The Caryota urens is a palm native to the Indian Subcontinent and Southeast Asia where they grow in fields and rainforest clearings. This palm grows up to 60+ feet high and produces large hanging clusters of flowers near the top. As these plants are monocarpic, the completion of the flower and fruiting process results in the death of the tree. They flower from the top down, and once the last fruit on the bottom inflorescence matures, the plant dies. Caryota is the only genus of palm with bipinnate leaves. Each leaflet is about 30 cm long with one pointed edge and one jagged edge, and their distinctive shape accounts for the palm’s common name, fishtail palm.
The species name urens is Latin for “stinging”, referring to the fruit of this palm, which – like all Caryota palms – contains oxalic acid, a skin and membrane irritant. Other common names for the palm refer to the products made from it: the toddy palm, wine palm, jaggery palm. Its also known as the kithul palm in Sri Lanka.
The Caryota urens leaf is used as fishing rod after trimming the branches of the leaf and drying, and the trunk is used for construction and is notable for its attractive appearance and strength. The trunk yields starch (sago), which is eaten in times of famine. 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 stem apex (palm heart or palm cabbage) can be eaten when cooked. Pulp of the fully grown up plant is cut, sun dried, powdered and is edible. This powder is considered cool and nutritious in Coastal districts of Karnataka, india. Elephants love this plant – both leaf & the pulp, as well.
These “sugar palms” can produce ten times more sap than palmyra or coconut palms and the fruits are commonly fermented into an alcoholic drink – a palm wine or toddy. In addition, the sap can be boiled down into syrup or jaggery, a coarse dark brown sugar made from the sap that is popular in India and Sri Lanka.
The treacle (uncrystallized syrup made during the sugar refining process) of this palm was highly valued by Sri Lanka’s ancient monarchy. Sap from the region near Rogesen Gama (Central Sri Lanka) is of especially high quality, so the villagers say the old kings are blessing them from their graves. Both the jaggery and the treacle are sold in local markets.
Today, these palms are used as decorative materials and in some areas it has been completely wiped out for short term gains.
There are six of this palm species thriving in the Merwin Palm Collection.
Note: Care needs to be taken handling the fruit of all Caryota speciaes, as they contain oxalic acid crystals which are a skin and membrane irritant. They cannot be eaten without being properly processed.
Want to “virtually explore” the Merwin Palm Collection? Search through our archive of Palm Facts of the Week, featuring palms hand-planted by W.S Merwin. To search through the Online Merwin Palm Database, visit this link.
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