BY PHIL FITZPATRICK
BETEL NUT is the name given to the seed of the Areca palm. Its botanical name is Areca catechu. It grows in parts of the tropical Pacific, Asia and Africa.
Common names for the nut are adike, buai, fobal, gouvaka, kamuku, mak, paan supari, pinlang, sopari, tambul and tuuffel.
The name betel nut is misleading. Piper betle is an Asian plant whose leaves are chewed with the areca nut and lime (calcium hydroxide). It is through this association that the areca nut became known as betel nut.
It is not known where Areca catechu originated. It may have come from the Philippines or an area near there. Nearly all of the Areca catechu palms that are now cultivated for the nuts were deliberately planted, although wild palms can still be found growing in Malabar, a region in India between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea.
The palms are cultivated in parts of Arabia, China, East Africa, Egypt, Fiji, Hindustan, Indochina, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldive Islands, Melanesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Taiwan.
Cultivation is performed using pre-germinated seeds, like coconuts. The saplings need to grow in the shade because they can be killed by strong sun. The palms bear fruit when they are 10 – 15 years of age. A productive palm can provide fruit for up to 75 years. They are fairly hardy but prone to fungus infection, especially Ganoderma lucidum.
Betel nuts have been used as a drug for thousands of years. The practice is thought to have started in south-east Asia and there is archaeological evidence to support this view.
The Spirit Cave site in Thailand yielded palaeo-botanical remains of Areca catechu, lime and Piper betle that were dated between 7,500 – 9,000 years ago. This makes it one of the earliest known uses of psychoactive substances.
Betel nut also appears in the literature going back many years. Theophrastus described the nut in 430 BC. It is also mentioned in Sanskrit texts and Chinese records dating from 150 BC. In Persia there were 30,000 shops that sold betel nut in the capital during the reign of Khosrau (590 – 628).
The custom of betel nut chewing is so common that raising Areca catechu palms for betel nut is a major economic activity. It is estimated that 20% of the world’s people are users. In Papua New Guinea betel nut chewing is as widely pursued as it is in India, mainland south-east Asia and Indonesia.
The effects of chewing betel nut can be compared to a mild amphetamine dose. It also has an appetite suppressing effect. Chewing produces large amounts of saliva, hence the red splashes you see everywhere it’s used. In some parts of the world the nut is chewed with psychoactive mushrooms for a bigger hit.
Overuse of betel nut can cause a feeling of intoxication, convulsions, diarrhoea, dizziness and vomiting. Long term betel nut chewers will eventually develop permanently stained teeth and are prone to mouth cancer.
You can buy betel nut on the Internet. It is not illegal in the USA and is shipped from there around the world. In Taiwan, betel nut booths and their scantily clad female sellers line the roads.
Betel nut is a hidden but significant economic aspect of the countries in which it is grown and sold.
Prices vary considerably, especially with the dried product and ‘health’ concoctions to which it is added. In China a fake betel nut has been developed and is sold as the legitimate product.
There is a tremendous opportunity in PNG to commercialise betel nut for worldwide sale but there is also a social cost, similar to tobacco, to consider. However, as the Chinese move in on the market, it seems only a matter of time before this wider commercialisation happens.