The nipah palm (scientific name Nypa fruticans) is usually found in mangrove forests and is easily identified due to its unusual shape, since it appears to be lacking a trunk. It prefers shallow lagoons and river estuaries where a constant and generous flow of fresh water is available. The tree doesn't tolerate high salinity so it doesn't grow far from the limit of tidal influence and also can't be found in areas that are directly exposed to waves. It used to grow in large groups on tidal rivers, today it is found either in huge colonies or in small clusters.
It has very long leaves, between 5 and 9 m, with a typical palm shape. They are well adapted to their water environment and stay upright even when submerged, since the frond base is hollow and filled with air. The rhizome has a diameter of up to 70 cm and is covered by leaf scars with a diagonal pattern. It is upright and sometimes submerged in mud, which makes it look as if the tree has no trunk, with only a very short portion being visible. The leaves are located on shoots that branch out from the main stem, very often these are located underground. The palm resists strong currents better than mangroves due to a very dense and strong system of roots and underground stems.
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Flowers of nipah palm are grouped in inflorescences that emerge on a stalk with a length of one meter. The tree has flowers of both sexes; the male ones have a golden color, with sticky pollen and a shape resembling a spike. Female flowers look more like a cone and are protected by bracts. One of the most important pollinators are Drosophila flies but small bees that are part of the Trigona genus also visit the flowers often. However, since the bees don't enter the female flowers, their role in pollination is limited. By contrast, small flies of the family Drosophilidae enter both types of flowers and actually spend most of their life in the branches of this tree.
The round shaped fruits of nipah palm are grouped in clusters with a diameter of 20 to 25 cm and have a chestnut brown color. There is a single seed in every fruit. An interesting feature of the seed is that germination starts while the fruit is still attached to the tree and the seedling is almost emerging as it falls down. In order to stay afloat, the fruits have a fibrous structure, with air pockets inside the coat of both the fruit and the seed.
Because of their fibrous nature, leaflets and leaf ribs can be used to produce baskets, brooms, hats or mats. Raw immature seeds of nipah palm have a sweet white endosperm with a jelly consistency, which can be eaten as a snack. In some areas, cuticles of young leaves are used to wrap cigarettes. The endocarp of mature fruits is attractive and was nicknamed "plant ivory". There were some attempts to use it to make buttons but it is vulnerable to fungi and plastics are a much cheaper option. However, the hard mesocarp has been successfully used in Nigeria to manufacture various fashion accessories like necklaces or buttons. Native fishermen also make sails from the tree's fronds and in some areas the tree is used to extract salt.
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The nipah palm has been used for a very long time in traditional medicine, against a number of conditions. The wood ash is considered effective against head and tooth ache, while juice pressed from young shoots is a treatment for herpes infections.
The nipah palm tree has very long leaves, with a feather-like shape, which are a popular building material in some areas. They are especially useful for building roofs but also in the manufacture of baskets or hats. The stems are buoyant due to their hollow interior and are used in Burma to teach people how to swim. The nipah palm tree sap is edible for some animals and is used as fodder for pigs during the dry season on the Roti and Savu islands, the locals claim this gives a sweet taste to their meat. Young leaves can serve as a substitute for tobacco paper. The sweet edible sap of the inflorescences is collected in Malaysia and the Philippines and fermented into an alcoholic drink named tuak, tuba or bahal. These beverages can be further transformed into vinegar if stored for a few weeks in balloon-shaped vases named tapayan. This vinegar is named cuka nipah in Malaysia and as sukang paombong in the Philippines and known for its special taste. Since the sap of nipah palm is unusually sweet, it has several uses. It can be consumed raw, fermented into alcoholic drinks and vinegar, or boiled in order to separate a type of brown sugar. The fresh fruits are also edible and consumed as a desert in Singapore.
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The sap of young nipah palms is not edible; it can only be extracted after the tree has flowered twice, or after 5 years. It is harvested while the fruit is still developing. A wood mallet is used to hit the fruit stalk daily for about one week, afterwards it can be tapped and the sap will flow as long as the cut is extended every day. It is possible to tap a single tree for over 50 years. The sap is very sweet and fermentation kicks off almost instantly, due to the heavy presence of bacteria in the containers were it is stored. It is also possible to prepare sugar from the sap by boiling it. This rarely happens in Malaysia, since nipah sugar is considered hard to purify.
Tapping the inflorescence before the bloom happens is a very common practice in Malaysia and the Philippines. The sap harvested this way is very sweet and can be fermented to produce tuba, bahal or tuak, which are just alternative regional names for the same alcoholic beverage. These drinks can be used further. Distilling tuba produces a stronger beverage named arrack, other local names for it are arak and arak nipah in Indonesia or lambanog in the Philippines. It is also possible to produce a type of vinegar named cuka nipah or sukang paombong, by keeping tuba in traditional balloon vessels for several weeks.
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Young nipah palm shoots can be cut and eaten as green vegetables and the petals can be used to prepare a tea or infusion. Young unripe fruits of nipah palm are sweet, gelatinous and translucent, with a round shape. They are known as attap chee and are consumed as desserts in Singapore, as well as Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines. In Java, Bali and other parts of Indonesia, the sap is used to produce a type of brown sugar named gula nipah.
The nipah palm is considered to be the oldest species of palm and one of the oldest angiosperms in general. It used to be widespread in tropical areas 13-63 million years ago, since it has been found in Paleocene strata in Brazil, as well as in Eocene and Miocene fossils all across Europe, North America and the Middle East. Nipah palm has a much reduced range today, along the equator. It is found on a belt between Sri Lanka and Australia, being the most common in Indonesia where it covers a total of 700,000 ha. Another 500,000 ha are located in Papua New Guinea, with about 8000 ha in the Philippines. From north to south, its range extends from Japan's Ryukyu Islands to the North of Australia. Besides natural stands, nipah palm is also cultivated in Southeast Asia.
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In the early 20th century nipah palm was also introduced to West Africa. Nipah palm is still cultivated today in Nigeria and some northern areas of Cameroon, while the Wouri Estuary is the most southern part of its range.
Despite being a very old plant, the nipah palm has remained a strictly tropical species that is not adapted elsewhere. Nipah palm requires temperatures between 20°C and 32-35°C, with a monthly rainfall of over 100 mm and a humid or sub humid climate.
The nipah palm is an aquatic plant but only enjoys brackish waters. Nipah palm doesn't tolerate salty water, so it very rarely survives on the seashore. Nipah palm grows best when the base and the rhizome are frequently submerged in brackish water, so estuaries and tidal floodplains near rivers are the best locations for this species. Nipah palm enjoys swampland soils, which are usually muddy, with a high content of clay, humus and slit deposits.