lowlands, the palms occur predominantly in the natural forest.

In contrast, in the largely deforested mid-elevation highlands palms are managed in small holder forest gardens. These planted gardens are dense stands of unevenaged, mixed species of perennials surrounding individual family homes (Fig. 3).

The gardens are on average less than 0.5 ha in size and typically include 25-35 different species of woody perennials, along with many herbaceous and annual plants.

Density of trees is high, ranging from over 350 individuals per 0.5 ha in the intermediate rainfall zone represented by Welimada Division, to 500 per 0.5 ha in a high rainfall area such as Kotmale Division (Everett 1993). Tree canopies on adjoining plots commonly blend together into neighborhood patches of forest-like vegetation.

This vegetation structure provides a suitable habitat for the 17% of garden trees that are remnants of the native forest flora and are not specifically planted but rather persist as self-seeding or animal dispersed "volunteers" (Everett 1987).

The kitul, dispersed by civet cats (Civettictis sp.) and only occasionally transplanted, is one of the most common volunteers. 2 In a survey of woody perennials in 173 gardens in three highland climatic regions, Caryota urens ranked eleventh in overall species frequency, with a high abundance, averaging 18 palms per garden (Everett 1993). In surveyed areas with more than 2,300 rom of annual rainfall, kitul occurred in all gardens with mature perennial vegetation.

Kitul palms are an economic windfall for their owners. When interviewed about tree species growth requirements and forest garden management practices, 89% of 166 Vol. 15, No.2 EVERETT the respondents said the kitul needs no attention at all. The remaining gardeners said that they might occasionally spread leaf or household compost under the palms to enhance their growth. This is a marked contrast to other common garden trees and shrubs that produce a cash crop, such as coffee (Cottea arabica and C. robusta) and cloves (Eugenia caryophylla). These are usually raised from seed, or increasingly from packeted seedlings purchased or provided as a subsidy from government extension programs. They require watering when young, and receive regular maintenance inputs, sometimes including chemical fertilizers.

TAPPING PALMS FOR SUGAR

The kitul converts starch reserves to large quantities of sugary phloem to fuel the growth of the stem apex or inflorescence (Corner 1966). This sap or "sweet toddy" is tapped through the flower and then boiled down to produce syrup and raw sugar.

Unlike some other sugar palms, kitul is not easy to tap. The process of tapping the sensitive kitul flower and maintaining the flow of sweet sap requires skill and experience. A specialized occupational caste of tappers has emerged as a traditional cottage industry of sugar and alcohol producers in Sri Lanka. In some areas, a unique set of tenure relationships between palm owners and tappers developed.

In the past, tapping was a major source of income for many people in the lowlands, particularly in villages bordering the forest. Many tappers traditionally gleaned their toddy from palms inside the forest. Present day tapping inside the Sinharaja forest has been described recently (De Zoysa 1992). Today, the forests are government owned and, as large areas are classified as reserves, would-be palm tappers must have a license.3 In the highlands, a different culture of tapping has emerged. Typically there will be several people in each village known as tappers who tap all of the palms in their neighborhood. Here the palms are found in privately owned forest gardens. In this case, the tree belongs to the landowner. When a palm appraoches flowering, the owner notifies a tapper. In general, from the time of the first sweet toddy production, the tapper and the tree's owner then share the yield equally by alternating days.

The process of tapping varies in some specifics among individual tappers and between regions (e.g., De Zoysa 1992). The following descriptions are based predominantly upon my interviews with tappers in the Welimada area at the edge of the kitul range in the Intermediate climatic zone of the highlands (elevations of over 1,000 m and average rainfall below 2,000 mm per annum).

The tappers' skill lies in maximizing the sap flow to the inflorescence while retarding flower extension. When a palm is about to flower, the inflorescence becomes visible in the tree top. About two months after a young inflorescence first emerges, the tapper climbs the palm and carefully removes the outer layers of the sheath or spathe protecting the flowers. As discussed below, tapping activities are typically carried out by men. The tapper ties a forked stick into place under the inflorescence to replace the spathe's supportive function. Next, he gently cuts and removes the very hard, protective interior spathe layers covering the inflorescence. Tappers say that the number of layers indicates the number of individual flowers to come from the inflorescence, ranging from one to twelve. The tapWinter 1995 JOURNAL OF ETHNOBIOLOGY per makes a roughly 15 cm long,S cm wide, and 2 cm deep incision in the side of the flower.

Tappers apply a special "medicine" in this cut to stimulate sap flow. The exact recipe for the medicine is the individual tapper's secret. In the Welimada area, the ingredients include chilies, pepper, salt, garlic, mustard seed, ginger, cloves, coconut grounds, citrus fruit, and vinegar. Salt, lime, saffron, and lime juice are used in other areas (Nonis 1989). The ingredients are ground to a pulp, rolled into a ball, wrapped in a banana leaf, and briefly placed in the hot coals of a fire. The tapper applies the resulting paste in the incision on the flower and tightly packs the hole with fluffy fibers from the inside of the palm bark. Tappers report that the paste seals the cut and keeps the area clean; thus, rotting is reduced. The tappers say that the medicine's function is to "soften" the flowers.



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