International Palm Society Logo The Utility of Palms in the Cultural Landscape of the Dominican Republic

Reprinted with permission from the January 1997 issue of Principes, Vol 41, No 1
Journal of the International Palm Society (Renamed as Palms in 1999)

© 1997 The International Palm Society, all rights reserved


Department of Geography, Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, MI 49008

No other order of plant life [palms] contributes so much to the tropical landscape or finds so many uses among tropical peoples.              O.F. Cook, 1939
One cannot journey across the landscape of the Dominican Republic without developing an awareness of the widespread presence of palms. This observation has been similarly noted in past centuries by travelers making their way across the unchartered interior of this island nation (Hazard 1873). Literally scores of hills and low ranges, streams and arroyos, shoreline features, and small settlements and towns bear the names of local palms giving further testimony to their widespread presence. In spite of the dominance of palms on the landscape, however, the casual observer is not likely to be aware of the variety of ways in which they contribute to the livelihood and enter into the vernacular of native inhabitants.

Some years ago, I was given the responsibility of preparing a field guide entitled, "Exploration of the Dominican Landscape." Given the dominance of palms in the Dominican countryside, it was considered appropriate that a section in the field guide be devoted to the utility of palms. Beginning in 1987, I undertook a number of field reconnaissances for the purpose of fulfilling that objective. These surveys provided a wealth of information on the various ways in which palms are used by Dominicans.

It was found that palms are widely used in the construction of houses, in fencing and landscaping, and in the crafting of a wide range of woven products intended for domestic use and the tourist trade. Although it was known that the coconut and African oil palms, both introduced from the Old World, were cultivated as sources of food, the extent to which endemic species served as sources of food and animal feed was unexpected. Neither was the role of palms in the processing of agricultural commodities fully appreciated.

The image of grace and beauty imparted by palms has enhanced their utility in less material ways. Coconut palms that follow the Atlantic and Caribbean shorelines of the Dominican Republic convey visions of a tropical paradise (Fig. 1). This has contributed significantly to the attractiveness of shoreline resorts. The esteem with which the stately native royal palm is regarded by Dominicans is revealed in its appearance as a national symbol. The fronds of the royal palm appear on the coat of arms of the nation as well as on those of a number of its provinces and the national university. The tree and/or its fronds are impressed upon Dominican coins and postage (Fig. 2). In 1930, the royal palm was selected as the symbol of the Partido Dominicano founded by the long-term dictator, Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. As an aside, numerous Dominican dichos (sayings) incorporating words and phrases drawn from palms or their products are commonplace.

Common Palms of Utility

In terms of utility, the more common of the native palms in the Dominican Republic are (1) the royal palm (Roystonea boringuena), which is known as the palma real, palma de yaguas, or most commonly simply as palma (Fig. 3); (2) the sabal palms (Sabal domingensis and Sabal causiarum), referred to as palma cana or cana (Zona 1990) (Fig. 4) and (3) the silver thatch (Coccothrinax argentea) and (Thrinax spp.), which are called guano, guanito, or guano de escoba (Fig. 5). Less commonly utilized native palms are the cacheo (Pseudophoenix vinifera), the yarey (Copernicia berteroana), the guanito (Coccothrinax spissa) (Fig. 7), palma manacla or manacla (Prestoea montana), and corozo (Acrocomia aculeata Bailey) (Fig. 6). The coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) and African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis), of Old World origin, are known respectively as cocotero or coco and palma Africana. The former was introduced into the Dominican Republic early in the 16th century, while the latter has been planted commercially only within recent decades. Unlike the coconut palm, which is widely distributed, the African oil palm is largely restricted to two large plantations in the oriente of the Dominican Republic (near Bayaguana and at El Valle, to the south of Sabana de la Mar).

The royal, the sabal, and the silver thatch palms may grow to heights in excess of 60 feet (Fig. 9). Whereas the trunks of the royal and sabal palms may acquire diameters in excess of one and one-half feet, the silver thatch rarely exceeds a basal diameter of six inches. The heights and diameters of the trunks of the coconut and African oil palms approximate that of the royal and sabal palms. The coconut palm, unlike the columnar upright trunks of the royal, sabal, silver thatch, and African oil palms, is commonly characterized by a gracefully curving trunk (Fig. 8).

The distribution of palms is largely dictated by physical considerations. The more important palms of utility tend to require sites endowed with better soils and a readier supply of moisture. Consequently, these species occur with less frequency in the Dominican west and southwest, regions in which thinner soils and greater aridity predominate.

The coconut, royal, and sabal palms may frequently be encountered growing in common association; however, the coconut palm is more likely to be planted within proximity of the coast, particularly along the Atlantic shorelines of northeastern Dominican Republic. Royal palms are said to generally require deeper soils and a greater availability of moisture than the sabal palm (Bennett and Allison 1928). Whereas they note that sabal palms in Cuba prevail in regions of limestone soils, Uhl and Dransfield (1987) cite that the sabal palm is commonly found in regions where parent material consists of highly ultrabasic rocks such as serpentines. In the Dominican Republic, it appears that the sabal palm may be found thriving in regions with either type of parent material. The silver thatch palm tends to be found in more sterile, rocky terrain, and along the faces of relict sea cliffs. At only two widely separated sites was it found to be growing in association with royal and sabal palms (Fig. 9).

Of the palms of lesser utility, most tend to be found in the southern and southwestern provinces of the Dominican Republic. With the exception of the manacla palm, all others tend be found at elevations below 800 in. Although disassociated from the control of physical factors, it should be noted that palms are conspicuously absent in areas devoted exclusively to the monoculture of rice or sugar.

The Utility of Palms

A range of products derived from various palms provide an important source of supplemental income for Dominican rural "campesinos" (see Hartshorn 1981, Zanoni 1986, 1991; Uhl and Dransfield 1987). The fronds of the sabal and silver thatch palms are collected on a small scale by campesinos and handcrafted into a variety of products for domestic use and for sale to tourists (Figs. 11, 12). Leaves are processed within households into panniers (árganas), which are used in pairs as saddlebags to haul cargo on burros and horses (Antonini 1971) (Fig. 13). Also manufactured is the petaca, a crude box formerly much used in the transport of charcoal, small shoulder sacks (macutos) used in the coffee harvest, as well as other bags for carrying goods (Fig. 14). Serones are made for baling tobacco. Roadside vendors of broom heads (escobas) in the vicinity of Higüey, Santiago Rodríguez (Sabaneta), Jarabacoa, and Azua signal the local presence of the sabal and silver thatch palms (Fig. 16). The leaves of the sabal palm are made into an assortment of baskets (e.g., cestas de pan) used to hold, store, or carry goods, as well as baskets (moises) for carrying infants. These baskets have also found their way into the tourist trade (Fig. 19). Leaves of the sabal palm (cana) may be woven into seats for chairs (Moscoso 1945). Leaves of the silver thatch palm (guano) may be woven into sacks that are employed in the processing of bitter cassava. In this instance, the sack is filled with shredded cassava, which is then squeezed between wooden planks to force out the poisonous juices. In rural communities, the leaflets of the sabal palm are made into cordage ("ripio") utilized as lashing in house construction and for tying goods for transport (Fig. 17). Antonini also notes the use of palm cordage in wrapping bundles of tobacco. Fronds of cana are also interlaid in tobacco piled for curing and have been seen being used to reduce the drift of sand at seashore resorts (Fig. 18). Hollowed trunks of the sabal palm have been seen used as beehives (colmenas de abejas) (Fig. 31).

This excerpt is the first two pages of the article that originally appeared in the January 1997 issue of Principes.  More than 30 photos accompany the article.  Back issues are available through our online shopping cart while supplies last.

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