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What is Caryota?

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  • Written By: Terrie Brockmann
  • Edited By: Melissa Wiley
  • Last Modified Date: 13 September 2016
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The caryota, or the fishtail palm, is a genus of palm trees of the family Arecaceae containing about 13 species native to parts of Asia and Australia. Many members of this family of palm trees are large, tall trees capable of reaching heights of 100 feet (30 m) and canopy widths of more than 10 to 15 feet (about 3 to 4.6 m). Generally, people call the plant the fishtail palm because the bipinnate leaf resembles the lower fin of a fish. One of the most popular caryota palms is the C. urens, which is called wine palm, toddy palm, or jaggery palm. Some growers utilize many parts of this palm and, as the name implies, might make wine or an alcoholic drink called a toddy, or jaggery, a type of sugar, from the sweet palm sap.

Most caryota palms have ringed, brown, or gray trunks that are smooth after the leaf sheaths fall off and are free of spines. Some of the palms have regularly spaced leaf scar rings marking the trunk. If something mars the soft white fuzz on the trunk of the wine palm, the mark will last for the life of the palm. Generally, the dark green, wedge-shaped leaves grow to be about 10 to 20 feet (3 to 6 m) long and about four inches (10 cm) wide.

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In the wild, the palms grow to heights of 60 to 100 feet (about 18 to 30 m). In the continental US, the plant usually achieves less than one-third of that height, and gardeners often grow some of the species in containers. C. mitis is an invasive species in some parts of the state of Florida in the US. Gardeners in tropical and subtropical regions of the world generally raise them.

Caryota palms bear flowers in the axils of the leaves in very large clusters, or flowering plumes, that resemble horses' tails. Typically the palms flower for several years. They are monocarpic, meaning the flower-bearing trunks die after flowering, and if it has a single trunk, the plant will die. The trees that have suckers coming from the trunks usually survive, but the flowering trunk dies. The stress of transplantation may cause the palm to go into the blooming stage prematurely.

Other than being a decorative garden plant, the caryota palms provide some commercial products, such as sugar, fiber, and sago. In India, people extract an edible starch from the stems, and people usually eat the palm hearts. Fuzz gathered from young leaves may become fire tinder, and mature leaves may function as roof thatching or be woven into domestic items. Many natives spin the leaf sheath fibers into rope and turn the seeds into decorative beads. Generally, very little of the palm tree goes unused.

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