The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications

Palm Wine


Other Names


Bourdon, cachiry, chica de caanguche, coroxo, maboca, mimbo, palmenwein, palmwein, salap, sura, suri, toddy, vino palmeo


In many parts of the world, winelike drinks are produced by fermenting palms (Palmae; formerly Arecaceae); these preparations are generally referred to as palm wine (cf. wine). Either the juice pressed from the sweet fruits or the sap that flows through the trunk and the leaf ribs (bleeding sap) is used; both are fermented undiluted. Some palm fruits may also be mixed with water and used to make beer and chicha.

Usually it is the bleeding sap of various palms that is fermented to make wine. The young male inflorescences are often used; incisions are made into them after they are pressed or squeezed to stimulate the secretions. The sugary sap often starts fermenting as it flows from the stem (cf. Cocos nucifera). Sometimes a tapping hole may also be made in the upper trunk. Fermentation is usually initiated with yeast: Saccharomyces spp., Candida spp., or Endomycopsis sp. (Ofakor 1972).

Palm wine is a much-loved drink in Southeast Asia, where it is made from either the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) or the sugar palm (Arenga pinnata [Wurmb.] Merr.):


Since the earliest times, it [the sugar palm, Arenga pinnata] has been tapped to obtain its sugar sap. To do this, the young, male inflorescences are cut off. From the site of the incision, 2 to 7 liters of sap flows daily over a period of two to five months. When the first incision site has been exhausted, an inflorescence below it will be tapped. One palm is said to provide up to 1,800 liters of sap, which is drained off into bamboo tubes. The sap contains approximately 15% sucrose and is either fermented into palm wine or boiled and made into a brown cane sugar that, pressed into disks, is then sold. (Bärtels 1993, 56*)


Pliny noted that the Egyptians used the date palm (Phoenix dactylifera L.) to produce wine. This Old World palm, which grows as tall as 30 meters, is found throughout Africa, the Near East, Arabia, and India. It has been cultivated for its fruits since antiquity (Stewart 1994, 151*). The sap tapped from the stems of older date palms begins to ferment immediately. This fermentation was known as palm wine (vino palmeo), and it was used as a ritual inebriant drink but was especially esteemed for its aphrodisiac qualities. It was often fortified with various other magical plants, presumably henbane (Hyoscyamus nigerHyoscyamus spp.), mandrake (Mandragora officinarumMandragora spp.), or hemp (Cannabis indica). The inebriating effects of such a wine were described in a cuneiform text:


A man climbs a palm in order to tap its bleeding sap. (From Hartwich, Die menschlichen Genußmittel [The Human Agents of Pleasure], 1911)


“Every year the Shuar, who live in the rain forest in the eastern Andean foothills of Venezuela, celebrate a festival in which B.[actrisgasipaës, the chonta palm, plays a great role. When the strong winds of spring herald the approaching rain season and therewith the return of Uwi, the lord of fertility, the Shuar celebrate a sacred festival. Palm fruits are collected and the women chew the flesh of the fruit to prepare it for fermentation. Later, the beer is drunk by the men. Various sacred songs are also sung, all of which describe the life and uses of the palm.”






(1993, 52*)





Since ancient times, the date palm and its fruits have been used to produce palm wine. (Woodcut from Tabernaemontanus, Neu Vollkommen Kräuter-Buch, 1731)


“Yesterday’s drunkenness will not relieve today’s thirst.”




When a person has drunk the inebriating drink and his head has been seized by it, he forgets his words, they disappear as he speaks, his reason does not hold firm, the eyes of such a man are fixed, to help him recover, you should grate together liquorice juice . . . , beans, oleander . . . , he should drink it with oil and the inebriating drink before the descent of the gula [= “in the evening before the stars rise”], in the morning before the sun rises, and before anyone has kissed him, and so he will recover. (Sigerist 1963, 30)451


The fruits of the date palm were also made into an inebriating drink, which the Egyptians called srm.t. This preparation may have been a beer to which date must was added (Cranach 1981*). This drink was often added to medicines. Palm wine was also used to wash corpses as part of the process of embalming mummies. Palm wine was also drunk as a remedy for hallucinations (Pliny 24.165 f.). In ancient times, saffron (Crocus sativus) and palm wine were mixed together with many magical plants.

There are seventeen species in the genus Phoenix, many of which are easily confused with the true date palm. Some species (e.g., Phoenix reclinata Jacq.) develop edible fruits that are also called dates. The sap of the Indian forest date palm (Phoenix sylvestris [L.] Roxb.) is also fermented into palm wine.

Palm wine is very popular in Africa, where it is used as a refreshing drink, a solvent for medicine, and an offering drink (libation). In West Africa, palm wine with cola nuts (Cola spp.) is an important offering in the orisha rites. In the land of the Yoruba, Ogun is the shamanic god of iron and the smithy, of war, of the hunt, and of stones, and he is considered a mighty tamer of snakes. Because of his power, offerings made to him have great importance:


A woman wants to address Ogun; she comes and brings a calabash with cola nuts, for the sacrifice she has a dog and roasted yams in addition to palm oil and palm wine. The priest rises and turns to face the shrine. He begins with a libation of water or palm wine, then he takes a hammer made entirely from metal and touches the emblem of the god so that it makes a sound. As he does this, he says: “Hear us, O Ogun, Awo, controller of the world, chief of the gods, whose pupils man never sees, supporter of orphans, lord of the countless heavenly palaces!” . . . Then he pours the palm wine and the palm oil on or in front of the shrine and questions the cola nut. If the answer is favorable, then he places a piece of the nut on the shrine. Then the dog is sacrificed. (Bonin 1979, 251*)


In India, palm wine (called salap) is also used for shamanic purposes. The tribes who live in the jungles of Orissa, in particular the Sora or Saura, have for the most part retained their pre-Hindu, prehistoric religion, which consists primarily of establishing contact with the underworld and the spirits and ancestors who dwell in the realm beyond. It is said that the spirits and ancestors live in the underworld directly beneath the wine palms. Copious amounts of palm wine are consumed during the shamanic underworld ceremonies. The kunan, or shaman, consumes the inebriating drink from a special calabash. He uses the palm wine as a “fuel for traveling to the underworld” (Gerhard Heller, pers. comm.).


The saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), which grows throughout the southern regions of North America, was once used by Indians of the region to prepare inebriating drinks.



Saw palmetto fruits, which come from the saw palmetto (Serenoa repens), are fermented into a palm wine. In phytotherapy, the fruits are regarded as aphrodisiac.



The fruits of the cohune palm (Orbignya cohune) are used in the Central and South American tropics to make palm wine. (Photographed in the Maya Mountains, Belize)


In some places, palm wine may be distilled into arrak or palm schnapps (cf. alcohol).

Palm Wine Additives


As with all other alcoholic drinks, plants or other substances are sometimes added to palm wine to alter its effects (cf. Vitis viniferaalcoholbalche’beerchichawine).

In the Congo, roots of Alchornea floribunda are added to palm wine to make a beverage called niando (cf. Alchornea spp.). It has psychoactive and aphrodisiac effects (Scholz and Eigner 1983, 78*). Another palm wine from the Congo is made by adding iboga roots (see Tabernanthe iboga). In Ghana, palm wine is mixed with the leaves of Vernonia conferta, known as flakwa, to produce aphrodisiac effects (Bremness 1995, 29*). In West Africa, the bark of Mitragyna stipulosa (DC.) O. Kuntze, which may contain alkaloids of the yohimbine type, is drunk with palm wine (cf. Mitragyna speciosa). In central Africa, the root bark of Strychnos icaja L. (cf. Strychnos spp.) is added, and in West Africa the bark of Corynanthe pachyceras (cf. Corynanthe spp.).

In India, palm wine was once fortifed with the seeds of Datura metel. The Sora, a tribal people of Orissa, add an as yet undetermined root to their palm wine, known as salap, to give it a cannabis-like effect (Gerhard Heller, pers. comm.).


The goddess Hathor, shown here personified as a date palm, pours the inebriating palm wine. (Egyptian relief, eighteenth dynasty, sixteenth to fourth centuries B.C.E., from Luschan)




See also the entries for Cocos nuciferaalcohol, and wine.


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Ofakor, N. 1972. Palm-wine yeasts from parts of Nigeria. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture 23:1399–1407.


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Vasaniya, P. C. 1966. Palm sugar: A plantation industry in India. Economic Botany 20:40–45.