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Palmwood: The Next Sustainable Lumber?

by Joey

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The harvesting of palmwood, or cocowood, offers an environmentally friendly alternative to traditional lumber and a welcome respite from deforestation. But its all-around utility might be its highest virtue.Everyone recognizes the familiar iconic form of the Palm Tree. Synonymous with beaches, sunshine and ocean breezes, palm trees have become a peaceful, aesthetically pleasing symbol of vacation and easy living. But how many of us also realize that the palm tree has immense spiritual significance in many parts of the tropics and is often described as one of the world's most important crops?

To start, the wood of coconut and date palms is an outstanding source of food. These unique trees are known to produce highly nourishing fruits for 70 to 80 years. In many regions of the Pacific, the palm tree is also a welcome source of shelter from the sun and an ample provider of fuel and raw materials. Its leaves and fruits have a range of practical applications, and the oil of palm is a kitchen staple. But the brightest future of the palm tree may very well focus on the stem, or the wood.

With world population and economic development booming, construction materials have become high demand products. Coupled with this tremendous growth is a commensurate worry that the earth's more finite resources are becoming strained. As a byproduct of the heavy dependence on traditional wood sources, the search for sustainable lumber--i.e. quickly renewable trees--continues to accelerate. Not least of all, cost has played a role, as time-tested logging sources are tagged with a staggering price.

Enter the palm tree.

Planted in large groves and plantations in the 20th century, palm trees have long seen their trunks discarded after the reaping of their valuable fruits and leaves. But the trunks display a range of amazing properties that are perfect for construction, home design and interior furnishings. The wood of the coconut palm is waterproof and highly elastic. Its lack of growth rings, unlike its evergreen and deciduous relatives, makes it smoother and devoid of surface imperfections. Both the coconut and date palms are strong, sturdy and resistant to mold, termites and other pests. They also offer a range of colors and surface variations, bringing special attraction to the designer's eye.

Best of all, the palm tree already exists in abundance all over the tropical regions of Indonesia, India, the Philippines, Thailand and throughout the South Pacific. Many of the enormous plantations in these regions are rife with aging or senile trees, requiring an imminent felling and replanting over the coming years. Furthermore, tropical storms and urbanization annually lead to scores of available palmwood stock. The most effective way to deal with this surplus of felled wood? Converting them to marketable products.

A range of companies are now offering palmwood and cocowood products that include flooring, wall panels, interior appliances and homewares. These products make use of trees that are nearing the point where they can no longer bear fruit, and thus must be taken down and replanted. Estimates of the number of currently senile trees (that must be felled) vary greatly. But most studies agree that the palmwood available at this moment is capable of providing the primary materials for the construction of millions of homes.

The future is very sunny indeed for the palm tree.

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