Oil palm trees basically thrive in humid conditions. Temperature ranges from 22°C to 24°C (minimum) and 20°C to 33°C (maximum) are the best for the optimal growth of oil palm trees. These trees require at least 5 to 6 hours of bright sunshine daily with 2500 to 4000 mm of rainfall per year. Therefore, Southeast Asia is the most suitable places for the growth of oil palm as long hours of sunlight and adequate rainfall is available throughout the year.
Oil palm trees can grow on wide varieties of soil types. However, the best type of soil for the growth of oil palm trees is alluvial soils which are rich in organic matter. Highly saline, alkaline, sandy and water stagnation soils should be avoided in order for the healthy growth of oil palm trees.
Oil palm trees grow from the seeds. Seeds used for cultivation are picked from fruits using a depericarper. The seeds are then heated for 75 days at 40°C and then soaked in running water for 4 to 5 days to allow them to cool down. The seeds then start germinating within 10 to 12 days and are transferred to polybags filled with top soil, sand and well rotten manure. Regular watering and mulching is needed for the proper growth of the seeds. NPK fertilizer is used on the seeds before being transferred to the field. The seeds are then planted with space. The space should be left empty with regular weeding and cleaning for at least 3 years. Once the trees grow in the 3 years period, shade loving plants such as flowers, vegetables, chillies, ginger and pineapples can be planted around the trees.
The oil palm trees, which are a very common sight nowadays, were only introduced in Malaysia, then Malaya, in the early 1870’s by the British. Originating from West Africa, this tree was first planted as an ornamental plant. It wasn’t until the year 1917 when the official commercial planting took place. In 1917, oil palm trees were planted for commercial use at the Tennamaran Estate in Selangor. This was the very first step to the plantation that we now see very abundantly.
During the early 1960s, the government of Malaysia introduced to reduce the economic dependence on rubber and tin under the agricultural diversification programme. This programme urged the producers to diversity their products and produce more of other products apart from tin and rubber. During this period, the plantation for oil palm increased drastically under the government’s programme. In the later 1960s, there were many farmers and smallholders who wanted to plant oil palm but were landless. The government then introduced land settlement schemes for these farmers and smallholders in order to encourage the plantation of oil palm while helping to eradicate poverty for the farmers and smallholders.
The plantations soon began to expand to what we could see today, making palm oil one of the biggest export products of Malaysia. Today, 4.49 million hectares of Malaysian land is used for palm oil cultivation. Malaysia produces approximately 17.73 million tonnes of palm oil and 2.13 tonnes of palm kernel oil. Being one of the largest industries in Malaysia, the oil palm plantation, cultivation and palm oil as well as palm kernel oil accounts for the employment of an estimated of one million people around our country.