Related species
Distribution, abundance and ecology
Description & phenology
Uses and economic potential
Chemical-nutritive and industrial analysis
Historical production data
Yields and collection anal processing methods
Propagation and cultivation methods
Research contacts

Michael J. Balick

During the last decade there has been a great deal of study on the Oenocarpus-Jessenia palm complex. Widely used by people in: Lowland South America, it is the source of an important oil, beverage, and raw material for construction and handicrafts. Initial work on this palm was through collaborative activities between the Centro "Las Gaviotas" in Colombia, and the Botanical Museum of Harvard University in the US, commencing in 1975. Subsequently, numerous projects were begun at numerous sites in the Neotropics. This chapter focuses on Jessenia bataua subsp. bataua, the most widely used of the complex. Other species are also mentioned. The two major references on this group include a monograph (Balick 1986) and a domestication study (Balick 1988).

Family: Palmae

Species: Jessenia bataua (Martius) Burret

Synonyms: Oenocarpus bataua Martius, J. polycarpa Karsten, J. repanda Engel, J. oligocarpa Grisebach & Wendland e The three first synonyms are of J. bataua subsp. bataua, while the last is of J. bataua subsp. oligocarpa (Balick 1986).

Common names: patauá (Brazil, Suriname); milpesos, seje, palma de leche (Colombia); chapil (Ecuador); palma patavona (French Guiana); batawa (from the Carib, hence the specific name) (Guyana); ungurauy (Peru); jagua, yagua (Trinidad); seje, jagua (Venezuela) (Balick 1986).

Patauá's importance to the people of northern South America is attested by the number of common names attributed to it by the Amerindians, and rural and urban populations in this region. Balick (1986) lists 87 names, most from indigenous groups, and there are probably many more.

Related species

Oenocarpus bacaba Martius (bacaba: Brazil). Widely used in northern South America as a source of vinho de bacaba, a thick, somewhat oily juice prepared from the slurry of mesocarp and water. The bacaba is a large, single-stemmed palm growing both in flooded and in non-flooded areas in rainforest ecosystems. In the latter ecosystem, bacaba may form high-density stands, called bacabais, referred to as oligarchic stands (eg dominated by a few species) by Peters et al. (1989). In fact, Oenocarpus bacaba, O. distichus and J. bataua all naturally form oligarchic forests, but their over harvest in the past and in recent decades has led to the destruction or severe reduction in stand density or the complete elimination of the stands.

Oenocarpus balickii F. Kahn (sinamillo: Peru). This recently described species (Kahn 1990) is found in Amazonian Peru, Brazil, Colombia and perhaps elsewhere. It is distinguished from O. mapora by its solitary habit, greater number of pinnae and smaller fruit. It is common in well-drained sites in primary forest, where it can be found in great abundance. Its fruit is used to make a beverage, similar to that made from patauá.

Oenocarpus distichus Martius (bacaba-do-leque: Brazil). This species is the source of vinho de bacaba, a commonly consumed drink in southeastern Amazônia The bacaba-do-leque is distinguished from the bacaba by the striking profile formed by its opposite leaves; the latter species has a spiral leaf arrangement typical of most palms. This species is common on sandier, though humid soils in the seasonally dry forest areas of southeastern Amazônia

Oenocarpus makeru Bernal, Galeano & Henderson (makeru: Colombia). This species was recently described from the Caquetá River, Colombia (Bernal et al. 1991). It is especially interesting because it has some characteristics of Jessenia and this suggests that the generic concept of Martius (1823), lumping the two genera under Oenocarpus may be more appropriate. More complete collections are needed to confirm this, however. In the type locality ("Rio Caquetá, near the Chorro Córdoba, trail to the savanna") it is "abundant in the forest bordering an area of caatinga" (Bernal et al. 1991).

Oenocarpus mapora Karsten (bacabinha: Brazil). A common and widely used species in northwestern South America to southern Central America (to Costa Rica), this palm is a source of vinho de bacaba and palm hearts. This species is smaller and generally multistemmed. It is found as scattered individuals in upland or seasonally flooded sites The wood is used in house construction and for handicrafts.

Two apparent hybrids exist in the wild, including O. bacaba x J. bataua and O. bacaba x O. minor. The presence of natural hybridization bodes well for future breeding programs designed to improve yields, tolerance to stress, reduced time to maturity, etc.

Distribution, abundance and ecology

Patauá (Jessenia bataua subspecies bataua) is found throughout lowland northern South America, from Bolivia in the south, to Panama in the north, and from Belém (Brazil) in the east to the Chocó (Colombia) in the west.

Balick (1986, 1988) and Kahn (1988) report that patauá occurs both on well-drained upland soils (terra firma) and in seasonally or perennially flooded swamps (igapó and varzea). In the former ecosystem, patauá occurs as scattered individuals, frequently very numerous, although most of these are juvenile, acaulescent individuals (Kahn 1988). Mature palms may only occur at a rate of 1-2 individuals/ha. No botanical collections are reported above 950 m altitude (Balick 1986). In the latter ecosystem, patauá may be the dominant species over hundreds of hectares and forms the classic oligarchic forest described by Peters et al. (1989). Balick (1986, 1988) suggests that patauá, and palms in general, are more efficient at exploiting these high water stress ecosystems than are most dicots, due to their ability to adapt to such conditions. Peters et al. (1989) report as many as 100 mature and 900 immature palms/ha in some areas of Peru and Brazil, while Sirotti & Malagutti (1950) report up to 500 mature palms and an equal number of immature ones. Balick (1988), however, doubts that sejales of this density can produce fruit in quantities that would be comparable to yields derived from individual trees (see below).

While it appears that patauá prefers the poorly drained, but more nutrient-rich soils of the igapós and varzeas of Amazônia, they probably are most abundant there because the palms get substantial amounts of light and less competition from surrounding vegetation. These soils are either very sandy, with relatively high organic matter contents (igapó) or humic gleys, with high silt, nutrients and organic matter (varzea). On the terra firma they are frequently shaded significantly, which probably explains the rarity of mature palms in most areas. In fact, Kahn (1988) states that patauá requires high light levels to fruit. Nonetheless, patauá does extremely well on the terra firma if released from competition with the surrounding vegetation. This is confirmed by observations of high-density stands remaining in pastures in the Colombian Chocó (Balick et al. 1988).

Description & phenology

The patauá is a large (15-25 m), single-stemmed palm, with a 15-25 cm stem diameter at breast height. The 8-16 spirally arranged leaves are 3-10 m long, of which the leaf sheath is 0.51.4 m, the petiole 0.2-1 m, the rachis 3-8 m. The pinnae number 120-220 and are inserted at regular intervals in a single plane along the rachis. The inflorescence has a distinctive horsetail shape, called a panicle, with 135-350 rachillae, each 70-120 cm long, and bears from 500-4000 fruit, each weighing from 4-15 g, for a total weight 2-32 kg/bunch. The small round to ovoid fruit have a dark purple rind when ripe, containing a 1-3 mm thick, juicy/oily, white or green or pink/purple mesocarp. The single seed contains a ruminate endosperm (Balick 1986, 1988).

Leaves are produced year round. A single inflorescence is produced in the axil of each leaf (Balick 1986). Only 1-3 inflorescences reach maturity during any one year, as developing inflorescences can abort due to unfavorable nutrient status photoassimilate reserves, or other physiological factors. This inflorescence abortion often occurs during unfavorable periods for fruit set and development. Collazos & Mejia (1988) found that patauá flowers and fruits during periods of lower rainfall in western Colombia and that the fruit take 10-14 months to ripen after pollination.

Uses and economic potential

Principal use: Mesocarp oil
Secondary uses: Food/beverage, medicinal, fiber

As with most palms, patauá has multiple uses (Balick 1986, 1988). This discussion considers its major potential - oil - its principal use. More complete discussions can be found in the previously cited references.

Principal use: Mesocarp oil

Patauá's mesocarp oil is almost identical to that of olive oil (Olea europaea) in its physical appearance and fatty acid composition (Balick 1986, 1988) (see below, Table 2). The Amerindians have used the patauá extensively since well before contact and consider it to be the finest oil available from a forest plant. Since Latin America produces very little olive oil and, in fact, this production is decreasing, patauá has the potential to substitute for Latin America's imports of this high-quality oil that is so much in demand. FAO (1985) reports that Latin America produced less than 1% of the world's olive oil in 1978, or about 13,000 MT. At least 40,000 MT were used in the region in 1974. This disparity in production versus consumption of olive oil, equivalent to about 27,000 MT, has probably expanded since those data were collected, so the potential market may be much larger.

Since patauá oil is virtually identical to olive oil, it is likely that patauá oil could substitute for olive oil in most uses. There was a world shortage of olive oil during World War II and Brazil exported as much as 210 MT/year of patauá oil (Pereira Pinto 1951). Unfortunately, the harvesting of this oil resulted in the wholesale destruction of numerous massive oligarchic stands, which resulted in severe genetic and commercial erosion of patauá populations.

Unlike most palm mesocarp oils, patauá oil is highly unsaturated, with 78±3% monounsaturated fatty acids and 3±1% polyunsaturated fatty acids. This contrasts with olive oil's 77-80% monounsaturated and 7-8% polyunsaturated fatty acids. With the modern emphasis on unsaturated vegetable oils, patauá may even, find a ready market in the developed countries.

Secondary uses: Food/beverage, medicinal, fiber

Throughout Amazônia, and northern South America, the Amerindians prepare patauá "wine", actually a thick non-alcoholic juice with a nutty flavor made from the fruit mesocarp crushed in water and sieved, similar to vinho de bacaba. This is a highly nutritious and energy-rich beverage. Balick (1988) observed that the Amerindians put on weight and are healthier during the patauá fruiting season than at other times of the year and attributed this to consumption of the patauá drink. The protein in this drink was shown to be of excellent quality (see below, Table 3), which, combined with the oil and some minerals, makes it an exceedingly nutritious, well-balanced beverage (Balick & Gershoff 1981).

There are several Amerindian medicinal uses for the palm, some of which are worth further investigation. Alone or mixed with honey and lemon, patauá oil is considered a cure for minor bronchial and pulmonary infections. There was some work in Colombia that showed it's efficacy as a treatment for tuberculosis. The oil is also said to prevent hair loss, but this activity is unsubstantiated (Balick 1986).

The leaf sheath and petiole have two types of fibers along their edge: a strong stiff fiber used for blowgun darts and other hunting equipment, and a soft, hair-like brown fiber that might be used for rope. and weaving. These fibers could become an important sub-product from patauá plantations or management areas (see below).

Chemical-nutritive and industrial analysis

An average patauá yields two bunches, each weighing about 15 kg. Trees yielding up to 5 bunches have been observed in favorable agroecosystems (Balick 1988). Blaak (1988) points out that patauá has a high-fruit/bunch ratio of 76-83% but a low oil/fruit ratio of 6.5-8% (Table 1). This gives an oil/bunch ratio of 5-6.5%.

Table 1. Patauá fresh fruit components (Blaak 1988)





Fruit weight (g)

8.0 ± 2.7



% pulp/fruit

41.4 ± 3.2



% oil/fruit

7.4 ± 0.7



Table 2 contrasts patauá oil with olive oil, which are both from the mesocarp. Note especially the high levels of unsaturated fatty acids. Note also the variation in fatty acid composition. Overall, these two oils show great chemical similarity.

Table 2. Fatty acid composition of patauá mesocarp oil and a comparison with olive oil (in % total oil).


Fatty acid


olive oil

Jamieson (1943)

Balick & Gershoff (1981)*

Jamieson (1943)

Balick & Gershoff (1981)

C14: 0

- myristic





C16: 0

- palmitic


13.2 ± 2.1



C16: 1

- palmitoleic


0.6 ± 0.2



C18: 0

- stearic


3.6 ± 1.1



C18: 1

- oleic


77.7 ± 3.1



C18: 2

- linoleic


2.7 ± 1.0



C18: 3

- linolenic


0.6 ± 0.4



% unsaturated


81.6 ± 4.7



* mean ± SD of 12 samples.

The dry patauá mesocarp contains about 7.4% protein, with an excellent balance of amino acids. Table 3 presents Balick & Gershoff's (1981) amino acid profile and a comparison of patauá with FAD/WHO's (1973) approximation of the essential amino acid profile of an ideal protein source. patauá is high for several essential Amino acids and only a little low for tryptophan and lysine. Patauá is, therefore, a protein with one of the highest biological values in the plant kingdom, and comparable to animal meat or human milk.

Table 3. Amino acid composition of patauá mesocarp protein* and a comparison with the FAO/WHO (1973) amino acid scoring pattern (Balick & Gershoff 1981).

Non-essential amino acids

mg/g prot.

Essential amino acids

mg/g prot.




% of score

Aspartic acid



47 ± 4






78 ± 4



Glutamic acid



53 ± 3



Pro Line



18 ± 6




44 ± 9






26 ± 6





62 ± 3




105 ± 7




43 ± 5



69 ± 6




68 ± 4




9 ± 1



* mean±SD from 7 samples, except Tryptophan from 3 samples.

Historical production data

Pereira Pinto (1951) presents data on Brazilian exports of patauá oil immediately before, during and after World War II. These are represented in Figure 1. Patauá is not listed in the CACEX register of Brazilian exports during the 1980's (CACEX 1981-88).

Figure 1. Brazilian exports of patauá oil during the decade including World War II. No exports have occurred since then.