The açaí palm is a species of palm tree in the genus Euterpe cultivated for their fruit and superior hearts of palm. Its name comes from the Portuguese adaptation of the Tupian word ïwaca’i, ‘[fruit that] cries or expels water’. Global demand for the fruit has expanded rapidly in recent years, and açaí is now cultivated for that purpose primarily. Euterpe edulis (juçara) is a closely related species which is now the primary source of hearts of palm.
Eight species are native to Central and South America, from Belize southward to Brazil and Peru, growing mainly in swamps and floodplains. Açaí palms are tall, slender palms growing upwards of 25+ metres, with pinnate leaves up to 3 metres long.
Harvesting and uses
The fruit, commonly known as açaí berry, is a small, round, black-purple drupe about 25mm in circumference, similar in appearance but smaller than a grape and with less pulp, and produced in branched panicles of 500 to 900 fruits. The exocarp of the ripe fruits is a deep purple colour, or green, depending on the kind of açaí and its maturity. The mesocarp is pulpy and thin, with a consistent thickness of 1 mm or less. It surrounds the voluminous and hard endocarp, which contains a single large seed about 7–10 mm in diameter. The seed makes up about 80% of the fruit (Schauss, 2006c). Two crops of fruit are produced each year. The fruits can be harvested and consumed.
In a study of three traditional Caboclo populations in the Brazilian Amazon, açaí palm was described as the most important plant species because the fruit makes up a major component of their diet, up to 42% of the total food intake by weight.
In 2005, an article published by Greenpeace International stated that “the tasty dark violet wine of açaí is the most important non-wood forest product in terms of money from the river delta of the Amazon.” A 2008 Los Angeles Times article noted that while acai has been acclaimed by some sources as a renewable resource that can provide a sustainable livelihood for subsistence harvesters without damaging the Amazon Rainforest, conservationists worry that acai could succumb to the destructive agribusiness model of clear-cut lands, sprawling plantations, and liberal application of pesticides and fertilizer. In May 2009, Bloomberg reported that the expanding popularity of açaí in the United States was “depriving Brazilian jungle dwellers of a protein-rich nutrient they’ve relied on for generations.”
Apart from the use of its fruit as food or beverage, the açaí palm has other commercial uses. Leaves may be made into hats, mats, baskets, brooms and roof thatch for homes, and trunk wood, resistant to pests, for building construction. Tree trunks may be processed to yield minerals. The palm heart is widely exploited as a delicacy.
Comprising 80% of the fruit mass, açaí seeds may be ground for livestock food or as a component of organic soil for plants. Planted seeds are used for new palm tree stock, which, under the right growing conditions, can require months to form seedlings. The seeds are a source of polyunsaturated and saturated fatty acids.
In the general consumer market, açaí is sold as frozen pulp, juice, or an ingredient in various products from beverages, including grain alcohol, smoothies, foods, cosmetics and supplements.