The Traditional Uses of The Canary Island Date Palm

The Traditional Uses of The Canary Island Date Palm


Macarena Murcia Suárez – Fedac.

Society is witnessing the gradual disappearance of the functions and traditional uses that characterized the socio-economical past that existed as a result of its loss of functionality. This fact leads inevitably to the total disappearance of the material and immaterial technology and culture associated with their functions (production processes, tools, products, terminology, etc). This situation, from an anthropological, historical and scientific point of view, gets worse if we take into account the scarcity of documentation on any aspect related to these activities and may make it virtually impossible in the near future to understand the role craftsmanship played in the traditional society; as well as the meaning of the various objects and parts which form a part of our ethnographic museums today.

The traditional trades are activities that have resulted from a specific society and economy, its production was meant to cover precise necessities demanded by certain sectors of the population. The gradual disappearance of some of these sectors or their transformation has reduced the demand and therefore went towards decadence until it eventually disappeared.

The traditional trades are part of the ethnographic heritage and part of our cultural heritage accumulated throughout centuries of traditions and inheritances from generation to generation. The real culture of a town, their material and immaterial benefits are not only traces of previous lifestyles that should be maintained as ethnographic heritage in order to remain in the collective memory, but they are also elements that have allowed the construction of the society´s identity. We now have a threshold separating us from those times. There are landowners about to extinguish and with them the associated knowledge and that is why we have to fix it, first of all, to avoid the disappearance of these trades and then we have to revitalize them beyond the limits of viability. Until a few decades ago, most of the archipelago´s population lived mainly in a ruralenvironment and their economy was based on agriculture, fishing and shepherding.

At the same time, in practically all of these areas, a series of activities of production that were not agricultural and livestock sector were carried out mainly by their own peasants, labourers or owners of small farms which provided the contingent with the necessary and indispensable self-sufficiency and use of agricultural tools, domestic furniture, etc, directly related to the rural world This type of handcraft work that we can classify as traditional (they have remained until today without suffering substantial transformations), arose mainly after the colonization of the islands. The new settlers brought from the Iberian Peninsula, as well as from other parts of Europe, their technical knowledge in stonecutting, carpentry, weaving, spinning, shoemaking, hat making, blacksmithing, brass maker, etc. Although it may seem otherwise, very few activities were inherited from the aborigines and those that were, quickly converged in a process of merging with the new practices brought by outsiders, like basket making, shoulder bag making, pottery, etc, that maintained the vernacular techniques but changed the typology of the parts because they must adapt to the necessities of the new emerging society. In time, these trades were experimenting unique changes as a result of the accommodation to the island environment and to the social and economic activities that were taking place on the island progressively diverting from their continental homonyms ( in the use of raw material, terminology, resulting products, etc).


Aider La Gomera, Juan Montesinos, Gerardo Mesa Noda y Eduardo Frqnquiz.

You can´t understand the distribution of the Canary Island Date Palm if you don´t take into account the great amount of uses that the inhabitants of the islands imported, discovered or learned. From the root to the core, the islander baptized, worked and made the most of all the resources that this plant had to offer. The variety of uses and qualities of this palm tree and the relative sophistication of these techniques make us think of a genuine culture. Miraculously, these techniques have survived in La Gomera throughout centuries since long before the conquest. These practices were common to all the islands although nowadays they have virtually disappeared altogether. Astonishingly, we can make the most of every part of the palm tree, from the trunk to the leaves, from its sap to its fruit. Its cultivation is a model of ingenious tradition; a sample of how useful these resources can be although they are scarce. The diversity of applications helps us comprehend the importance the palm tree had and still maintains.

usos_graThe Leaves or Pencas (fleshy leaf): This is one of the most valuable materials that the palm tree gives. They have been crucial for the survival of the cattle of the island because they were used as food, nowadays they are still a nutritious complement for cattle.

The folioles, stripped from the pencas, chosen and plaited, are the key element in the manufacturing of a multitude of household goods: the making of mats and screens, hat making and brooms for sweeping; in the making of “empleitas”, to make cheese or in the making of “patacones” (package for fish).





The Palm Heart: the palm hearts (core), that is, the youngest and most tender pencas located at the peak of the palm tree, are worked on and plaited to be used on Palm Sunday and other religious celebrations.

usos9_graThe “Pirgano” or “Pirguan”: It is the gravel-covered penca, that is, the stick where the folioles that form the penca are introduced. It contributes to the richness of the palm tree. One of the most common uses is the manufacturing of various types of baskets. The pirguans also played an important role in constructions related to agriculture (fences or in making vineyards) or in human constructions (in the building of roofs by holding the tiles, nailed or tied to the “ticeras”).

Its use as fuel is notable. It has also had many other uses such as: to make “juercan”, a utensil used to stir the grain when browning it in the process of making “gofio”, it consists of a pirguan with rags tied at one end; as a broom stick; or as a peculiar fishing rod (in Cuevas Blancas they hunted with a fish hook tied to the tip of the pirguan).

Many years ago, the women from Acusa (Gran Canaria) worked with the leaves from the palm tree, and in the case of the brooms, they tied the “puño” with tomisa: a rope made of the plaited palm with tender branches from the middle. Aventino uses rope and pita fibre nowadays.

1. From waist to foot
Aventino takes a piece of thread and, straightening his leg, hold one end under his right shoe and ties the other end to his waist. He places puyas on the thread that hang towards the inside of his leg.

2. Twist towards his foot
When he has covered the thread with puyas from his shoe to his thigh, he begins to twist the thread towards his foot. When he is finished he ties it tightly.

usos11_gra3. The axe
Unites He supports the puyas on the base of a tree trunk and joins the future broom by using an axe, removing the excess amount on the top.

4. The “puño”
He inserts a handful of very white palm leaves in the top to make the “puño”, he tiesit tightly. He joins the “pirgano” with the axe, like a broom stick.

The “Talahague”: base of the leaves, including the stalk, that is, the thorny side that is left after cutting the large leaves also known as pencas, it is used as firewood to toast gofio or for cooking. In places such as Tazo and Cubaba this fuel was used in the preparation of palm honey.



usos14_gra usos15_gra

It is also used to construct thorny fences to prevent animals from going from one farm to another. It has other uses because toys were made with the talahague, or lids for kegs or carafes.

“Arropon” or “Jarrapon” constitutes a tangle of brown plant fibre that forms a lining when the talahague is removed. It was normally used as an interior lining in gardens in order to maintain the humidity in the plants, it is also used for packaging bunches of bananas for exportations, washed as mattress filling and beds for animals.

usos16_gra usos17_graThe trunk: is also recovered in many applications.

Mangers and hives are made from it; virtually all of the hives on the island are made from the trunk of the palm. Its enormous resistance to the elements make it an excellent material for construction, in all of the islands it is used as a roof and it is frequent to see them as lining material in villages or as a base for retaining walls or even in the construction of boundaries.

usos18_graThe Roots: The roots got crushed taking out fibres. These fibres were twisted by hand to make ropes which were the basic element for making soles for “alpargatas” (common traditional footwear).

The “Palanqueta”: The “Palanqueta” is the peduncle of the broom of the palm tree (feminine inflorescence) and it was mainly used to make toys. The reddish, leathery, malleable bark is used to trim the baskets made of cane.

The Broom and The Stick: the broom is the feminine inflorescence and the sticks are the twigs that make it up. The broom is still used nowadays to sweep floors that are rough (pavements and roads) or as a torch at the traditional slaughtering of the pigs. The brooms from the male palm (smaller and frailer than the female ones) were used as torches in the castration of the hives.

The broom sticks were used to make small baskets and also as an instrument for punishment.

The “Tamaras” or “Tambaras” or “Gamames”: The dates from the Canary Island Date Palm are more ovoid and smallerthan those of the Date Palm, with a large stone and not much pulp. They were and still are used for feeding animals, especially the pigs. Although, they were also eaten by the inhabitants of the island when food was scarce, ripe and raw or green and boiled with salt (gamames). There are also stories that say that flour was obtained by grinding the Tamara and a mash was given to the children to eat.

usos21_graThe Sap Today, the sap is definitely the most valued resource obtained from the palm and its attainment is the most genuine example of the culture of the palm tree, a very old practice that has survived on the island and it connects with the culture of North Africa. To obtain this sap, guarapo, you do not cut the palm: it bleeds from the tip. (I don´t know how // the primitive invented // and which way he took it out // the guarapo the palm tree” (popular song)). The guarapo is used as a refreshment, not only on its own but also mixed with alcohol. In times of need and when food was short, it was used as food after mixing it with gofio and cooking it (nowadays people use honey but in the 30s and 40s, they boiled the guarapo until it thickened. In those days it was still called arropado and they used to eat it with gofio….info by José Antonio Aguilar, Taguluche, Valle Gran Rey)).

Juan Montesino Barrera
Taken from Naturaleza Canaria (published by El Día 1993)

usos22_graThe attainment of guarapo is assisted by a very sophisticated technique that reveals profound knowledge that has been accumulated for centuries, a unique technique that guarantees the survival of the palm tree. A palm tree can be suitable for guarapo at different times depending on where it is situated. It must always begin after the wet and cold periods (normally between January and March).

Oncethe palm tree has been chosen, skilfully stick some stake in to make some holes to form a sort of ladder that leads to the core. Then we must proceed with the process of removing the leaves from the tip of the core, leaving the apical meristem uncovered.

The most appropriate tool for this process is a hatchet although we use a chisel for the more delicate parts. 18 or 20 days after this process, the first reduction takes place reaching the maximum width of the wreath of leaves, leaving a soft part uncovered which is known as “the head”. Now, the palm is ready to produce guarapo.

Guarapo is the mixture of pure and elaborated sap that emanates from “the head”, it is very sweet and it has a very distinctive taste, according to some unsurpassable. The cuts made when reducing have to be inclined in order to collect the sap when it emanates. A few small channels made of cane lead down into one larger channel to make it easier to remove the container that collects the sap.

It must have the capacity to prevent losing sap overnight and it has to be ready to join with the “pencas” securing the connection with the main channel. Once this process is finished we proceed to the healing process.

The healing process consists on cutting a very thin strip from “the head” causing the sap to emanate. This cut must be very narrow; otherwise we could kill the meristem and therefore kill the palm tree. The healing process must take place after sunset, avoiding direct sun and hot winds which accelerate the process of crystallization of the sap. The sap is more abundant the first few hours and then it slows down due to its thickness.

The guarapo is collected in the first few hours of the next morning, before the heat accelerates the fermentation of the sap.

The palm normally produces about 12 litres of guarapo in the first few months with this healing process, this quantity depends on its location, its vigour and leafiness (the palm is like cattle; the fattest will give more milk, so the leafiest will give more guarapo).

The healing takes place every evening and can go on for 7months. The production decreases near summer to about 4 or 5 litres in July and August. The last month is when the healing work is reduced and this is the greatest moment of danger for the palm tree, depending on how profound the healing has been. Some people secure the palm tree, leaving the central core unhealed that has the meristem in the first half of the process (April-May).

Once the healing is over, a new core begins to form and originates a new wreath of leaves on the palm tree. In 4 or 5 years it will have grown about half a metre and it will be ready to produce this sweet nectar.

There is strangulation in the trunk which is the proof that the palm tree has given guarapo. Walking through the palm groves in Tazo or Vallehermoso it is easy to find palm trees with 5 or 6 strangle marks on their trunks which proves that they have given guarapo more than once and it has not killed them.

The transformation of the guarapo into golden syrup is another traditional process in which the peasant´s wife normally intervenes. While the men work on the land, the women put a pot of guarapo to cook slowly on fire wood. The guarapo gradually thickens and gets darker. It takes half a day to obtain one or two litres of honey from six to ten litres of guarapo.

Nowadays, the practice of guarapo has only survived in La Gomera, although there are many traces of a wider expansion in the past. Pedro Agustin del Castillo wrote in his work about the Canaries (1906), he refers to this practice in Gran Canaria, where products such as wine, vinegar, honey and sugar were obtained from guarapo. Viera and Clavijo (1866) mention the attainment of honey and fermentable sap. Many inhabitants of La Gomera still remember the various products that used to be elaborated from the guarapo.

The sophistication of this technique has led to the existence of similar practices (the date palms in Tunisia) in North Africa; it makes us think that this cultural legacy must have arrived with the first inhabitants of the archipelago. This practice has transformed in culture and has become an adequate technique to obtain a delicacy which is delicious but scarce.

The attainment of guarapo was possibly one of the first resources to be introduced on the island.

– Aider La Gomera
– Juan Montesinos
– Gerardo Mesa Noda
– Antonio Quintero Lima
– Marcos Díaz-Beltrana
– Yuri Millares
– Macarena Murcia Suárez

– Cabildo de Fuerteventura

– Eduardo Franquiz Alemán