For people on vacation, they evoke pictures, dreams and memories of Mediterranean promenades and exotic tropical beaches and islands. To others, palm trees are far more than that: they are regarded as a valuable and vital component not only of life itself, but business and economic life too. It is said that there are more than a thousand uses for palms and their products.
For thousands of years they have provided most of the needs of humans living in the tropics. Since the early 20th century, many species have become economically important, particularly the oil palm. The products from this tree—palm oil and kernel oil—are big business, traded internationally as commodities, and vitally important to the economies of several nations, particularly in southeast Asia.
Those vacationers will be using palm oil to wash with (soap); eating it (margarine and cooking oil); lighting their dinner parties with it (candles); smoothing it on their bodies (ointments and liniments); and using products and machinery in which steel components have been manufactured with palm oil's help.
In these ways some 11 billion dollars’ worth of palm oil—17 million tonnes—are used annually. Three quarters come from southeast Asia. Other major producing areas are Nigeria and South America. The largest producers by far are Malaysia, boasting half the world's industrial demand, and Indonesia with nearly a quarter.
Cultivation is intensive. In Malaysia, almost three million hectares are under oil palm plantation—something like a tenth of the country's whole land area. And demand continues to rise.
Extra planting is one answer to this rising demand, but hectares are not limitless. Other food and cash crops need their space in the scheme of things. Tissue-cultured clonal materials can push yields to higher levels, but planters still need to optimize the yield of available acreage—and boron is often the key.
With two to six fresh fruit bunches being harvested from each tree every season (a hectare produces about four tonnes of crude palm oil a year), it is evident that successful plantations need regular inputs of nutrients to remain productive. The soils where oil palms are grown are by their nature boron deficient, and the heavy seasonal rainfall that favors palm cultivation also has the effect of leaching soluble nutrients out of the soil year after year. In addition, nutrients are depleted by the plants' own use and crop removal when the fresh fruit bunches are harvested.
Nature does her job watering the plants, but planters seeking high productivity also need to give their trees a maintenance diet. Standard NPK1 fertilizers—providing highly demanded primary nutrients—are vital. However, plants also hunger for a range of seven essential elemental micronutrients, of which boron is the most commonly needed. These micronutrients, needed in parts-per-million soil concentrations, are limiting factors: a shortage, and no amount of other added nutrients can prevent gross deficiency symptoms and major yield shortages. Boron is as important to the planter as any other nutrient input.
Better plantation management and plant husbandry have served to satisfy yield expectations, but these practices also make more boron-related demands on the palms and the land. New clonal varieties, bred for high fruiting performance require and remove more boron from the soil.
Boron works by supporting the growing tips of roots and shoots and fruiting organs; without it, plants do not develop or function properly. It is known also to be integral to cell membrane formation and function, and the fertilization process. It is strongly implicated in carbohydrate biosynthesis and calcium utilization, both important cellular processes.
In the oil palm, boron deficiency is often easily recognizable. A lengthy botanical dictionary of gross leaf and frond deformities has been documented. When boron is lacking, the signs quickly appear, but by the time these are visible it is usually too late to take remedial action for that harvest.
Once leaf deformities have been spotted, photosynthesis levels in the leaves will have fallen and the next season's crop of 'fruitlets' will be smaller, and of lower quality. Essentially, they will have suffered from malnutrition.
There is good news: Remedial boron, applied to the growing medium, allows the plantation to revert to normal for the next fruiting season. Boron deficiency can also reduce fruiting even though physical symptoms may be absent. This “hidden hunger” causes depressed yield.
A peculiarity of boron deficiency in oil palm plantations is that it might not be endemic throughout the stand. All palms might not be affected. It is not unusual for there to be many healthy, productive plants but they will be liberally interspersed with deficient specimens.
Avoiding these effects is simple and achievable during the normal fertilizer application regime. All that is needed is to include a boron maintenance or supplementation diet of 100 - 200 grams per tree annually to avoid the perils of boron deficiency. Application can be accomplished by using Fertibor®
borate for soil application or, best of all, Granubor® 2
granular borate—either alone or in conjunction with NPK granular blends. Young palm seedlings can be given a running start in the nursery with a foliar spray of Solubor®
soluble fertilizer borate.
U.S. Borax provides oil palm growers with:
Calculate your boron value in use.
- Tailored borate fertilizers to suit different growth stages and application methods
- Readily available fertilizer supplies in all planting regions through an experienced, efficient distributor network
- On-the-spot technical, agronomy, and sales support from Borax
- Quality and support from U.S. Borax, an ISO 9000 registered company