A favorite palm along the Tropics Trail is the Clustered Fishtail palm, also known as Caryota mitis, a native tree of Southeast Asia. When looking at the palm, it’s easy to see where the name comes from as the bi-pinnate leaflets do indeed look like fish tails! These trees are located along the early parts of the trail, especially around Gibbon Island and near the tree kangaroo exhibit.
As the name implies the Clustered Fishtail palms grow in clusters of many individual stems and leaves. This palm can reach 25′ tall and is often topped by leaves that can easily reach 9′ long, making a dramatic statement in the landscape. In our building, we usually see one dominant stem that grows taller than the others and when it reaches its full height, it begins to flower. This flowering is very unique as the flowering begins at the top of the tree and continues down the tree until it produces a flower at the very base of the tree at which time the palm dies. Quite soon afterwards this stem will fall over and one of the other stems in the cluster will begin to grow taller and start the process over again.
In addition to the odd flowering habits, the individual flowers are very interesting. In many trees, the ‘mop-like’ seed heads are visible, often bearing the ripe or ripening seeds of the palm. Before the fruits ripen, they bloom along long flowering stems. These flowers along the inflorescence are arranged in groups of three. One female flower is located in the center with two male flowers located one on each side of the female. There are hundreds of these groups along the many long flowering stems of the palm and while each flower only lasts one day, the amount of pollen they produce is amazing! It often turns the railings or pathway yellow, if the flower is over the pathway. As the fruits ripen they turn red, or purple or black and are about size of a nickel.
In the wild, Fishtail palm fruits are food for many animals including macaques, wild boar and many birds, but it is not good for people! Small crystals in the fruit can cause skin irritation, but doesn’t appear to bother the animals who find this fruit to be tasty and abundant.
So the next time you’re walking through the Tropics Trail, take a look around and see if you can find one of our Clustered Fishtail palms. Learn more about all of the amazing plants along the Tropics Trail on our upcoming Horticulture Tours!