Palm Trees And Cycads From Jungle Music- Caryotas Fishtail Palms, Did You Know?


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Caryota Palm Trees

The Fishtail Palm
by Phil Bergman  



This article talks about the genus of Caryota, the Fishtail Palm.  I'll discuss the three most common species, their culture and other unique things about this genus of large palm trees.  Of note we usually have many types of Caryotas for sale at the nursery.


 Caryota species
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Caryota leaf showing "fishtail" leaflets with their chopped distal ends and bipinnate character
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Caryota urens
Caryota urens

My Experiences with Caryota Palms

Thirty-nine years ago, when I stated in palms, I was quite attracted to this genus of large tropical palms.  Although I knew they would flower and then die, that didn't matter.  I just had to have some.  So, Caryota urens became one of the first palms I ever grew.  I loved the size and design of the huge Caryota urens.  I had also heard that they grew unbelievably fast.  After purchasing my first 5 gallon, I was disappointed because it just stayed the same size the first year.  I started thinking “they’re fast for everyone else except me”.

Then, in the second year, the plant exploded.  It grew aggressively for many years and got a trunk diameter of about 16 inches.  Leaves were twelve feet long and the crown was huge.  But, after these few decades, it stayed true to its reputation.  The plant is presently in 2014 dead.  It has flowered and all the leaves have turned brown.  We are in the process of having it and a few others removed.  It lived for about 25 years. 

My largest Fishtail reached a height of 85 feet.  What a monster!  It went through its fruiting and gave off tons of black and fertile seeds.  Its fruiting flowers descended down the trunk.  Prior to any fruiting the leaves died off starting with the lowest leaf.   Remember that Caryotas are monocarpic, meaning that the fruiting trunk will die after blossoming.  If it is a single trunk Caryota species, this means that the plant will die.  Other trunks of suckering Caryotas would survive.  Below, I shall not discuss much about the taxonomy of the various species of Caryotas, but rather give some anecdotal information of interest about these great fishtail palms.


Characteristics of Caryotas

Caryotas get their "fishtail" nickname because the leaflets are jagged or "chopped" appearing at the distal end, much like the tail of a fish.  They are also a species with a bipinnate leaf.  Seedlings do not have this latter characteristic, but over time it becomes apparent.  "Bipinnate" means that the leaf has it's usual stem like other pinnate palms.  It, however, has secondary branching pinna off of the primary stem of the leaf.  Off this secondary pinna come the leaflets. The leaflets have the "fishtail" appearance. 

 There are single trunk species like Caryota urens, C. gigas, C. rumphiana, and many others.  There are suckering species like Caryota mitis.  If climate permits, almost every palm enthusiast grows one type or another of Caryota.  

The majority of Caryota are single trunk species.  Surprisingly, the one you will most often see in home improvement centers is a suckering species, Caryota mitis.  "Suckering" means that it normally produces multiple stems, new stems emerging near the base of the "mother" trunk.  This is a smaller species, reaching typically ten to twenty feet in height and having trunks about three to four inches in diameter.  It has been used as a house plant.   Most of this present article deals with the single trunk species which are more popular among palm enthusiasts.   


Bipinnate appearance of the juvenile leaflet of C. gigas
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Brown-tipping on only the exposed area of a C. urens leaflet that pierce through the shade cloth while opening.
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Caryota gigas
Caryota gigas

 C. urens fruits.  You wouldn't want to clean these without good rubber gloves.
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Caryota Seeds
Caryota flowers have both sexes so that one tree may produce large numbers of viable seeds.  When collecting seeds that have fallen, avoid direct contact of the fruit with your skin.  It’s irritating crystals will make you crawl with discomfort.  Germination can be accomplished outdoors.  With fruiting trees, it is commonplace for fallen seeds to germinate on the garden floor.  I found a good way to notice if your tree is about to flower is to watch the color and quality of the existing leaves.  The older, lower leaves on a tree that is about to blossom will suddenly turn a brownish-green and not look right.  That phenomena may continue in an ascending fashion up the trunk for several more leaves.  Then you notice the emergence of the flower.  I suspect that the tree is stealing nutrition from the old leaves to gather energy to make the blossoms.  

 Caryota urens in a domestic garden, still far from mature height
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C. urens with a large bract of fruit
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If a tree flowers, this is not a guarantee that viable seeds will form.  It takes the right timing and proximity of the male and female flowers to create fertile seeds.  As the male flowers end maturity, you might find that they create a rainstorm of flower debris below the tree.  These will carpet the ground with yellow colored flower parts.  During it’s peak, it is almost musical to hear the continual drop of flowers.  Later, when the seeds start to drop, it’s like a hailstorm at times.  Once your Caryota urens begins to flower, you have about five years of flowering before the tree will look so poor that you will want to have it removed.  Be aware that the trunk of Caryotas is very hard, and tree climbers spikes may have difficulty entering the tissue of the trunk.  Also, be aware that the blossoms are extremely heavy.

Caryota rumphiana
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  Caryota gigas
Caryota gigas



Caryota Palms Falling Over and Root Stability  
Because single trunk Fishtail Palms tend to be tall, they are subject to wind forces.  It has been known that strong wind can blow them over.  It's not common, but can occur. 
About twenty years ago I first heard about Caryotas suddenly falling over.  Then I heard more stories here and there.  I confirmed this phenomena once while  I was talking with longtime I.P.S. member Jim Specht.  He told me that one morning after a very windy storm, he went outside to find that two of his mature Caryotas had fallen over.  One hit the neighbor to the left, one hit the neighbor to the right.  Fortunately, no one was injured and there was minor damage.  I would surmise that this is the result of an extremely tall plant with relatively superficial roots.  The important thing is to be aware that it can happen.

Caryota urens in it's terminal life after blossoming.
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Caryota gigas leaf
Caryota gigas leaf
nursery plant

Growing Caryotas and Differences of the Different Species: Three Most Commonly Seen Species
Caryota urens seems to be the vertically fastest of all the Fishtail Palms.  You can go from one gallon to a fifteen gallon plant easily in two years in the greenhouse.  The latter plant can be way above the house in five years when planted out and properly maintained.  Trunk diameter is about 14 to 16 inches.  Almost all specimens attain a height of nearly fifty feet or more.  The trunk has a white, furry texture.   

Caryota gigas is a truly beautiful plant.  However, it takes more time to get the vertical height when compared to C. urens.  The beauty of it’s leaves and the dark, intriguing leaf bases are worth the wait.  Also, it seems to put on more girth before it maximizes it’s height.  Average height in CA is thirty feet. So, it's a shorter but much stouter palm with a very fat base and long, wide leaves.  By the way, Caryota gigas has been marketed in the past with such names as Caryota Thai Mountain”, “Caryota obtusa”, or “Caryota King Kong”.  From most growers, all such purchased plants are synonymous with what we now agree to call “Caryota gigas”.  However, be aware that this species may still be given a new name as the taxonomy is further studied. 

Caryota mitis is a suckering, much shorter palm.  It can have five, ten or even two dozen trunks.  The trunks are typically four to six inches thick and eventual height is ten to twenty feet.  It is much slower growing that the single trunk species.

There are many other species of Caryotas that I won't discuss here.

Cayota mitis
Caryota mitis

Caryota gigas, juvenile but still showing bipinnate leaf.
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Heights of Single Trunk Fishtail Palms
Although Caryotas are not the tallest palms in the world, many species definitely tower overhead and some may get taller than eighty feet.  As a rough estimate, figure your Caryota urens will get to fifty feet or more, Caryota gigas to thirty feet and C. mitis to fifteen feet.   Caryota rumphiana, cummingii, and no are shorter than the aforementioned species.  An interesting observation is that, when Caryota urens is grown in more tropical areas, it does not attain the height we see in Southern California.  I have seen many C. urens rapidly come to blossom in Hawaii with a height of only about twenty feet.  Also, they are not nearly as beautiful as plants grown here.  This seems to suggest that this species likes somewhat cool weather.  In terms of culture, good soil and ample nutrition  help the plants reach their predicted maximum height.  Poor culture may result in a runty plant.


Caryota urens blossom
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What Happens to the Tree When It Blossoms?
When blossoming begins, the tree does not gain height and does not put out any new leaves.  The older, lower leaves turn brown and hang downwards.  They will remain as such for years, only falling off by pruning or severe wind.  It has also been observed that large Caryotas that have been dug and moved will promptly go into premature blossom without attaining their anticipated height.  It seems that digging triggers the plant into the reproductive phase of it’s life. 

Given the fact that Caryotas typically grow so rapidly, a consumer would be ill-advised to purchase a field grown single trunk Caryota.  Smaller plants such as a 15 gallon or 24 inch box are more than adequate.  They'll be huge in no time.  A local hotel purchased about eight field dug Caryota urens a few decades ago for their entry into the hotel.  They flowered immediately and only last two years.  So, when purchasing, bigger is not better.

Caryota urens in blossom
Caryota urens in blossom

Brown-tipping on only the exposed area of a C. urens leaflet that pierce through the shade cloth while opening.
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Leaflet Tip Burning (brown color) on Fishtail Palms
Leaflet tip burning is a phenomena that you'll see on Caryotas.  It seems to be most apparent on Caryota urens but all Fishtails can show it.  It's most commonly seen in container grown plants.  It happens when plants are under-watered and in full sun.  Also, the containers (black) getting hot from sun may play a role.  It's less apparent in the garden and can usually be remedied by giving the plant extra water.  Because of this problem, I usually do not recommend growing Fishtail palms in containers.
The photo to the left shows how a beautiful C. urens leaf pierced through the shade cloth, leaving the top half with the brown-tipping and the bottom half beautiful.  This is an interesting finding, as new leaves that open into the sun don't usually burn.  A good research project would be to find the exact cause of this brown-tipping phenomena.  

Caryota rumphiana
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Caryota Cold Tolerance
Caryotas urens, ochlandra and gigas are quite easy to grow along the Coastal strip.  It appears that C. gigas will tolerate temperatures to the mid to low twenties F.  I had a customer who had severe burn at 22 degrees but the plant recovered.  C. urens and ochlandra will survive into the low twenties F. or even the upper teens.  Caryota ochlandra is very similar to C. urens but shorter, and has dark colored webbing at the leaf base and on the trunk.  Caryota no, mitis, cummingii and rumphiana are more sensitive to cold.  Caryota mitis is, at best, at 25 to 26 degree plant.  My Caryota no is presently about thirty feet tall and I'd predict it would have trouble below a freeze.  Caryota ophiopellis and zebrina seem to prefer more tropical temperatures and definitely do not tolerate freezes.  They both have interesting banding on the petiole and rachis and are worth the try if you live in a great area.

Caryota ochlondra, dark matting
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Caryota gigas leaf
Caryota gigas leaf and upper trunk

Caryota:  Water and Fertilizer
Because they are so fast growing, Caryotas do need an ample amount of water and fertilizer.  Organics are fine.  If you use a chemical fertilizer use a slow release preparation that has micro's and is formulated "for tropical plants".  You'll find most species are very easy to grow.  If you live in a hot inland area, figure you definitely have to give Fishtails lots of waters or you palm will look scrappy with brown tips.

Also, remember to give them ample room away from the foundation of your house and anticipate the shade they will create.  They are the perfect palm to give your garden an overhead canopy with it’s resulting protection from cold for other under story  species.  No other palm in our locality surpasses the speed of growth of Caryota urens. 

Life Span of a Fishtail Palm

I would estimate that the anticipated life span from germination to removal of Caryota urens to be twenty and at best twenty five years.  Fifteen years would be a short life.  Caryota gigas has a shorter life span here in California.  I'd estimate fifteen years at best before they flower.  Remember, once you see flowers on Fishtails, you still can enjoy the tree for a few more years while it's flowering.

Caryota mitis doesn't die when on stem flowers.  The other stems live perpetually until they blossom and then new suckers are formed. 

Caryota ophiopellis
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Caryota urens Trunks
The picture to the right shows a trunk with of a Caryota urens.  note the light color.  It also has a minimally furry, off white surface.  If you scratch in your initials on the trunk, they'll be there forever.  So, try to keep your trunk pristine and pretty when working around it.

Sometimes you'll see vertical cracks or fissures in the trunks as the tree and trunk get larger.  You'll note this on the picture to the right.  I think this may be a result of very rapid growth.  In any case, I have never known these to be a nidus for infection or rot.  So, don't seal them up.  Most likely it won't be anything other than a cosmetic issue.

A special comment has to be made about Caryota no.   It looks like a huge fern in the sky.  I will never forget some mature specimens I saw in Bogor Botanical Gardens in Java.  I thought I had gone to "palm heaven".  Their huge lacy leaves made the most beautiful silhouette in the sky.  If you live in a good area, please give Caryota no a try.  And, have fun with all the Caryotas.              

Vertical crack in the trunk of C. urens
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Leaf of C. gigas

Caryota no in Bogor Botanical Gardens
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Phil Bergman

Jungle Music Palms, Cycads and Tropical Plants
Nursery Location: 450 Ocean View Ave., Encinitas, CA 92024
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