Hyphaene thebaica

Doum palm


Hyphaene thebaica

(L.) Mart. 1839

pronounced: hy-FEE-nee the-BAY-kuh

(Arecaceae — the palm family)


common name: Doum palm

Hyphaene is derived from the Greek 'υφαινω (hyphaino), to weave; thebaicus is Latin for ‘from Thebes’, now called Luxor, in Egypt. The fibre from the leaves is used for weaving. The palm was sacred to the ancient Egyptians, and the seed was found in the tombs of many pharaohs, including Tutankhamun’s. The palm is an African native, widespread in the Sahel (the zone between the Sahara Desert to the north and the Sudanian Savanna), that tends to grow close to groundwater, but can also grow further away. It is found in oases and wadis, and near rivers and streams, and sometimes on rocky slopes. Trees occur on salty soils on stream banks, but don’t do well in waterlogged soil. They are specially common between latitudes 8 and 12ºN. The palm pictured has been planted in Horseshoe Bay.

The palm is dioecious, up to 20 m tall, with dichotomous branching, the trunk solitary, up to 40 cm in diameter, soon dividing into 2 branches, which may divide again to give 8 or more crowns, most of the trunk covered with leaf bases breaking up into fibres near the base of the trunk. The leaves are spirally arranged into dense crowns, with 8 – 20 leaves per crown. These leaves are fan-shaped, up to about 1.5 m long, sheathing at the base. The petiole is up to about 140 cm long, the margins brown or black with spines up to 1 cm long. The blade is about 55 – 90 cm long, costapalmately divided for more than 75% of its length, with up to 40 segments, with a single fibre between each segment.

The inflorescences are axillary, between the leaves. The male and female inflorescences are similar in general appearance, usually a little over a metre in length, branching irregularly, with 2 or 3 spikes arising from each branchlet. The female trees produce large woody fruits that stay on the tree for a considerable time. The fruits are up to about 10 by 8 cm, smooth, rectangular to cubical, with rounded edges. They are shiny brown when ripe, and each contains a single seed. The seed covering is edible, and can be pounded to form a powder, or cut in slices. The powder is usually dried, and is added to food as a flavouring agent.

The trunks and branches are occasionally used for firewood and charcoal, and sometimes the leaves as well. It is the leaves that provide the raw material used to make baskets, mats, brooms, coarse textiles, ropes, string and thatching. The roots, after being soaked for 2 or 3 days, are beaten out to obtain fibres that are used for making fishing nets.

Wood from the palms may be cut with an axe, but is difficult to saw due to its many fibres. It is often used for construction, proving supports and rafters for houses, water ducts and wheels, railway sleepers and fence posts. It is also used for making rafts. Dried bark is used to produce a black dye for leather. In Kenya, the powder made from the outer covering of the fruit is added to water, and left to ferment to make a mild alcoholic drink. In other places, the terminal meristem is tapped to make palm wine.

A medicine obtained from the roots is used to treat bilharsia, a disease caused by blood flukes. The fruit pulp is chewed to control hypertension. Charcoal made from the seed kernel is used in the treatment of sore eyes in livestock.

The seeds, often known as ‘vegetable ivory’, are used to make buttons and small carvings, and also as artificial pearls for jewellery.


Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.


Photographs taken in Horseshoe Bay 2015
Page last updated 16th January 2019