The Life-Giving Lontar Palm

The lontar fan palm can be seen all over Indonesia, yet many of us are unfamiliar with it, mistaking it, perhaps, for the coconut palm. Its versatility is extraordinary. Its trunk, which can grow to 30 metres in height and to a thickness of about 90 cm is hewn for beams and posts; its branches are cut for walls and fences; and its broad leaves are woven into baskets, birdcages, water vessels, fans, hats – including some that have been inspired by the designs of 16th and 17th century Portuguese helmets – umbrellas, belts, knife-sheaths, thatch, cigarette papers, musical instruments, and even bags for transporting chickens to market. When interlaced, lontar leafstalks, which can grow up to 1.5 metres, can be worked by stripping and twisting the fibres to make ropes, halters, bridles and a multitude of other items.

In Bali, we find lontar palm-leaf manuscripts, inscribed with a pointed stylus in ‘Kawi’ (Old Javanese) and Sanskrit, before being wiped with an oily burnt macadamia nut to make the lines visible. Many also have fine illustrations. These sacred heirlooms have been the source of wisdom for generations.

The lontar is also one of the most efficient sugar-producing trees on Earth. A single tree can provide 200-400 litres of juice per year for up to 35 years. Lontar palm sugar is a nutrient-rich, naturally brown, unrefined sugar with a deep caramel flavour and a high content of key vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients, including potassium, zinc, iron, and vitamins B1, B2, B3 and B6. Its low glycemic index makes it a healthier choice for diabetics.

The sap is used to produce ‘tuak manis’, a drink that is sweet when initially tapped from the tree before turning a little bitter and sour a few hours later in the process of fermentation. This alcoholic beverage can also be distilled into a more potent drink.

The lontar palm has been the economic backbone of the eastern Indonesian islands of Rote and Sawu for centuries, with the sweet sap being the staple food of the local people. A good source of carbohydrate, the sap is drunk directly from the tree or is boiled down to become a thick treacle, which can be stored. This syrup is mixed with water, and many glasses are consumed during the day as food. If necessary, lontar syrup is used instead of mother’s milk.