The jelly palm is a South American species of palm native to Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. Jelly palm has a slow rate of growth but eventually reaches a height of 6 m, sometimes even 8 m. It can be distinguished from other palms easily, due to the stout trunk and the pinnate leaves similar to feathers that arch inwards.
Because of the feathery appearance of the leaves, it is considered part of the family of "Feather palms". These leaves can reach a length between 5 and 10 feet. They have a distinctive arching type of growth, bending inwards to the trunk. The jelly palm is also cultivated in the USA, with an area between the states of Virginia and Florida. Of all feather palms, it is the most tolerant to cold and frost and is able to survive even at -10 degrees C.
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The fruits of the jelly palm are edible but not larger than a cherry. Their taste resembles a pineapple, with hints of vanilla and apricot. The nature of the soil has a direct influence on the fruit, which can also be similar in taste to a banana or apple. The jelly palm flesh is similar to a loquat but with a more fibrous texture and is sweet and tart at the same time. It is an useful tree because of the edible fruit, which can be made into jellies or jams, but also for its ornamental value. It is cultivated in large numbers in temperate zones and can be found in parking lots, streets or patios. The palm jelly (Butia capitata) can now be found in the wild in a large area of the Southern US states. It is also cultivated on both the West Coast and the East Coast and can even be found in the Long Island area of New York.
The fruits of jelly palm have a significant amount of pectin, which makes them very useful to prepare jelly, which gave the species its name of jelly palm. The jelly palm fruits can also be used to make a cloudy type of wine, also due of the rich pectin content. Because of their general appearance, the jelly palm fruits are also known as palm dates.
The scientific name of the tree, Butia capitata, comes from an incorrect Portuguese rendition on a local native word that means "spiny". The second part, "capitata", comes from Latin and is due to the very dense heads of the tree's seeds. The popular name Pindo is given after the Brazilian town with the same name, where the species can be found in large numbers. It also has the popular name Yatay, among the local natives.
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Jelly palm grows in South America, in areas with grass like savannas or dry forests. The native range covers southern Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay. It is widely used as an ornamental tree across the entire Gulf area of southern USA, including Florida. It can be found in most Atlantic coastal areas, as well as California, in locations without severe frosts. It can also be cultivated further north if the conditions are right, as far as British Columbia, North Carolina and Washington DC.
Jelly palms are short in size but have long fronds, either grey or bluish in color. The fruits are roughly the same size as figs, have a yellow or orange color and mature in the spring. It is not easy to eat them raw, despite the excellent taste, due to the stringy pulp and large inedible seeds. As the name suggests, the fruits are usually prepared as a jelly. The fruits have a natural content of pectin that makes it easy to jellify them but some extra pectin should be added for best results. The seeds must be extracted in advance, since they are not edible and prevent the jellification process.
While inedible, the large seeds can be used to extract large amounts of good quality palm oil. The oil can be extracted even without a press by blending the seeds into a paste, then boiling it. It is easy to let the water cool, then separate the oil that floats on top.
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Jelly palms are great against the effects of aging and can treat skin issues and improve eye health. This is because of the rich content of β-carotene and provitamin A, very valuable in a balanced diet.
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The jelly palm fruits are also an important source of vitamin C. This strong antioxidant boosts the activity of the immune system, preventing colds and other types of infection. They are small and spherical, usually orange in color.
Fruits can be consumed raw but this is rarely done for practical reasons. They have a sweet taste and a delicate apricot-like flavour. Despite the fibrous texture, the fruit is an excellent basis for jellies, pies, jams or bakery products. The stem pith is sometimes prepared similar to bread, while the seed has a massive content of oil, of up to 45%.
The delicious edible fruits can be used in many other ways. They are a tasty ingredient in desserts, marmalades, sauces or alcoholic beverages. Seeds can be used after roasting and grounding to brew a hot drink similar to coffee.
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The jelly palm is a very resilient plant, when compared to most of its relatives. It tolerates strong winds, cold weather and mild to moderate frost. It can grow in either full sun or shade. The fronds actually develop better in shady locations, improving the overall look of the tree. Jelly palm resists drought very well and can grow in any type of soil but likes grounds with a content of sand and good drainage. If provided with constant water, the jelly palm tree will develop faster and become more beautiful. Unlike most palms, it doesn't enjoy tropical and subtropical areas. It can be propagated by seeds, which are very viable and often germinate on their own if the fruits are allowed to fall to the ground. It is very common to see mature trees surrounded by younger shoots.
Jelly palm fruits are harvested when they become ripe and a nice trick is to pick entire bunches at once. This will make all of them ripe at the same time. The fruits can be eaten raw, turned into puree or paste, as well as prepared as wines or jellies. When stored in the fridge, the fruits last about one week.