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OIL PALM (Elaeis guineensis)


The oil palm tree is a tropical plant which commonly grows in warm climates at altitudes of less than 1,600 feet above sea level. The species, Elaeis oleifera (H.B.K) Cortes is native of America; and the species Elaeis guineensis Jacq. which originated in the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa (hence its scientific name) is better known as the African oil palm.
This tree produces one of the most popular edible oils in the world - a versatile oil of superb nutritional value. It is the most prolific of all oil plants and in commercial terms the one which offers major prospects of development.
Primary roots grow downwards from the base of the palm and radiate outwards in a more or less horizontal direction close to the surface of the ground. Their length and depth depend on the type of soil.
Its stem stands straight in the form of an inverted cone. In the wild it may grow to heights of one hundred feet and more. The stems of young and adult plants are wrapped in leaves which give them a rather rough appearance. The older trees have smooth stems apart from the scars left by the leaves which have withered and fallen off.30-40 leaves are seen on the crown of the palm.
Each leaf has short thorns at its base and about 250 leaflets in an irregular pattern on both sides of the petiole.
Oil palm has both male and female flowers on the same tree. It produces thousands of fruits, in compact bunches whose weight varies between 10 and 40 kilograms. Each fruit is almost spherical, ovoid or elongated in shape. Generally the fruit is dark purple, almost black before it ripens and orange red when ripe. The fruit has a single seed - the palm kernel - protected by a wooden endocarp or shell, surrounded by a fleshy mesocarp or pulp. This fruit produces two types of oil: one extracted from the pulp (palm oil) and the other from the kernel (palm kernel oil).
Oil palm grows best in areas with a mean maximum temperature of 30-32 ºC and on an average of at least five hours of sunlight. It can be grown in areas, which receive well-distributed annual rainfall of 200 cm or more. However, it can tolerate two to four months of dry spell. The oil palm grows on wide range of tropical soils. The adult palms can withstand occasional waterlogging, but frequently waterlogged, extremely sandy and hard lateritic soils should be avoided.

Nursery practices

The fruits are separated from the bunch and seeds are extracted by scraping off the exocarp and mesocarp with a knife, or by retting in water. The seeds are then dried by spreading them on concrete or wooden floors under shade for two days. Such seeds can be stored for 3-9 months at about 27 ºC without much reduction in viability.
Seeds are soaked in water for five days, changing the water daily. Thereafter, the seeds are spread out to dry for 24 hours. The dried seeds are put in polythene bags and placed in germinator maintained at a temperature of 40 ºC. After 80 days, the seeds are removed from polythene bags, soaked in water for 5 days changing the water daily and dried in the shade for two hours. The seeds are then put back into bags and kept in a cool place in order to maintain the moisture content. Germination commences in about 10-12 days. The percentage of germination obtainable by this method is 90-95.

Raising nursery

Polybags (preferably black) of 400-500 gauge measuring 40 x 35 cm are used. The bags are filled with topsoil and compost and are arranged at a spacing of 45 x 45 cm and one sprouted seed is dibbled per bag. A good mulching during summer is desirable. Watering the seedlings weekly thrice is recommended. A fertilizer mixture containing 15 g N, 15 g P2O5 and 6 g K2O at the rate of 8 g in five litres of water for 100 seedlings may be applied when the seedlings are two month and eight month old.

The only variety recommended for commercial cultivation is Tenera, which is a hybrid between Dura and Pisifera.

Oil palm is planted in the main field in triangular system at spacing of 9 m accommodating 140 palms per ha. Planting is preferably done at the onset of monsoon during May-June. The polythene bag is torn open and the entire ball of earth is buried in the pit (50 x 50 x 50 cm) and levelled.
Leaf pruning

Dead and diseased leaves and all inflorescences should be cut off regularly up to three years after planting. When the palms are yielding, judicious pruning to retain about 40 leaves on the crown is advocated. It is necessary to remove some of the leaves while harvesting. In such cases, care should be taken to avoid over pruning. In addition, all dead and excess leaves should be cut off and crown cleaned at least once in a year, usually during the dry season.


Oil palm is a cross-pollinated crop. Assisted pollination is done to ensure fertilization of all female flowers. However, this is not necessary if the pollination weevil Elaedobius kamerunicus is introduced in the plantation. They congregate and multiply on male inflorescence during flower opening. The weevils also visit the female flowers and pollinate them effectively.



The following fertilizer schedule is considered satisfactory for oil palm.

N:P2O5:K2O g/palm/year
First year 400:200:400
Second year 800:400:800
Third year onwards 1200:600:1200

Mg application is necessary only if deficiency symptoms are noticed. Fertilizers are preferably applied in two equal split doses (May and September), within 2 m diameter around the palm and forked in. Supply of sufficient quantities of green leaf or compost is advantageous, especially where the soil is poor in organic matter.


The field has to be regularly maintained to allow access for harvesting and palm inspection. The weeded circle should be sufficiently kept clear of vegetation for loose fruit collection. It is also extremely important to reduce direct weed competition in young palms. This can be controlled manually or chemically using herbicide.


Rhinoceros beetle

The pest causes severe damage to emerging fronds and spindle. The adult beetle feeds on the softer tissue of the rachis, resulting in snapping off of the fronds and spears at the feeding sites. Field sanitation and elimination of breeding sites are essential components of the pest management operation. This pest can be suppressed by using the virus Baculovirus oryctes.

Red palm weevil

This is a major pest of oil palm in India. These weevils lay their eggs at the cut end of petioles or other wounds. The emerging larvae tunnel into the crown and feed on the growing tissues. Palms infested by red palm weevil start wilting and leaves show gradually increasing chlorosis and fracture in strong winds. If detected early, treatment of affected palm with 0.2% solution of 1% carbaryl would save the palms.


Many birds such as the forest crow, the house crow and the common Indian myna cause severe damage to oil palm fruit bunches. These birds feed on the mesocarp of the oil palm fruits. The damage can be minimized by scaring the birds and covering the ripe bunch with wire net, 150 days after fruit set.



This disease occurs in the nursery. It is recognized by regular or irregular brown to black leaf blotches surrounded by yellow haloes, which develop along the margin, centre or tip of the leaves. It causes heavy seedling loss. The disease can be controlled by spraying mancozeb or captan at the rate of 200 g/100 litres of water. Copper fungicides should not be used because of the extreme susceptibility of oil palm seedlings to copper burn (scorching).

Spear rot

This is noticed to affect oil palms of all ages. The incidence is less than one per cent. Yellowing starts from tip of the innermost whorl of leaves. Small lesions occur at the distal portions of spear and rotting extends downwards. As the disease advances, new leaves become rudimentary and show rotting. General decline in vigour and production is then noticed. Occurrence of spear rot without yellowing has also been noticed. Distinguishable marginal yellowing of leaflets and sudden drying of leaves showing yellowing are other symptoms. Rouging of all the affected palms may be adopted to prevent further spread of the disease. In early stages of the disease, the affected portions of leaves may be removed and burnt.

Bunch failure

Sparse or no fruit set followed by complete drying or rotting of the affected bunches are the typical symptoms. The extent of incidence can be up to 20%. This malady is generally attributed to excess pruning, mutual shading, underpollination, moisture stress and unhygienic conditions. The situation can be improved by assisted pollination as well as by adopting hygienic measures like removal of infected bunches and dry male inflorescence.


 First harvest can be taken 3.5 to 4 years after planting. When a few ripe fruits are loose / fall off, the bunch is ready for harvesting. Processing over-ripe fruits reduces quantity and quality of oil.
A chisel is used for harvesting bunches from young palms. The stalk of the bunch is struck hard with the chisel to cut off and push the bunch out. When the palms become taller (from 10 year onwards) a harvesting hook has to be used. When the palms are too tall, it is necessary to climb the palms for harvesting.


 For mature plantations not exceeding 40 ha, a hand-operated hydraulic press will be enough for extraction of oil. In the case of large-scale plantations, the hydraulic press will not be economical and as such, mechanically driven oil mills have to be established. The fruit bunches brought to the factory are first quartered by means of a chisel. They are then sterilized in steam or boiling water for 30-60 minutes. The objective of this process is to inactivate the fat splitting enzymes, which are present in the fruit, which may raise the free fatty acid content of the oil and also to soften the fruits for easy pounding. The sterilized fruits are stripped off from the bunch and then pounded. The pounded fruit mass is then reheated and squeezed using a hydraulic press. It is then boiled in a clarification drum where the sludge will deposit and pure oil float over the water. The oil is then drained out.



KISSAN Kerala Operations Centre, IIITM-K, NILA, Techno park Campus, Thiruvananthapuram

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