Though many may know plenty about coconut palms, date palms and other species of palm trees, the oil palm variety remains relatively obscure to the home gardener. Many people living in tropical areas may have seen one but may not even have realized it. Even so, the oil palm tree is one of the most beneficial of palm varieties. While others produce fruits, it is the oil of this particular palm that is so prized.
The oil palm is not a single species of palm, but rather a name shared by two different palm species. One of the species is known as the American oil palm (Elaeis oleifera) and is native to the tropical regions of the American continents. The other is the African oil palm (Elaeis guineensis Jacq).
The oil palm varieties have very impressive crowns, with mature trees capable of producing 40 leaves which grow 10 to 35 feet in length. The tree can grow up to 100 feet tall, making it one of the tallest of the palms as well. In some ways, it resembles a coconut palm, with the fruits being the main difference. The American oil palm often grows smaller, but looks fuller, than its African cousin.
Though the oil palm can be used as an ornamental tree, its true value lies in the oil produced in the fruit. It is used as a vegetable oil with high nutritious content and is also found in cosmetics and soaps. If it is used ornamentally, its height and crown make it almost overwhelming for many private yards. It is much better used in a commercial setting and is often seen lining streets and boulevards.
As with many types of palms, the oil palm varieties require a moist, sandy soil. Thus, they will not do well in soil that has a tremendous amount of clay or other dense soil type. The palm tree should be watered before the soil becomes dry to the touch. Letting the soil dry between waterings could lead to significant stress. They should also be planted a significant enough distance away from each other so the crowns do not intertwine -- approximately 50 feet.
Oil palm trees, unlike some other palm species, do adequately in full sunlight. The trees thrive best in the tropics, but they can also be found in subtropical areas as well, as long as there are not prolonged freezes. These trees are usually found at elevations less than 1,600 feet.