1. Family: Arecaceae Bercht. & J.Presl
    1. Genus: Caryota L.
      1. Caryota urens L.

        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.

    [KSP]

    Kew Species Profiles

    General Description
    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 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.

    Species Profile
    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).

    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.

    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.

    Distribution
    India, Malaysia
    Ecology
    Rainforest clearings.
    Conservation
    Least Concern (LC) according to IUCN Red List criteria.
    Hazards

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

    [KSP]
    Use
    Food, beverage, fibre, timber, ornamental.

    Images

    Distribution

    Found In:

    India, Sri Lanka

    Introduced Into:

    Andaman Is., Assam, Bangladesh, China South-Central, China Southeast, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Malaya, Myanmar, Nepal, Ogasawara-shoto, Puerto Rico, Trinidad-Tobago

    Common Names

    English
    Solitary fishtail palm

    Caryota urens L. appears in other Kew resources:

    Date Identified Reference Herbarium Specimen Type Status
    Ridley [3513], Singapore K000462351
    Ridley [3513], Singapore K000462352
    illegible [1714] K000462353
    48358.000
    Venugopal, N. [15887], India K000209312
    Hooker [s.n.], India K000209313
    Hooker [2220], India K000209314
    Hooker [872], India K000209315
    Ritchie [753], India K000209316
    Hooker [s.n.], India K000209317
    Hooker [s.n.], India K000209318
    illegible [5021], India K000209319
    Cooke, A. [163], India K000209320
    Hooker [s.n.], India K000209321
    Hooker [s.n.], India K000209322
    Gamble [1971A], India K000209323
    Hooker [s.n.], India K000209324
    Hooker [s.n.], India K000209325
    Gamble [2429B], Bangladesh K000209326
    Parry, N.E. [590], India K000209327
    Parry, N.E. [590], India K000209328
    Parry, N.E. [830], India K000209329
    Lace, J.H. [2882], Myanmar K000209330
    Lace, J.H. [2882], Myanmar K000209331
    Gamble [6763A], Bangladesh K000209332
    illegible [s.n.], India K000209333
    29047.527
    Nanayauasami [spelling?] [90], India K000209334
    Lurkington, A.W. [s.n.], India K000209335
    Gamble [16015], India K000209336
    Wight [2766], India K000209337
    Gamble [10779], India K000209338
    Grierson [3975], Bhutan K000209339
    de Zoysa, N. [65], Sri Lanka K000209340
    Saldanha, C.J. [14428], India K000209341
    Poilane [P1003], Vietnam K000209354
    Clemens [3260], Vietnam K000209355
    Cuming [915], Philippines K000209359
    Cuming [915], Philippines K000209360
    Cuming [915], Philippines K000209361
    Wallis [s.n.], Philippines K000209362
    unknown [Acc. No.543-59.54301] K000209363
    Cultivated [Acc. No.1993-3523] K000209364
    Alston, A.H.G. [s.n.], Sri Lanka K000209365
    Rutherford, S. [R190], Sri Lanka K000209366
    Nur [s.n.], Singapore K000209367

    First published in Sp. Pl.: 1189 (1753)

    Accepted in:

    • [1] (2016) Phytotaxa 250: 1-431
    • [2] (2012) Smithsonian Contributions to Botany 98: 1-1192
    • [5] Henderson, A. (2009) Palms of Southern Asia . Princeton university press, Princeton and Oxford
    • [9] (2008) Journal of Economic and Taxonomic Botany 32: 403-500
    • [10] Govaerts, R. & Dransfield, J. (2005) World Checklist of Palms . The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
    • [11] (2001) Monographs in Systematic Botany from the Missouri Botanical Garden 85: i-xlii, 1-2666
    • [12] Govaerts, R. (1999) World Checklist of Seed Plants 3(1, 2a & 2b): 1-1532. MIM, Deurne

    Literature

    • [3] World Checklist of Selected Plant Families (2010). Caryota urens. The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
    • [4] 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.
    • [6] Henderson, A. (2009). Palms of Southern Asia. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
    • [7] Loftus, C. (2009). Caryota urens. Assessment using IUCN Categories and Criteria 3.1 (IUCN 2001). Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
    • [8] Orwa, C., Mutua, A., Kindt, R., Jamnadass, R. & Simons, A. (2009). Agroforestree Database: a Tree Reference and Selection Guide, version 4.0.
    • [13] Whitmore, T. C. (1998). Palms of Malaya. White Lotus Co. Ltd, Bangkok.
    • [14] Rai, T. & Rai, L. (1994). Trees of the Sikkim Himalaya. Indus Publishing, New Delhi.
    • [15] De Zoysa, N. (1992). Tapping patterns of the kitul palm ( Caryota urens) in the Sinharaja area, Sri Lanka. Principes 36: 28–33.

    Sources

    Kew Names and Taxonomic Backbone
    The International Plant Names Index and World Checkist of Selected Plant Families (2017). Published on the internet at http://www.ipni.org and http://apps.kew.org/wcsp
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    Kew Species Profiles
    Kew Species Profiles
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    Palmweb - Palms of the World Online
    Palmweb 2011. Palmweb: Palms of the World Online. Published on the internet http://www.palmweb.org. Accessed on 21/04/2013
    [E] Content licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0