The palmyra tree (Borassus flabellifer) is a tree that is hard to miss in the drier parts of Tamil Nadu. It is slow growing, requiring 30 years to reach maturity. The tree has many uses, about 801 uses.
I don’t know about all those uses, but when we went for summer vacations to our native villages, a good deal of life revolved around it. In spite of the many uses, the tree stayed in the background, and was little noticed by people.
One of the first things we did in the morning was to walk to the farm. One can see tappers of the palmyra tree sap, muscular and bare-bodied, rhythmically climbing up the tree. Or they would walk between trees with a couple of big tins of sap. Those days people were very friendly, and the tappers would offer sap to those who just walked by. They’ll slice a leaf from the palmyra tree, take a piece of it, fold it down in the middle, and tie the end. This would make a perfect cup, into which a bit of sap will be poured, and we would drink it.
Our grandfather had his own set of trees, which was tapped by someone from the village. Half the sap would come to us, and the rest will go to the tapper. This sap is sweet, very sweet. What is normally done is the long spadix (inflorescence) of the male tree (the female trees are also sometimes tapped) is beaten, and the tip sliced with a very sharp knife. Several of the flower spikes are sliced, and tied together and a clay pot is tied to it, so that the sap drips into the pot. The pot is lined with lime, this prevents fermentation. One tree can give several liters of sap a day.
If the clay pot is not coated with lime, then the sap ferments to toddy. If one drinks the early morning toddy, it has very little alcohol, and is more like tender coconut water. Probiotic and very rich in B-vitamins.
Those days no one harassed the tappers, even if they tapped toddy. Some drank toddy once in a while. It was also used to ferment batter for a couple of dishes, appam (rice crepe) and paniyaram (rice muffin). Even dough for western style bread was apparently fermented with toddy.
Anyway very little toddy was tapped. It required the coolie-ism, and modern brokenness to make toddy a big issue. Most was padaneer, the sweet unfermented sap. Once we reached the farm, we drank a liter or two of the sap, then jumped into the well, and swam. After a couple of hours of swimming, we had breakfast of idli or rice.
Our grandmother used to boil the sap in a big rectangular, but shallow pan. The stove was a depression in the ground, with a rectangular clay edge to seat the pan. It is a fairly long process. The sap darkens and goes through several phases. It becomes dark and transparent after a while. After more boiling, it will reach a stage, where it will crystallize when cooled. We first get a bit of the syrup on a palmyra leaf, and lick it. Then the next phase will be thicker and crystallize somewhat. This we put on a leaf of poovarasu tree (the Indian Tulip Tree /Thespesia populnea) and eat it. Finally after the right stage is reached, Grandma will pour the syrup into coconut shells, and let it cool and crystallize. This jaggery is rich in minerals, and quite healthy. Once the boiling is done, some of the syrup will stick to the sides of the pan, and will have a chewy, toffee like consistency, which we scrape off, and eat.
Sometimes our Grandma will remove the syrup earlier, and pour it into a pot. This one instead of becoming jaggery (which has very fine crystals), will after a few weeks end up as bigger crystals and syrup. The syrup is drained , the crystals separated out and dried.
The shed where the sap is boiled has a thatched roof made from palmyra leaves. Many houses those days had mud walls, and thatched roofs. They remained fairly cool, when temperatures outside used to go above 40 degrees Celsius. The houses also had verandahs, open with nice organically shaped mud walls, and mud seats.
Our house was pucca, built with stones and lime, with a flat roof. Still the thick walls kept the inside relatively cooler.
But we did have couple of thatched sheds, next to the house, one for the cows and goats, and the other was a kitchen.
Next to our house was another Grandpa’s house. This was a big house of mud with thatched roof. A couple of my uncles were tappers. They had calluses on the hands, which they use to slice off, with a sharp knife, the same one that they use to slice the flower spikes. The knives were sharpened on a flattened stick, with powdered flint from white quartz rocks. The tappers also carried a rubber strip to sharpen the knives in the field.
Later in the season, we get fruits from the palmyra tree, the ice apple.
The tender fruits are ice-like and transparent inside, with some sweet water in the center. The tender ice apple is scraped off with our finger and added to padaneer. A very tasty combination.
Rice flour, palmyra jaggery, with a few other ingredients wrapped in young palmyra leaf, and steamed makes a rich, flavorful sweet ( ‘panai olai kozhukattai’, பனை ஓலை கொழுக்கட்டை). The palmyra leaf gives an intense fragrance.
In most of the houses, people would sleep on a wooden cot, woven with fiber from the leaf stem of the palmyra tree. The fiber when peeled off is shiny and waxed on one side, and fibrous on the other. When the cot is woven, the waxed side will be on top.
The cot would allow for air circulation, from below. Unlike modern matteresses, which are bad in hot climates. The palmyra fiber is fairly strong, and the cots last for more than five years when used outside in the sun and sometimes rain. Inside the house it can last a long time. Heavy people can make it sag, but there weren’t many heavy people those days. People seated on the cots outside the mud houses, and chatting was a typical village scene in Tamil Nadu.
This fiber is also used to make very strong baskets. Weaker, but bigger baskets are made from the leaf.
The trunk of the tree is very fibrous and extremely strong. It is used for tiled roofs, and thatched ones. Even flat roofs built with bricks laid in herring bone patterns are also supported with palmyra trunk wood. The main beams in such roofs will be very thick teak, or other wood. When a tree was brought down by a storm, or for timber, the heart of the crown was eaten. The trees are very strong, and well anchored, with roots reaching down more than 30 feet, so it is extremely rare that a strong gust brings down a tree. The tree might have been otherwise weakened for it to be toppled by a storm.
Once the fruit ripens, the fibrous portion becomes orange. The fruit has a very strong flavor, so it is rarely eaten. Field mice and other animals do eat it. When it ripens, it falls to the ground.
This is collected, buried in a shallow pit and watered. It sprouts, and after 8 months or so, when the tip of the first leaf shows up, it is dug up. The main stem is a starch rich, cone, that looks like a tuber. This is steamed and eaten. What cannot be immediately eaten, is sliced into small pieces, and dried in the sun. You need fairly strong teeth to eat the dried tuber.
What was ice apple when tender, thickens into something similar to coconut meat. And the water at the center of the ice apple thickens into a white, soft kernel, sweet and crunchy.
We put this kernel into the syrup from boiling the sap, and it is the Indian version of apple dipped in chocolate sauce. The kernel is from previous year’s fruit. The sap itself is available only a couple of months in summer.
The palmyra tree with its many uses, somehow remained in the background. It received no praise from the common people. On its own it spread everywhere, and people left it alone, rarely cutting it down for timber. Yet today, with the tappers harassed by law enforcement, with youngsters moving to more easy jobs, and with modern agriculture that finds the palmyra tree a nuisance, the trees are cut and sold for 300 rupees, to the brick kilns as firewood. A rather unfortunate end to the state tree of Tamil Nadu with 801 uses.
But as the we go through growth, cashlessness, and digital corruption, and the cycle turns, people may become healthy and wholesome, to once again enjoy the richness and wealth provided by nature.