Cambodia’s Injured Sugar Palms

A full-grown sugar palm holds up to 100 years of history in its trunk. In Cambodia, these trees bear the scars of long-gone wars. Rith (he’s a fount of knowledge, always telling, always showing) takes us to his rice field where we can see clearly the wounds of American B52 bombs. Some of those holes still contain shrapnel. Birds like to perch inside. “This area had around 9 B52 bombs,” Rith says. Some trees survived and grew up and around their injuries. Others perished.

Rith was just a kid, but he remembers well those years before the Khmer Rouge era when US bombers sent millions of Cambodian villagers running from their rains of fire. When Rith traveled to India recently, he noticed the absence of scars in the sugar palms there.

The sugar palm, Borassus flabellifer, is a national heritage. Its presence creates that classic image of a flat Cambodian countryside: a carpet of luminous green rice, punctuated with towering fan-like palms. The tree gives fruit and juice for sustenance (and alcohol for celebration), leaves for thatching and basketry and sturdy wood for furniture.

I love the fruit. I love its consistency and its unusual shape. Slice open the hard softball-sized shell and inside you will find three peanut-shaped segments filled with gelatinous flesh sitting in puddles of light, sugary syrup.

7 thoughts on “Cambodia’s Injured Sugar Palms

  1. Ana, you’re welcome! The outside of the fruit is often a deep purplish-brown color.

    Jojo, yes, these trees indeed produce palm sugar. IMHO, Cambodian palm sugar is among the tastiest.

  2. I tried the palm sugar when I travelled in Cambodia. How is the palm sugar made, by cooking the sweet gelatinous flesh as shown in the photo?

  3. Hi, Gardenia. Palm sugar is made from the sap of the flower. Farmers typically hang bamboo containers high in the tree and allow the juice to collect overnight. The juice can be boiled and condensed into sugar. The palm sugar season in Cambodia is generally Nov/Dec through March/April during the dry season. When the rains start, farmers say too much water collects with the juice, diminishing its quality and potentially contaminating the sugar. You can find a description here:

  4. Ahhh, while I eat palm sugar quite a bit, I didn’t know this was the palm that produced it. Incredible that some of the trees have been around for a hundred years and still show scars of their history!

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