The Amazing, Multi-Functional Cohune Palm

I first knowingly encountered the cohune palm in its tree form when looking for property in the far eastern region of Guatemala. They had thick bases, about half a meter across, and from there, immense fronds—some say the largest leaf in the world—stretch towards the jungle canopy. Ultimately, they fall short and wilt along the sides of the trunk.

The real estate guy, aware of my rudimentary yet conversational level of Spanish, kept pointing them out excitedly because he knew that I’d understood these palms were used to make thatched roofs. In our time together, he’d gathered that I was after a creek, existing fruit trees, and on-site material for building a semi-rustic, solar-powered house in the jungle, with just a touch of WiFi. He also showed me his cell phone had three bars and pointed to a tower atop a hill quite a few kilometers away.

Anyway, in the months that followed, the cohune palm became much more familiar, and the more I learned the more I liked. I was looking at it for much more than sustainable roofing.

Cohune Palms as a Roof

Close-up of Cohune Thatching, image credit Emma Engels
Close-up of Cohune Thatching, Image Credit Emma Engels

The cohune palm has massive fronds, somewhere between ten and twenty meters, and often a couple of meters wide. In order to make a roof, leaves are gathered, usually from the wild, in enough abundance to construct whatever sized roof is desired. “Bush sticks”, small round wood, are also collected to form the structure upon which the fronds are tied, often bound with either strands of the fronds or a softened vine. While cohune palm roofs are not the most revered (That’s the bay leaf roof.), they are the most common, due to the prevalence of cohunes, and they generally last six to eight years.

• Locals in both Belize and Panama have said that the best time to gather palm fronds is on the sliver moon. The diminished light helps with bugs, so the roof will last much longer.

Palm thatch roofing makes a lot of sense in the tropics. Obviously, the materials are readily available, often in seriously sustainable abundance. Thatch roofing has the added bonus of being great for its insulating thickness, which wards off the blazing sun of dry season and quiets the pounding rain of wet season. What’s more is that pretty much everyone around is either experienced at making the roofs—professionally or otherwise—and so there is much practicality to be learned.

• Thatch roofs also work really well for cooling because the steep pitch—ostensibly to help the water run off more quickly—allows the hot air from below a space to rise and circulate.

Truth be known, I was happy about the cohune palm being around. I had tried my hand—fairly successfully, I like to think—at making palm thatch roofing a couple of years ago in Panama. Zinc roofing during Central America’s thunderous six-month affair of a rainy season often renders a deafening toll on those below it. Palm thatch absorbs the sound. But, there is more than just roofing.

Cohune Palms as a Sign

Cohune Palm, image credit Emma Engels
Cohune Palm, Image Credit Emma Engels

As our search for land spread to Belize, my wife Emma noticed in the description of one of the properties had celebrated the cohune palms as a sign of fertile soil. After some investigation, it turned out that many say the palms only grow where loamy soil is thick and good. They instantly became something we looked for.

• Cohune palms, once established are very resilient, and often after the local slash-and-burn agriculture has been applied, these fire-resistant palms will be the only thing remaining, providing shade for cattle.

Cohune palms are also respected for making their own soil. They shed fronds much like a banana drops its leaves, such that the fertility at the foot of the trunk is constantly enriched. Not to mention the fact that each palm is pretty well an eco-system itself. Otherwise, old thatch roofs make great compost or, especially, mulch. In other words, not only do the trees signify fertile soil at present, but they nearly insure that fertility, when managed well, is there to stay.

Cohune Palms as a Food

Cohune Nuts, image credit Emma Engels
Cohune Nuts, Image Credit Emma Engels

But, this giant palm is not done, and in fact, it can be a serious source of food. For each season, each mature palm produces 600-1000 nuts. The shell on the nuts is extremely hard but is said to be a favorite of local wildlife, namely the gibnut (aka paca), which people still hunt for food. People also extract the oil, but it requires using the ancient Mayan method of cracking the nut open between to rocks. Apparently, despite efforts, no faster way has been developed.

• The gibnut is a large rodent and seems a regularly appreciated meat here in Belize. It also is known as “the royal rat” because, on Queen Elizabeth’s visit back in the colonial days, she dined on gibnut.

Otherwise, the more familiar yet palm-destroying delicacy harvested from the cohune is “heart of palm”, or “palmito”. Obtain the heart requires cutting the tree down at about the meter mark and stripping away layers until reaching the fleshy center. The heart of palm can then be used in salads and soups, and locally it is common Easter holiday treat.

Cohune Palms as Even More

Quinn Loves Chasing Cohune Nuts, image credit Emma Engels
Quinn Loves Chasing Cohune Nuts, Image Credit Emma Engels

The hits have just continued to roll. Not long after arriving at an organic cacao (and all-around) farm— The Farm Inn —and hotel, the owner/operator introduced me to cohune nut charcoal. He gathers the nuts from the hotel side of the property, dries them out and uses them on the barbecue. A couple of weeks later, one of the cohunes near the guests’ rooms fell in a storm. It had rotted to the core and left behind a mountain of amazing mulch-y material with a personality not unlike coconut coir.

• The British military even found a way to use the cohune for their purposes: The uniform size of the nuts made them well suited for mass produced charcoal filters in gas masks. Unfortunately, if fire reaches the internal oily area, it can prove an explosive mistake.

The hard shell from the nuts can be used in jewelry making, one of Emma’s hobbies and growing source of income for us. And, some studies have shown that palm oil—in this sustainable, naturally occurring way—might actually be good for us and has been fingered as a possible of improving Alzheimer’s condition, something that seems to run in my family.

Well, to be honest, my little permaculture heart has become pretty enamored with the cohune, and my mind is adequately impressed with the many uses I already know of this native tree. It has most definitely grown its own space on my property wish list. Luckily for me, despite that Guatemalan real estate agent’s sales pitch, I’ve seen cohune palms on just about every property we’ve looked at in the area so far.

Thumbnail Image Cohune Thatch under a Cohune Palm, Image Credit to Emma Engels


Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.

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