Caryota urens (solitary fishtail palm)
Across India and other Asian countries, the sap of solitary fishtail palm is fermented to produce an alcoholic drink called palm wine or toddy.
About this species
Caryota species are the only palms with bipinnate leaves (meaning they are divided into leaflets that divide a second time). The ultimate leaflets have a characteristic shape, somewhat like the tail of a fish, leading to the popular English name of fishtail palm. The specific epithet urens is Latin for 'stinging’ or ‘burning', alluding to the oxalic acid crystals in the fruits, which are skin and membrane irritants.
Solitary fishtail palm is used in several ways: the sap is fermented into an alcoholic drink or boiled down to make syrup or sugar, the inner tissue is used as sago (food starch), and the leaves produce strong fibres that are made into ropes, brushes and baskets.
Geography & Distribution
Widely distributed across India to Peninsular Malaysia, solitary fishtail palms grow in fields and rainforest clearings at up to 300 m above sea level. The exact origin of Caryota urens is uncertain, and populations outside India and Sri Lanka may be the result of early human introduction.
Flowering branches of Caryota urens (solitary fishtail palm)
Overview: A solitary-trunked palm, growing up to 12–20 m tall. The grey trunk is covered with widely-spaced leaf-scar rings.
Leaves: The leaves are bipinnate (divided into leaflets that divide again) with a terminal leaflet. They are bright to deep green, up to 3.5 m long and held on 60 cm long petioles (leaf stalks). Each leaflet is about 30 cm long with one pointed edge and one jagged edge.
Flowers: These palms only flower once in their lifetime and die after flowering. Unusually, flowering begins at the top of the trunk and proceeds downwards, sometimes for several years. The 3 m long inflorescences emerge at each leaf node, from top to bottom, producing pendent clusters of white, unisexual flowers. Flowers remain open on each inflorescence for about six weeks.
Fruits: The fruit matures to a round, red drupe (fruit with an outer fleshy part that surrounds a hard shell with a seed inside) about 1 cm wide and containing a single seed. Seeds are dispersed by animals such as fruit bats and palm civets. In Sri Lanka, fruits are eaten by polecats (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus hermaphroditus).
Threats & Conservation
The major threat to solitary fishtail palm is disturbance, such as that resulting from logging and forest clearance for shifting cultivation. Overuse of solitary fishtail palm by humans has severely affected the process of natural regeneration, and in some parts of its distribution mature individuals are rarely seen. However, this palm is cultivated widely throughout its range on account of its usefulness.
Conservation assessments carried out at Kew
Caryota urens is being monitored as part of the IUCN Sampled Red List Index for Plants, which aims to produce conservation assessments for a representative sample of the world’s plant species. This information will then be used to monitor trends in extinction risk and help focus conservation efforts where they are needed most.
Three metre long flowering branches of Caryota urens in Kew's Palm House
Solitary fishtail palm is cultivated both for its products and as an ornamental. The trunk yields starch (sago), which is eaten in times of famine. Sap is tapped from the inflorescence and then fermented into an alcoholic drink (palm wine or toddy) or boiled down to make syrup or sugar (jaggery).
The stem apex (palm heart or palm cabbage) can be eaten when cooked. Seeds are sometimes chewed like the areca nut (the fruits of Areca catechu).
The leaves produce strong fibres that are made into ropes, brushes and baskets. Kittal fibre (obtained from the fibrous vascular bundles of the leaf) is exported from Sri Lanka. The wood is also noted for its attractive appearance and strength.
This species at Kew
Marianne North painting 670: The talipot palm in flower and fruit, and wine palm in flower at Buitenzorg, Java
Caryota urens (and several other species of Caryota) can be seen growing in the Palm House at Kew.
Dried and alcohol-preserved specimens of Caryota urens are held in Kew’s Herbarium, where they are available to researchers by appointment. The details of some of these can be seen online in the Herbarium Catalogue.
Specimens of solitary fishtail palm fibre, bark, seeds, wood, rope, starch, and sago, and a carved elephant made from the wood, are held in Kew’s Economic Botany Collection, where they are available to researchers by appointment.
The botanical artist Marianne North depicted Caryota urens in her painting The Talipot Palm in Flower and Fruit, and Wine Palm in flower at Buitenzorg, Java, which can be seen in the Marianne North Gallery.
Uncovering the evolutionary history of palms
Molecular phylogenetic research at Kew has shown that the extraordinary bipinnate-leaved palm genus Caryota, and its relatives Wallichia and Arenga, are embedded within the fan-leaved palm subfamily Coryphoideae and are not part of subfamily Arecoideae as previously believed.
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