Skip to main content

You are here

Facebook icon
Pinterest icon
Twitter icon

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.

Caryota urens (solitary fishtail palm) illustration

Illustration of Caryota urens (solitary fishtail palm) by Alfred Hay

Species information

Scientific name: 

Caryota urens L.

Common name: 

solitary fishtail palm, toddy palm, wine palm, jaggery palm

Conservation status: 

Least Concern (LC) according to IUCN Red List criteria.

Habitat: 

Rainforest clearings.

Key Uses: 

Food, beverage, fibre, timber, ornamental.

Known hazards: 

Fruits of all Caryota species contain oxalic acid crystals, which are skin and membrane irritants.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Lilianae
Order: 
Arecales
Family: 
Arecaceae
Genus: Caryota

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.

Genus: 
Caryota

Discover more

Flowering branches of Caryota urens

Flowering branches of Caryota urens (solitary fishtail palm)

Geography and 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.

Description

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).

Caryota urens (solitary fishtail palm) in Palm House

Three-metre-long flowering branches of Caryota urens in Kew's Palm House.

Threats and 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.

Uses

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.

Caryota urens (solitary fishtail palm) painting

'The talipot palm in flower and fruit, and wine palm in flower at Buitenzorg, Java', painting by Marianne North

This species at Kew

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.

References and credits

Baker, W. J., Savolainen, V., Asmussen-Lange, C. B., Chase, M. W., Dransfield, J., Forest, F., Harley, M. M., Uhl, N. W. & Wilkinson, M. (2009). Complete generic-level phylogenetic analyses of palms (Arecaceae) with comparisons of supertree and supermatrix approaches. Systematic Biology 58: 240–256.

De Zoysa, N. (1992). Tapping patterns of the kitul palm (Caryota urens) in the Sinharaja area, Sri Lanka. Principes 36: 28–33.

Henderson, A. (2009). Palms of Southern Asia. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

Loftus, C. (2009). Caryota urens. Assessment using IUCN Categories and Criteria 3.1 (IUCN 2001). Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 

Orwa, C., Mutua, A., Kindt, R., Jamnadass, R. & Simons, A. (2009). Agroforestree Database: a Tree Reference and Selection Guide, version 4.0Available online (accessed 10 March 2012).

Rai, T. & Rai, L. (1994). Trees of the Sikkim Himalaya. Indus Publishing, New Delhi.

Whitmore, T. C. (1998). Palms of Malaya. White Lotus Co. Ltd, Bangkok.

World Checklist of Selected Plant Families (2010). Caryota urens. The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Available online (accessed 3 March 2012).

Kew Science Editor: Malin Rivers and Patricia Malcolm
Kew contributors: William Baker, John Dransfield
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

Full website terms and conditions

Related Links

Courses at Kew

Kew offers a variety of specialist training courses in horticulture, conservation and plant science.

Students learn about plant taxonomy and identification

Why People Need Plants

A compelling book from Kew Publishing that explores the crucial role that plants play in the everyday lives of all of us.

image of book cover