Have you ever wondered where states like Florida and California got their tropical-looking, and exceptionally beautiful, types of fishtail palm trees?
Have you secretly wanted to know so you could purchase a few and upgrade the interior spaces of your home or backyard with a brand new, island-like aesthetic?
Well, look no further. Because the plants you’ve been wondering about are called fishtail palms. They come from the more tropical reaches of our globe, and make great plants for your backyard pool oasis, or as houseplants in your home office.
Keep on reading to learn about what makes these palm trees special, and for some specific details related to the most popular species of Caryota.
What is “Caryota”?
Caryota is a genus of large palm trees that are known for their unique foliage, which as you might assume from the title, resemble the tails of fish. Specifically, it’s the jagged or chopped ends of the leaflets that are so akin to fishtails.
The foliage of Caryota palms is bipinnate. This characteristic makes them unlike other pinnate trees, which just have a singular stem running through the leaflets. With Caryota leaves, there is a secondary pinnate stemming off the primary vein which is where the fishtail leaflets take their form.
Within the Caryota genus, there are palm species that are single trunk, and others that are others that are suckering species. Single trunk Caryotas, as the name suggests, grow from a single trunk. They tend to grow much larger, and are ideal for outdoor landscaping.
Suckering Caryotas on the other hand, grow multiple stems besides the “mother trunk”. These species are sometimes referred to as clustering Caryotas. They often grow smaller, and make for ideal houseplants.
All of the trees within the genus Caryota are monocarpic. This means that once they begin to produce fruits and blossom, they begin to slowly die. This process may take several years to complete itself. Single trunk species will blossom once and proceed to die. Clustering, or suckering species on the other hand, can continue to grow. In other words, only the stem or trunk that has blossomed will die, not the entire cluster.
In the following article, we’ll talk about specific Caryota species with the hopes of helping you decide which palm may be the best for your intended usage, and local growing conditions.
Although Caryota mitis is the most popular fishtail palm species, it is certainly not the only one. Here are some other types of these gorgeous houseplants you can grow.
1. The Australian Fishtail Palm (C. albertii)
This species of Caryota is native to tropical forests in northern Queensland, Australia. It has also been known to grow in rainforests and swamp forests in countries such as the Philippines, eastern Indonesia, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands.
It is a single trunk species of palm, and is known for growing rapidly. The gray trunk can reach heights of 20 feet, and be 18 inches in diameter. The lead crown is large and dark-colored, with bipinnate leaves that can grow anywhere from 10 to 20 feet in length. When it’s mature, the seed pendants can grow to be 6 feet in length, and boast yellow and cream-colored flowers.
2. Philippine Fishtail Palm (C. cumingii)
The Philippine Fishtail is a medium-sized, solitary trunk species. It is native to and most commonly found in the Philippines, as you might suspect from its common name. It rarely grows taller than 30 feet. It boasts a slender, gray hardwood trunk, which supports a dense feathery crow of bipinnate green leaves with attractive yellow bottoms.
Due to its smaller size, this species of Caryota is best for smaller tropical (and frost free) outdoor gardens. However, this palm tree can also successfully grow in containers which makes it a viable option for larger interiorscapes, such as office buildings and malls.
3. Himalayan Fishtail Palm (C.maxima)
The Himalayan Fishtail Palm, also known in California as the Mountain Fishtail, is a hardy single trunk species. Of the Caryota Palms, the Mountain Fishtail grows relatively quickly. With proper care and conditions, it can grow about 6.5 feet per year.
Due to its origins in the Himalayas, this variety has learned to adapt to cold temperatures, even as low as 19 degrees Fahrenheit. This quality makes the Himalayan Fishtail ideal for areas that may receive the occasional cold snap. We recommend you also heavily mulch around the tree if you suspect cold temperatures in the forecast.
4. Fishtail Palm (C. mitis)
This variety is a clustering species. At times, it can have up to 12 different trunks. The diameters of these trunks tend to be much smaller than single trunk species, about 6 to 8 inches. This species also tends to grow much slower than other single trunk palms, or even clustering species for that matter. Mature plants can grow to be 10 to 20 feet tall.
This species of Caryota, which is native to areas in Southeast Asia and China, is the most popular when it comes to houseplants and interiorscapes. Its more compact size, ability to be grown in containers, and overall adaptability makes it stand out from the rest. Plus, its large, long and bi-pinnate fishtail leaves look beautiful up close.
In countries like India, the palm hearts of this plant are cooked and eaten. The trunk is also tapped to extract sap to make palm sugar. The wood and foliage are even used in construction, and woven to make rope and other household items. The seeds are used to make beads and jewelry.
This plant grows best in USDA hardiness zones 9 and 10 so most growers will cultivate it as a houseplant. It prefers warmer weather, but also has been known to tolerate light frosts. When it comes to sunlight exposure, it prefers full sun to partial shade.
If you do want to grow this as a houseplant, it’s important to know that this species can be somewhat dangerous if consumed or handled incorrectly. The fruits are covered in calcium oxalate crystals. If handled incorrectly, or consumed, the fruit can cause:
- Burning and swelling of the lips, mouth, throat, and tongue
- Difficulty speaking and breathing
- Redness and swelling of skin and eyes
5. Dwarf Fishtail Palm (C. monostachya)
The tricky part of the Dwarf Fishtail Palm is that it is notorious for being rare, and difficult to find. But if you can get your hands on this variety, you will not be disappointed. This variety is a suckering species, meaning that it grows multiple trunks in a cluster. Because it is a dwarf variety, it only ever grows as tall as 10 feet tall. This means that it can easily spend its entire life in a single container, which is ideal for growing indoors.
The fruits of the Dwarf Fishtail form in tight, angling clusters. They start off light green, and slowly darken as they mature. The leaves are fishtail-shaped, bright green and leathery. Interestingly, they are able to grow pinnately or bi-pinnately.
6. Giant Fishtail Palm (C. obtusa/gigas)
The Giant Fishtail Palm is one of the largest and most spectacular single trunk species. In fact, the word “gigas” comes from the Greek language, and means “giant”. It is also commonly known as the Giant Black Fishtail Palm, and the Thai Mountain Giant Palm. This species of palm is native to countries like India and Laos, but most notably, Thailand.
The Giant Fishtail Palm can grow upwards of 60 feet tall. It is one of the slower-growing single trunk species. Interestingly enough, palms located closer to the coast tend to grow taller than those located more inland. When fully mature, the tall single trunks can be anywhere from 25 to 30 inches thick, and are covered with black fiber below and above the leaf crown. The unique black trunk is why it is sometimes called the Black Fishtail Palm.
The bippinate, fishtail-shaped leaves can spread upwards of 20 to 30 feet from the top of the tree. Below the leaves, the inflorescences, or seed pendants, dangle 10 to 15 feet. The fruits on these seed pendants turn from light green to reddish when they are ripe. These seeds of the Giant Fishtail Palm are covered in toxic oxalates that irritate the skin and can be harmful if swallowed.
7. Albert Palm (C. rumphiana)
The Albert Palm is native to countries such as the Philippines, Sulawesi, Maluku, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands. In places like these, it grows in lowland rainforests, on steep slopes, swamp forests, vine forests, and sometimes even mangroves. It is an evergreen, solitary-stemmed tree that can grow upwards of 50 feet tall.
The Albert Palm prefers light shade, especially when it’s younger. But as the tree matures, it can tolerate full sun. Ideally, it is grown in an area without heavy winds because the fishtail foliage can be easily damaged.
In the Philippines and Eastern Indonesia, the Albert Palm is used as a food source, especially for making sago. Sago is a starch that is extracted from the spongy pith of the palm tree. Sago is incredibly similar to tapioca pearls, or boba, that is created from the starch extracted from cassava roots.
8. Jaggery Palm (C. urens)
This species of Caryota palm tree is one of the fastest-growing single-trunk species. If you are starting it in a container, in a matter of years you can go from 1 gallon to 15 gallons. When planted outdoors and properly maintained, this plant will grow taller than your home in just about five years. That’s why many people grow it as a houseplant with heavy pruning.
When it’s fully mature, the trunk diameters of these plants range from 14 to 18 inches. Almost all mature specimens of this species can reach skyward up to 50 feet or more. The trunk has white, almost furry bark and is made of extremely hardwood. Even the likes of a chainsaw have a hard time with the Jaggery Palm’s woody exterior.
The Jaggery Palm has other common names such as the Toddy Palm, and the Fishtail Wine Palm. It grows best in USDA hardiness zones 9-12. These areas correlate closely to the plant’s native home such as Sri Lanka and India.
Interestingly enough, this species has many edible uses. The sap extracted from the seeds of the plant, also known as inflorescences, is used to make sweeteners called kitul honey, or jaggery. The young, unfolded leaves can be cooked and used as a vegetable. And the seeds can be ground down into a flower to make porridge.
This plant also has some medicinal uses. Different parts of the tree, such as the seed, bark and roots have been known to treat a wide variety of ailments, such as:
- Gastric ulcers
- Migraine headaches
- snake-bite poisoning
- Rheumatic swellings
- Tooth ailments
9. Striped Fishtail Palm (C.zebrina)
This is one of the more unique species of Caryota. It is known for its striped trunk that resembles, yes you guessed it, the patterns on a zebra. It is a solitary trunk species and the only Caryota species that grows pinnate leaves. The leaflets of the Striped Fishtail are blackish-green, leathery, and grow rather irregularly.
Unlike other palms, this variety prefers almost full shade when it is young. As it matures, it prefers partial shade. The Striped Fishtail is notorious for being very slow-growing and difficult to cultivate which is why it’s most often seen growing only in its natural habitat.
Palms – The Key to Your Indoor Tropical Oasis
If you have been wanting to create a tropical oasis in your home, or around the exterior spaces of your garden, Caryota is what you are looking for.
With the right conditions, and the proper care, you can grow larger, single trunk species outdoors, or smaller, clustering species indoors in containers.
Plus, with the information from above, you should be off to a good start in deciding which species of Caryota will be best for your intended usage and local environment.
*image by sweemingyoung/depositphotos