COMMON NAMES: Adike, Areca, Betel Nut, Betel Palm, Betelnut, Fobal, Goorrecanut Palm, Gouvaka, Kamuku, Mak, Paan Supari, Pinlang, Sopari, Tambul, Tuuffel
Betel nut is a name given to the seed of the Areca catechu tree, a species of palm tree that grows in parts of the tropical Pacific, Asia, and Africa. More commonly known as betel palm or betel nut tree, it can grow to a height of 65-90 feet. Areca catechu is part of the Arecaceae family (commonly referred to as the palm family). There are over 200 genera and about 2600 species contained in the family, almost all of which grow in the tropics (Ratsch 1998, 57-58).
A. catechu is limited to growing in warm tropical or subtropical areas, but it is not known where it originated. It may have come from the Philippines or an area near there. Nearly all of the Areca catechu trees that are now cultivated for betel nuts were planted by humans. Areca catechu trees can be found growing in parts of Arabia, China, East Africa, Egypt, Fiji, Hindustan, Indochina, Indonesia, Madagascar, Malaysia, Maldive Islands, Melanesia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan. Wild Areca catechu trees can be found growing in Malabar, a region in India between the Western Ghats and Arabian Sea (Ratsch 1998, 57).
The betel palm is grown primarily for betel nuts. It can be grown in a variety of soil types. Cultivation is performed using pre-germinated seeds. The saplings must grow in the shade, as they may be killed by strong sun. The palms bear fruit when they are 10-15 years of age. A productive betel palm can provide fruit for 45-75 years. Usually only the ripe fruits are harvested. Areca catechu can be infected by various fungi, especially Ganoderma lucidum (Raghavan & Baruah 1958).
The name betel nut is misleading. Piper betle, commonly known as betel, is a plant that originated in Asia. The leaves from Piper betle are often chewed together with A. catechu nut and edible lime (also called calcium hydroxide, limbux, or slaked lime). By association, the areca nut has become known as the betel nut (Ratsch 1998, 57-58).
TRADITIONAL USES: Betel nuts have been used as a narcotic (in the true definition of the word, not the connotation it now has) 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 has yielded palaeobotanical remains of Areca catechu, Piper betel, and edible lime. As it is this combination that is still chewed today for its psychoactive properties, this find provides circumstantial evidence for the practice of betel chewing in prehistoric times. These remains are between 7,500 and 9,000 years old. If the dating is accurate, this would make betel one of the earliest known psychoactive substances to be used by humans (Raghavan & Baruah 1958).
Printed references related to betel nut chewing go back to hundreds of years before the common era. In Pali, a story dating from about 500 BCE describes a princess giving a present of betel to her lover. Somewhere around 430 BCE, Theophrastus described use of the nuts as a component of the betel morsel. Areca catechu is mentioned in Sanskrit under the name guvaka, and in Chinese texts dating from 150 BCE it was called pinlang. In Persia there were 30,000 shops that sold betel nut in the capital town during the reign of Khosrau II (King of Persia from 590 to 628). Arabs and Persians who visited the Hindustan area of India in the 8th and 9th centuries found the habit of chewing the nut deeply rooted there. Ali al-Masudi, an Arab historian who travelled through India in 916, described the chewing of betel nut as a national custom. There were even those who voluntarily ascended the funeral pyre comforted by betel nut. People who did not use betel nut were socially isolated (Voogelbreinder 2009, 87).
The custom of betel nut chewing is so common (it is estimated that between 1 in 4 and 1 in 10 people on earth are users) that raising Areca catechu trees for betel nuts is a major economic benefit to areas where they are grown for commercial purposes. In New Guinea and other parts of Melanesia betel chewing is as avidly pursued, as it is in India, mainland south-east Asia and Indonesia (Ratsch 1998, 59).
In Melanesian, A. catechu use is similar to our use of tea and coffee in the sense that it is an integral and informal part of the daily routine, although it is not without its ritualistic uses in the region. As in India and elsewhere, betel has been the inspiration for minor art forms and in Melanesia there are many finely decorated lime spatulas, lime containers and other objects incorporated into the betel chewing kit (Ratsch 1998, 59).
TRADITIONAL PREPARATION: Chewing betel nut is an important and popular cultural activity in many Asian countries. Betel nuts are also used as an offerings to Hindu deities. In India (the worlds largest consumer of betel nut), betel nuts are cut into small pieces with a special instrument. The practice of using betel nut is often called betel nut chewing but the nuts are not just placed in the mouth and chewed. They are usually dried and broken down into smaller pieces, sometimes into a powder, mixed with edible lime to aid in the absorption of their active ingredients, arecaine and arecoline. Rather than being chewed, the mixture is put between the cheek and tongue and left there, sometimes overnight (Voogelbreinder 2009, 87).
You can buy betel nuts online. They are shipped from the USA to most countries around the world. Betel nuts are legal in the USA and most other countries. When chewed, the stimulant effect can be felt almost immediately and it lasts a good 3-5 hours.
To make your own betel nut mixture, take an amount of betel nut (1/4 nut is a good place to start but use as much or little as you desire) and break it into small pieces or powder. The pieces will be chewed, so you can break them up into any size you feel comfortable with. Next, mix in about 1/8 to 1/4 gram of edible lime. Edible lime is needed to increase the amount of active ingredients that your body absorbs. Without lime you will feel very little of the potential effects of the betel nut. After mixing, place the betel/lime in the side of your mouth between the cheek and jaw, and chew it once in a while. Let the mixture remain in your mouth for an hour or longer, and swallow any saliva your mouth produces. Try not to swallow much betel nut directly, it can cause an upset stomach. When finished, spit out the remaining mixture, rather than swallow it. The maximum individual dosage is 4 g, and 8-10 g of powdered seed can be sufficient to cause lethal heart troubles, so one should be careful with dosage.
If you like the taste, you can chew betel nut alone but the stimulating effect is minimized without lime. You can sometimes find flavored betel nuts in countries that are large consumers of the drug. Add a bit of nutmeg or cloves to the betel/lime mixture to improve the taste, if you like. I sometimes combine pre-chewed bubble gum (chew it for a minute so it is wet) with a powdered betel nut and lime mixture, then chew the mixture in the same way gum is normally chewed. Tobacco chewers in India often mix betel nut with tobacco. This preparation of betel nut is commonly referred to as paan in India, where it is available everywhere.
Fermenting the fruits of A. catechu can be fermented to create an Areca wine. Leaves that have been inoculated with beer yeast for alcoholic fermentations, as well (Voogelbreinder 2009, 87).
MEDICINAL USES: In Ayurvedic medicine betel nut is used as a diuretic, digestive, anthelmintic, astringent, and cardiotonic. The nuts are used in Traditional Chinese Medicine to treat diarrhoea, low blood pressure, slow heart rate, and other intestinal troubles. The leaves of the plant are consumed in Cambodia as a tea to treat lumbago and bronchitis. They use the root for liver disease and the fruit along with opium for the treatment of intestinal troubles. A. catechu is used as an abortifacient in Malaysia, and the young shoots and flowers are eaten as food (Voogelbreinder 2009, 87).
The betel nut can cause black stained teeth and gums to those who chew it regularly, although it is excellent for maintaining a healthy digestive tract, especially in disease-ridden areas. However, it has been proposed that betel nut is a carcinogen, though this may be due to the common modern addition of tobacco products. Betel nut can also cause bronchoconstriction, and so should be avoided by asthmatics (Voogelbreinder 2009, 87).
TRADITIONAL EFFECTS: The effects of betel nuts are stimulating and can be compared to a mild amphetamine dose. There is also an appetite suppressing effect. Betel nuts have a spicy taste, and large amounts of saliva are usually produced when chewing them. Overuse of betel nuts can cause a feeling of intoxication, convulsions, diarrhea, dizziness, or vomiting. After years of daily use, long term betel chewers will eventually develop a distinctive red stain of the mouth, teeth, and gums (Voogelbreinder 2009, 87).
In addition to being consumed alone for their stimulant properties, betel nut can be used in combination with other medicines, when a more energetic experience is desired. A betel nut and psychoactive mushroom mixture is especially worth trying. When you feel the mushrooms starting to take hold, chew betel nut and lime as described above.
Raghavan, V., and H. Baruah. “Arecanut: India’s Popular Masticatory – History, Chemistry, and Utilization.” Economic Botany 12 (1958): 315–345.
Ratsch, Christian., The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and its Applications. Rochester: Park Street Press, 1998.
Voogelbreinder, Snu, Garden of Eden: The Shamanic Use of Psychoactive Flora and Fauna, and the Study of Consciousness. Snu Voogelbreinder, 2009.