The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Areca catechu Linnaeus


Betel Palm




Arecaceae, Palmae (Palm Family); Subfamily Ceroxylinae-Arecineae, Areceae Tribe

Forms and Subspecies


Numerous forms and varieties have been described, although these may represent only local races (cf. Raghavan and Baruah 1958):

Areca catechu f. communis (Philippines)

Areca catechu var. alba (Sri Lanka)

Areca catechu var. batanensis (Philippines)

Areca catechu var. deliciosa (India)

Areca catechu var. longicarpa (Philippines)

Areca catechu var. nigra (Java)

Areca catechu var. silvatica (may be the wild form)

Often, the local people give their own names to the “varieties.” These are usually based upon the appearance and size of the seeds and appear to have no botanical relevance. The cultivated palm is likely derived from Areca catechu var. silvatica.

The people of Sri Lanka make a distinction between the varieties hamban-puwak, which has long oval nuts, and rata-puwak or Batavia-puwak, which produces large round nuts (Macmillan 1991, 427*).



Areca guavaia nom. nud.

Folk Names


Adike, arbor areka, areca, areca nut palm, arecanut tree, arecapalme, arecca, arekapalme, arekpalme, arequero (Portuguese), aréquier, aréquir, arreck, ataykkamaram, avellana d’India, betelnußpalme, betelnut tree, betel palm, buoga, bynaubaum, catechupalme, fobal, fufal (Arabic), fûfal, ghowa, gooroaka, goorrecanut palm, gouvaka (Sanskrit), gurvaca, kamuku, kamunnu, kavunnu (Malayalam), mak, noix d’arec, paan supari, pakku, pakkumaram (Tamil), pan of India, papal (Persian), pinang (Malay), pinangpalme, ping-lang, pinlang, puga, pugah (Sanskrit), puwak, pynan, pynanbaum, sopari (Hindi), supari, surattu supary, tambul, tuuffel (Arabic)

The palm Chrysalidocarpus lutescens H. Wendl. [syn. Areca lutescens hort. non Bory] is often sold as an ornamental under the name “areca palm” (Bärtels 1993, 39*).



The name areca, which means “cavalier,” may be derived from the Kanarese word adeke or the Malayalam adakka. In early Sanskrit works, the palm is referred to as gouvaka. It was already mentioned in Jataka and Pali writings. The first description of the palm, however, is purportedly that of Herodotus (ca. 340 B.C.E.). Later, both the palm and the chewing of betel were more or less precisely discussed by many Arabic and European travelers (e.g., Abd Allah Ibn Ahmad, Marco Polo, Vasco da Gama, Garcia da Orta, Abul Fazal, Jacobus Bontius) in their travel reports. The British traveler R. Knox, in his Historical Relation of the Island of Ceylon (London, 1681), was obviously impressed, and he described both the use of the betel nut and its economic significance. The first European pictorial representation of the betel nut is a copperplate engraving by Carolus Clusius in Aromatum et simplicium aliquot medicamentorum . . . historia (Antwerp, 1605).



Almost all betel palms have been planted by humans. The origin of the assumed wild form has not been fully ascertained, although it may have come from the Sunda Isles or the Philippines (cf. Raghavan and Baruah, 1958). Since it can thrive only in regions with tropical rain forests, it is limited to such areas in Hindustan, Indochina, Pakistan, Sri Lanka (Ceylon), the Maldives, Madagascar, Egypt, East Africa, Arabia, southern China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Fiji, and Melanesia (Stewart 1994, 39*). Betel palms grow wild in Malabar (India).



The betel palm is grown primarily for its seeds (betel nuts), although it is also planted as an ornamental. Avenues lined with betel palms are typical features of most palaces and parks in India.

The betel palm can be grown in a variety of soil types. Cultivation is performed using pregerminated seeds. The saplings need to grow in the shade, as they may otherwise fall victim to the intense tropical sun. It is for this reason that trees that grow quickly and provide shade (e.g., Erythrina indica Lam.; see Erythrina spp.) are first planted in betel palm plantations.

The palms bear fruit when they are ten to fifteen years of age. Typically, only the ripe fruits are harvested. One palm can bear fruit for forty-five to seventy years (Raghavan and Baruah 1958, 328). Cultivated betel palms are often infected by fungi, especially Ganoderma lucidum (Leys.) Karst. (see “Polyporus mysticus”) (Raghavan and Baruah 1958, 330f.).



This fan palm can grow as tall as 25 meters and develop a trunk between 30 and 50 cm in diameter. The loculate fronds grow to some 2 meters in length. The male and female flowers are found in spadices located below the leaves. The palm can produce up to three such spadices, each of which yields 150 to 200 fruits. The ovoid fruits, which can be as long as 7 cm in length, contain one brown, reticulate seed (the endosperm, or actual betel nut) that can weigh from 3 to 10 g.


In Europe, the betel plant was once regarded as a species of date palm that is able to make a person “drunk.” Although this botanical illustration is inaccurate, the betel nut itself is depicted as it occurs in nature. (Woodcut from Gerard, The Herball or General History of Plants,1633*)



Betel palms (Areca catechu) can attain a stately height.



The tuftlike inflorescence of the betel palm (Areca catechu).



Betel “nuts” are actually the seeds of the areca fruit (Areca catechu).



Fermented and colored betel nuts from Varanasi (India).



Slicing betel nuts reveals the astonishing, fractal-like structure of their natural inner world.



A typical leaf of Areca triandra, the nuts of which can be used as a betel substitute.


The betel palm is easily confused with the Caribbean king palm (Roystonea regia; cf. Anzeneder et al. 1993, 33*) and with some species of the genus Veitchia, found in the Philippines and Oceania (Stewart 1994, 196*). It is difficult to distinguish from the closely related species Areca triandra Roxb. (India) and Areca vestiaria.

Psychoactive Material


—Areca nuts (arecae semen, formerly semen arecae, nuces arecae); also known as betel nut, areca nut, noix d’arec, puwag

In Sri Lanka (Ceylon), the seeds of the closely related species Areca concinna Thwaites are sometimes chewed as a substitute for the true betel nut (Raghavan and Baruah 1958, 318). In the Philippines, the seeds of another related species, Areca ipot (known as bungang-ipot), are used as a substitute (Stewart 1994, 40*). The seeds of the palm Areca laxa Ham. serve as a substitute on the Andaman Islands, while Areca nagensis Griff is used in Bengal and Areca glandiformis Lam. and Calyptrocalyx spicatus Blume are used on the Moluccas for the same purpose (Hartwich 1911, 529*). In Assam, the seeds of Gnetum montanum Mark. [syn. G. scandens Roxb. (Gnetaceae)], known locally as jagingriube, are chewed as a substitute for areca nuts (Jain and Dam 1979, 54*). In India, the bark of Loranthus falcatus L. (Loranthaceae) is used as a substitute for areca nuts and has narcotic effects. The fruits of Pinanga dicksoniiBlume are also used as an areca substitute in India, while the fruits of Pinanga kuhlii Blume are used in the Malay Archipelago for the same purpose (Hartwich 1911, 529*).38

In many areas of India, freshly harvested betel nuts are preferred. In order to maintain their freshness, these may be stored for several months in a vessel full of water. When the nuts dry, they become very hard and can then be chewed only with difficulty. Sometimes, however, even dried betel nuts can be found in the market. These are dried in the sun for six to seven weeks before sale (as so-called chali nuts). In Malaysia, cracked betel nuts are smoked with gum benzoin, which imparts to them a pleasant aroma; these are sold in the markets as pinang ukup (see incense). In addition, whole, ripe, dried nuts (pinang kossi); halved, dried nuts (pinang blah); smoked nuts (pinang salai); and semi-ripened, salted nuts (pinang asin) are also sold in the markets.

Sometimes, nearly ripe betel nuts are harvested and boiled in a decoction of betel leaves (Piper betle L.); pieces of bark from Szyzygium jambolanum DC., Pterocarpus santalinus L., Adenanthera pavoniaL., and Ficus religiosaL.; and some slaked lime and oils. This lends them a reddish color (from the red sandalwood) and a beautiful luster. Such nuts have a more aromatic taste and remain soft for a longer period of time (Raghavan and Baruah 1958, 332f.).

Occasionally, freshly harvested, tender, unripe nuts are boiled in a solution of lime, dried, and exported. Cut into slices, these nuts are sold under the name kali (Macmillan 1991, 427*).

Preparation and Dosage


Betel nuts have their greatest ethnopharmacological significance as the primary ingredient in betel quids.

Fermenting the fruits can even produce an areca wine (Raghavan and Baruah 1958, 316). Leaves that have been inoculated with beer yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) are employed for alcoholic fermentation.

One betel quid contains approximately one-quarter to one-half nut. According to Roth et al. (1994, 141*), the maximal individual dosage is 4 g. Eight to 10 g of powdered seed can be sufficient to produce lethal effects.

A dosage of 2 mg of the isolated main alkaloid, arecoline, produces strong stimulating effects. The individual dosage should not exceed 5 mg.

Ritual Use


The most important ritual use of the betel nut occurs in ceremonies involving betel quids (cf. also Piper betle).

In Melanesia, betel nuts are considered magical once a magician has uttered an appropriate formula over them. They then carry the magical power of the words in themselves and can transfer this to a goal (a person, an action, an object). They are often used as carriers of love magic.

In India, the flowers of the betel palm are one of the flowers used as ceremonial offerings. The tree itself is symbolically venerated as Ganesha (Gupta 1991, 79*).

The leaves of the betel palm also have ritual significance. They are used in Buddhist ceremonies and during initiations. On Sri Lanka, watertight bowls are woven from the leaves, and newborn boys are ritually bathed in these.

In Southeast Asia (Indonesia), betel palm leaves are placed before the door of a newlywed couple and attached to their house as a sign of honor (Meister 1677, 57*).



In India, the hard areca nuts are carved into small bottles or containers for storing incense.

The palm is occasionally found depicted in Indian and Thai art.

Medicinal Use


In India, betel nuts are administered primarily to dispel tapeworms (Raghavan and Baruah 1958, 338). Betel nuts were also once a popular anthelmintic in Europe, especially in veterinary medicine (Macmillan 1991, 426*; Pahlow 1993, 430*). They also found use in folk medicine for diarrhea and similar ailments.

Betel nuts are used for a variety of purposes in Ayurveda and Unani, the two traditional medical systems of India and its neighboring regions. They are administered to treat digestive problems and nervous disorders. A decoction of them is also esteemed as a tonic and aphrodisiac (especially in combination with other substances) (Raghavan and Baruah 1958, 338). Similar uses of betel nuts can be found in traditional Chinese medicine and in Cambodia. Malay magicians and poisoners use a mixture of betel nuts and opium (see Papaver somniferum) to poison and rob their victims.

In Iran, areca nuts are mixed with sugar and coriander and administered to induce labor (Hooper 1937, 86*).



The seeds contain various alkaloids (0.3 to 0.6%) of a relatively simple chemical structure: 0.1 to 0.5% arecoline (primary alkaloid), as well as arecaine, arecaidine, arecolidine, guvacoline, isoguvacine, and guvacine. Tanning agents (tannins: galotannic acid, gallic acid, D-catechol, phlobatannin), mucilage, resin, carbohydrates (saccharose, galactan, mannan), proteins, saponines, carotene, minerals (calcium, phosphorus, iron), and fat (sitosterol) are also present (Raghavan and Baruah 1958, 335 ff.). When betel nuts are chewed in combination with slaked lime, the alkaloid arecoline is transformed into arecaidine.

Recently, Areca seeds were discovered to contain four new polyphenolic substances (NPF-86IA, NPF-86IB, NPF-86IIA, NPF-86IIB) that may be able to inhibit a membrane-bound enzyme (5’-nucleotidase) (Uchino et al. 1988).



Arecoline, the primary alkaloid, is a parasympathomimetic. It has stimulating effects, strongly promotes salivation, and has anthelmintic (worm-killing) properties; it can also induce brachycardia (deceleration of the heartbeat) and tremors. Eight to 10 g of the seed can be lethal, death resulting from cardiac or respiratory paralysis (Roth et al. 1994, 140*). The polyphenolic substances (NPF-86IA, NPF-86IB, NPF-86IIA, NPF-86IIB) have tumor-inhibiting and immune-strengthening effects (Uchino et al. 1988). The oil of areca nuts has antifertility properties (Roth et al. 1994, 140*). An aqueous extract strengthens the body’s own immune system (Raghavan and Baruah 1958, 339). As for the psychoactivity of the pure areca nut:


An inebriating beverage can be produced by allowing the fresh fruits of the betel palm to ferment.


“Its fruits are like nutmegs, when this fruit areca is broken out of its red-yellow mold. It is universally esteemed by the inhabitants of India, from kings to the lowest beggar, because they chew this fruit, both green and dry, smeared with betel flowers and a little lime from shells, more because it is a custom passed down from their ancestors than from necessity.


“And it is true that it imparts a well-scented breath and purple-red lips. It is for this reason that the Portuguese ladies do not wish to kiss any European man, regardless of how disgusting they might not otherwise be, before they have chewed this fruit, or one generally known as betel, claiming that the Dutch or the Germans stink from their throats when they do not chew this fruit.”





(1677, CH. 8, 1*)



Areca vestiaria is easily mistaken for the betel palm. Its fruits and seed may also contain the stimulating substance arecoline.


The effects of the common areca nut are only slight, resulting at most in a sense of dizziness that is short in duration. However, there are some forms that can have strong toxic effects. The seed of Areca catechu L. var. nigrafrom Java (akar pining hitam) produces narcolepsy and sedation and can cause death. Other forms have inebriating effects: such as one from Burma known as “toung-noo,” one from the Moluccas known as “pining-mabok,” and another from Ceylon. (Hartwich 1911, 528f.*)


Commercial Forms and Regulations


“Since betel is nonaddictive, it does not appear on any of the international lists of addictive drugs” (Roth et al. 1994, 141*). Betel nuts are freely sold and easily available in all the countries of Asia. In Europe, they are occasionally available in pharmacies.



See also the entry for betel quids as well as Balick and Beck 1990*; there is also a specialized journal entitled Arecanut and Spices Bulletin.


Bavappa, K. V. A., ed. 1982. The areca nut palm. Kasaragod: Central Plant Crop Research Institute Publication.


Chang, C. S. C., and C. E. De Vol. 1973. The effects of chewing betel nuts in the mouth. Taiwania 18 (2): 123–41.


Chaudhuri, S. K., and D. K. Ganguly. 1974. Neuromuscular pharmacology of harmine and arecoline. Indian Journal of Medical Research 62 (3): 362–66.


Johnston, G. A. R., P. Krogsgaard-Larsen, and A. Stephanson. 1975. Betel nut constituents as inhibitors of γ-aminobutyric acid uptake. Nature 258:627–28.


Raghavan, V., and H. K. Baruah. 1958. Arecanut: India’s popular masticatory—history, chemistry, and utilization. Economic Botany 12: 315–45. (Contains an excellent bibliography of older works.)


Rätsch, Christian. 1996. Betel, die Palme mit der erregenden Frucht. Dao 5/96:68. Uchino, Keijiro, Toshiharu Matsuo, Masaya


Iwamoto, Yashuhiro Tonosaki, and Akira Fukuchi. 1988. New 5’-nucleotidase inhibitors, NPF-86IA, NPF-86IB, NPF-86IIA, and NPF-86IIB from Areca catechu. Part I. Isolation and biological properties. Planta Medica 54:419–25.


Wirz, Paul. 1922. Die Marind-anim von Holländisch-Süd-New-Guinea. Vols. 10 and 16. Hamburg: Abhandlungen aus dem Gebiet der Auslandskunde, Völkerkunde, Kulturgeschichte und Sprachen.



An ancient Chinese illustration of pin-lang, the betel palm, together with its inflorescence. (From the Nan-fang ts’ao-mu chuang [Plants of the Southern Regions], early fourth century C.E.)





“After a few days, a great festival was to take place. The people came to the festival from near and far. Mongumér-anim [a primeval being, a culture hero] was supposed to kill the pig, but during the night before the festival Mana seduced Monguméranim’s wife. For this reason, he was afraid of Mongumér-anim and would not let his club leave his hands. During the night . . . , when the singing was well under way, Mana used the opportunity to kill Mongumér-anim. He gave him a blow to the head with a club and then fled. . . . The people mourned Monguméranim. His Nakari [the unmarried girls of his totemic group] wrapped him in eucalyptus bark and placed him in his grave. The next morning, an areca palm had grown from the grave, a beautiful, slender tree that already bore ripe fruit and that had previously been unknown. All of the people came by and admired the tree and tried its nuts. . . . From that time on, it has been customary to chew betel nuts.”






(WIRZ 1922, 10:126)

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