Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The oil palms (Elaeis) coomprise two species of the Arecaceae, or palm family. They are used in commercial agriculture in the production of palm oil. The African Oil Palm Elaeis guineensis is native to west Africa, occurring between Angola and Gambia, while the American Oil Palm Elaeis oleifera is native to tropical Central America and South America.
Mature trees are single-stemmed, and grow to 20 m tall. The leaves are pinnate, and reach between 3-5 m long. A young tree produces about 30 leaves a year. Established trees over 10 years produce about 20 leaves a year. The flowers are produced in dense clustes; each individual flower is small, with three sepals and three petals. The fruit takes six months to mature from pollination to maturity; it comprises an oily, fleshy outer layer (the pericarp), with a single seed (kernel), also rich in oil. Unlike its relative, the Coconut Palm, the oil palm does not produce offshoots; propagation is by sowing the seeds.
Oil palms are grown for their clusters of fruit, which can weigh 40-50 kg. Upon harvest, the drupe, pericarp and seeds are used for production of soap and edible vegetable oil; different grades of oil quality are obtained from the pericarp and the kernel, with the pericarp oil used mainly for cooking oil, and the kernel oil used in processed foods.
For each hectare of oil palm, which is harvested year-round, the annual production averages 10 tonnes of fruit, which yields 3,000 kg of pericarp oil, and 750 kg of seed kernels, which yield 250 kg of high quality palm kernel oil as well as 500 kg of kernel meal. The meal is used to feed livestock. Some varieties have even higher productivities which has led to their consideration for producing the vegetable oil needed for biodiesel.
The African Oil Palm was introduced to Sumatra and the Malay area in the early 1900s; many of the largest plantations of oil palms are now in this area, with Malaysia growing over 20,000 square kilometres. Malaysia claims that in 1995 it was the world's largest producer with 51% of world production. In this area, the destruction of natural rainforest to grow oil palm plantations is an issue of major environmental concern.
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