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Caryota mitis Lour. 1790
pronounced: kar-ee-OH-tuh MIT-iss
(Arecaceae – the palm family)
common name: Burmese Fishtail Palm
The Fishtail Palm is the only palm with leaves that are subdivided twice. The shape of its leaflets gives the palm its common name. As well as Caryota mitis, which is a clumping palm, I am told that there are specimens of Caryota urens, a similar but non-clumping species, on the island. In all the species in this genus, as well as those in the related species Arenga and Wallichia, the mature plants first begin flowering at the top of the stem. Subsequent flowering proceeds lower and lower down the stem, and, after the last flowering, the stem dies and should be removed. The clump will survive, however, and continue to produce more stems from numerous suckers growing from the base.
Caryota mitis is native to south-east Asia, where it grows as an understorey plant in tropical rainforests. Overall, the tree grows to about 9 m. The slender multiple stems of the trunk grow to about 7.5 m, and are topped with several bipinnate leaves. The light green leaflets, with a ragged edge and distinctive fishtail shape, can reach 2.7 m in length.
This palm is monoecious. The small flowers appear in threes, one female flower in between two males. The roundish fruits, a little less than 2 cm in diameter, are green at first, but turn purplish as they ripen.
The pulp of the fruits contains stinging crystals of oxalic acid, and should be handled carefully; but the round seed kernels are edible. Remember, however, that the oxalic acid crystals may not only result in severe chemical burns on the skin, but are toxic if ingested.
In India, an edible starch is extracted from the stem, and the palm heart is also eaten. Like other palms, it is also tapped for sap, which is either made into palm sugar or fermented to make toddy. The fuzz from the young leaves is used as tinder to start fires. The stems are used in construction. The leaves are used for thatching, or woven into household items. The fibres from the leaf sheath are made into rope, and the seeds used as beads.
Fishtail palms flourish in full sun to part shade, and will even do quite well in full shade. They like adequate moisture, and good drainage. Seeds take 2–6 months to germinate. The palm can also be propagated by division of clumps and by separation of suckers from the parent clump.
These palms will grow in containers, and are often used in interior plantings in commercial buildings. Because they are shallow-rooted, they need to be located in an area free from wind. It is also possible to grow them as house plants. They do, however, need quite high humidity.
Photographs taken in Nelly Bay 2010
Page last updated 16th October 2016