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Buriti (Mauritia vinifera, Mart.), a plant from the palm family also known as meriti, muriti, muruti, coqueiro-buriti, boriti, carandá-guaçu or carandaí-guaçu, is one of the largest palm trees in Brazil, reaching up to thirty-five metres in height. The indigenous people gave it the name mbiriti, which in Tupi-Guarani means “tree that emits liquid”, “that which contains water”, or “tree of life”. The buriti grows in marshy and wet terrain, swampy or permanently flooded areas. For this reason, it is also called the “palm of the swamps”.
These palms grow in almost homogeneous groupings, known as “Buriti clusters”. A single tree produces up to about three tons of fruit that is eaten by many wild animals. The buriti is found from the Amazon to São Paulo, particularly abundant in North – Pará and Amazonas – and Northeast Brazil – Maranhão, Piauí and Ceará. It has large leaves forming a beautiful canopy, yellow flowers, a trunk diameter of between 30 and 50 cm, branches from 2 to 3m in length, and fruit covered with glossy and reddish scales. The tree bears fruit from December to June. About thirty-five of the (oval-shaped) fruit weighs a kilo, and they are covered with a yellow pulp.
Buriti wood is hard, heavy, and has a low durability, being used in rural buildings and shacks on the riverbanks, and making pillars and columns for houses and corrals. Cracked in half, the buriti trunk is used for building gutters. Landscapers often use it to beautify gardens as an ornamental plant. The palm tree is also a source of inspiration to poets, writers, musicians and artists in general.
Foreign naturalists have included the buriti as one of the “trees of life” because it meets most of the needs of the human being. Practically all of it can be used. The leaves, composed of very resistant fibres, are used to cover houses; from incisions in its flower stalks, a sweet and pink liquid can be extracted that, when fermented, becomes buriti wine; its trunk’s pith provides a starch called ipurana that resembles sago; from its terminal bud, it is possible to remove a delicious palm heart; and the yellow pulp of fruits – rather sugary, fleshy and oily – is used in the manufacture of sweets, juices, liqueurs and desserts. It should be noted that the buriti sweet is very tasty and is widely consumed in the states of Pará, Maranhão, Ceará and Piauí. Some of the substances extracted from the buriti also provide flavour, colour and quality to various beauty products such as creams, shampoos, sunscreens and soaps.
Its kernels have a very fine oil, reddish in colour, used in food. This oil has medicinal value and is used as an anthelmintic, analgesic, for healing and natural energy. It is used also for varnishing hides and skins.
When the fruits fall into streams, they are carried by the currents, which is how the species is disseminated. The agoutis, tapirs, capybaras and macaws that feed on them assist in dispersing the seeds. Equivalent or superior to the vitamins found in avocado, banana and guava, buriti fruits are rich in vitamins (A, B and C) and contain calcium, iron and proteins. The mixture of pulp and peel obtained by scraping them with spoons produces puquêcas – oblong shaped portions wrapped in murumuru (Astrocaryum murumuru Mart.) leaves – weighing about 1.5kg. It takes about one hundred fruits to make a puquêca. In recent years, more people have taken up producing puquêcas in order to supplement their household income.
According to researchers from the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) and the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), the buriti is a one of the best sources of pro-vitamin A in the country’s biodiversity. Studies were performed on buriti sweet with children who had been diagnosed with Vitamin A deficiency (which can lead to loss of vision). It was concluded that a dietary supplement of twelve grams of the sweet per day for twenty days proved to be sufficient to recover the normal rates of vitamin A in the children. And even though the level of pro-vitamin A in Buriti is not extremely high, it seems that the positive influence of the lipid composition of the fruit (preserved as a sweet) enabled better use of pro-vitamin A carotenoids in the body.
Many examples of Northeast handicrafts are produced from buriti straw, taken from old leaves. The hardest stalks are used to make baskets and broomsticks; the thicker strips are used in the manufacture of carpets and mats; and from the finest are made bags, screens, mobiles, tablecloths, toys, jewellery, hats and ropes, as well as pieces in crochet, macramé and ponto batido (manual weaving used in the manufacture of hammocks). In several municipalities of Maranhão, such as Barreirinhas and Tutóia, artisans use its straw in their work. The young leaves produce a very fine fibre, called buriti “silk”, with which the artisans make beautiful pieces. The stems of the leaves are utilised to make furniture that in addition to being light, are sturdy and beautiful. And buriti roots have medicinal qualities.
Buriti oil, rich in fatty acids, is known for its great capacity for cell renewal, functioning as an excellent natural exfoliant, removing dead cells and providing vitality to people’s skin, making it soft and silky. It is also widely used in after-sun products.
Research conducted by the University of Brasilia (UnB) and the Federal University of Pará (UFPA) proved that an oil can be extracted from the pulp and the rind of the fruit that, when mixed with polymers, turns into a plastic capable of absorbing parts of solar radiation, including ultraviolet rays. In other words, this oil is a natural sunscreen. It also has the optical properties required for manufacturing light emitting diodes (LEDs) used in computers, mobile phones and lights. The new photoluminescent plastic is a cheaper alternative to existing LEDs on the market, which are made of inorganic substances such as silicon crystals that make the process more expensive. Moreover, upon being discarded, plastic takes from two hundred to four hundred and fifty years to decompose in nature. It is still early to estimate how long this new material will need to decompose; however, there are strong indications that it will do so in less time than the pure polymer.
During the construction of Brasilia, the buriti palm was chosen as a symbol of the city. In 1959, inspired by the poem “Um buriti perdido” [A Lost Buriti] by Afonso Arinos, the engineer Israel Pinheiro determined that a sapling of the tree be planted in front of the future offices of the Federal District. The sapling died, but there was a second attempt in 1969, and this time the palm tree grew. Praça do Buriti [Buriti Plaza] was inaugurated at the location, and the tree was protected in 1985.
Below is a recipe for buriti sweet, so that readers can indulge in the exotic dish.
Buriti Sweet Recipe
Ingredients: 1 kg buriti pulp, 500 g sugar, 2 cinnamon sticks, 1 level tablespoon butter.
Method: Mix the buriti pulp, sugar, cinnamon and butter. Heat, stirring constantly, until it has a creamy consistency.
Recife, 26 April 2009.
Translated by Peter Leamy, July 2016.
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