All About Palm Trees: A Photographic and Botanical Appreciation

Updated on May 29, 2017
Will Apse profile image

The author is a biologist who worked in conservation, aquatic biology, and woodland management over many years.

Source

I studied Life Sciences at college in the UK but graduated without ever learning anything about palm trees. I worked in the conservation of ancient woodlands on the outskirts of London for several years and still learned nothing about palm trees!

It is only since becoming a regular visitor to Southeast Asia that I have had the opportunity of photographing and studying these wonderful trees.

So, here is all I have learned about palm trees after visiting the beaches, forests, islands, estuaries and farmlands of South East Asia.

What Makes a Palm Tree, a Palm Tree?

Palm trees are angiosperms, which means flowering plants. They are monocots which means their seeds produce a single, leaf-like cotyledon when they sprout. This makes palms closely related to grasses and bamboos.

Grasses and bamboos are monocot relatives of palms trees
Grasses and bamboos are monocot relatives of palms trees

Palms can grow very fast. A Fish Tail Palm can grow to 10 meters (thirty feet) in as little as six years when conditions are optimal.

One reason that palms grow fast is that they invest less energy in defending themselves against insect damage than deciduous trees. They can still have tough outer layers, though, and some have dense 'woody' trunks.

Are Palms Really Trees?

Many botanists refuse to see palm trees as true trees because they lack the characteristics of secondary growth.

Secondary growth simply means the steady outward growth of a deciduous tree trunk or branch which gives rise to annual tree rings.

Any gardener is happy to call a tall palm, a tree, but some palms are not even remotely tree-like. Some fit the definition of shrub much better. Some, like Rattan species climb like lianas.

Where did Palm Trees Come From?

A fossilized palm from the US.
A fossilized palm from the US.

Palms are one of the most successful early monocots.

They appeared around 80 million years ago and spread right across the world. Competition from more modern trees has eliminated palms from many of the niches that they once occupied but they are still common in warmer climates.

This early arrival, in evolutionary terms, has given palm trees plenty of time to develop very complex lifestyles. The reproductive strategies of palms often include close relationships with particular kinds of insects, some of which are described below,

Palms also developed into very large trees and are the biggest monocots that have ever been. The Wax Palm, common in the Andes, can stand 60 meters (two hundred feet) tall.

The tallest palm tree, the Wax Palm.
The tallest palm tree, the Wax Palm. | Source

The Botanical Classification of Palm Trees:

  • Kingdom:Plantae
  • Angiosperms
  • Monocots
  • Commelinids
  • Order:Arecales

Palm Tree Leaves

Palm leaves are evergreen and range from small to gigantic (check out the pictures below). The leaves are palmate, alternate or (in rare cases) spiral.

Palmate palm leaves
Palmate palm leaves | Source
Alternate palm leaf. Leaves alternating along a palm frond. They can be thick (foreground) or delicate (behind).
Alternate palm leaf. Leaves alternating along a palm frond. They can be thick (foreground) or delicate (behind). | Source

If you are trying to identify a palm tree, leaf shape is the first place to start.

Stems/Trunks

Palms grow like grasses, with sheathes that wrap around the stems or trunks then give rise to a leaf.

The successive leaf sheaths are very noticeable, as you can see in the pictures below.

When a leaf dies, it leaves a distinctive band (called an excision band) behind.

Typical stems of a Golden Palm
Typical stems of a Golden Palm | Source

Spines

Spines on stems, trunks and even leaves are sometimes present and deter grazing animals.

They can also be a nightmare for gardeners.

Palm tree spines
Palm tree spines

Palm Flowers and Fruits

Reproduction in palm trees is complicated. Usually, though, there are small male and female flowers, sometimes on the same individual (hermaphrodite) plant, more often on separate male and female plants.

The flowers are often tiny but the structures (rachillae) that bear the flowers are usually big and obvious. There are some pictures of rachillae below,

Some palms shed pollen that is blown to female plants in the wind. Most palms are pollinated by insects.

The majority of palm fruits are inedible but some palms bear important food crops like dates and coconuts.

An Example of Reproduction in Palm Trees

The photo below shows flowers and fruit in various stages of ripening.

Large yellow flowers, young green fruit and mature fruit on a female palm plant.
Large yellow flowers, young green fruit and mature fruit on a female palm plant. | Source
A row of young Bismarck Palms in Thailand. Leaves become more silvery as the plant grows.
A row of young Bismarck Palms in Thailand. Leaves become more silvery as the plant grows. | Source

The Bismarck Palm: Bismarckia nobilis

This palm is a big, showy shrub that is a favorite in parks and garden around the world.

Below is a series of photos showing some of the stages in reproduction and fruit formation.

A beautiful crimson rachilla on this amazing fan palm (over a meter long!)
A beautiful crimson rachilla on this amazing fan palm (over a meter long!) | Source
Florets (small flowers) on a male rachilla
Florets (small flowers) on a male rachilla | Source

Invisible Bees

The flowers in the picture above were surrounded by hundreds of tiny bees. I could see them with the naked eye, but I didn't manage to catch them on camera!

It is these kinds of creature that are so important for the pollination of the majority of palm trees.

Young fruit of the Bismark Palm
Young fruit of the Bismark Palm | Source
Older fruit, right. with young female rachilla in the center of the picture
Older fruit, right. with young female rachilla in the center of the picture | Source

Six Months for the Fruit to Ripen

The fruit of the Bismark Palm is not edible for humans, although a lot of fruit bats lived among the palms that I photographed. Were they eating the fruit or just sheltering beneath those broad cool leaves?

The ripening process is very slow and it takes at least six months before seeds can be taken and used to plant out.

Other Notable Ornamental Palms

Some Ornamental Palms
Some Ornamental Palms
Young Lipstick Palm outside Temple in Thailand
Young Lipstick Palm outside Temple in Thailand

Edible Palm Products

Date Palms

Clusters of dates
Clusters of dates
Dried dates
Dried dates | Source

Dates have been cultivated in the Middle East for thousands of years and receive mention in the Bible. They probably originated in the regions around the Persian Gulf but are now grown in places as far away as China, Pakistan, Australia and the US.

The fruit has a high sugar content at around 60 per cent of dried weight but also numerous vitamins and trace elements.

Yields can be impressive in the right conditions. The variety 'Deglet Noor', growing in California can deliver up to 7 tons of dates per acre in a year!

They can be eaten as they are. or cooked in deserts, candy bars and even used in ice-creams.

Young date leaves can also be eaten and sap can be drawn from the trunk to produce a sugary liquid. This ferments into alcohol quickly.

Date palms require dry conditions and like heavy loam soils.

The scientific name of the date palm is Phoenix dactylifera.

Coconut Palm with Buddhist Stupa behind
Coconut Palm with Buddhist Stupa behind
Coconut section
Coconut section

Coconut Palm: Cocos nucifera

The Coconut Palm likes warm, humid conditions, sandy soil and can tolerate salt. Since the coconut floats and can survive in sea water for long periods it has been able to spread naturally across vast distances of ocean and is often found on tropical beaches.

Human beings, valuing the many products of the Coconut Palm, have also helped in its spread.

Uses:

  • Young coconuts are harvested for coconut milk, a tasty and nutritious liquid that is part of the food store (endosperm) of the seed.
  • Older coconuts have a thick layer of solid endosperm called coconut meat. This is used in cooking and the production of many biscuits, deserts and candy bars. Oil can also be extracted for food and beauty products.
  • The fibrous 'coir' has many uses including making mattresses, brushes and matting.

Coconuts have been around a long time. The oldest fossils date from 37 to 55 million years ago

Coconuts in various stages of development
Coconuts in various stages of development

Oil Palms

Oil Palms can be huge, up to 60 feet (20 m) in height. They produce clusters of dark red fruit that mature in about six months from pollination. Each cluster can weigh as much as 120 lbs.

Both the seeds and the flesh of the fruit are rich in oil. Some is used in cooking, some in beauty products and a great deal is used as a biodiesel helping to power cars, ships and heating systems.

Oil palms are grown in huge numbers in South East Asia, often in areas that have been cleared of tropical rain forest. The damage to tropical environments has made this palm especially controversial.

Prepared Betel nut in a Chinese market. Dried Areca palm fruit is wrapped in betel leaf.
Prepared Betel nut in a Chinese market. Dried Areca palm fruit is wrapped in betel leaf.

Areca Palm- the 'Betel Nut Palm'


The fruit of the Areca palm has been collected, dried and chewed with betel leaves for thousands of year across Asia.

It has a mild stimulant effect and is used on certain ceremonial occasions. In Vietnam, for example, Betel Nut is chewed when parents of a potential bride and groom meet to discuss marriage arrangements.

Despite this, and similar customs across Asia, the habit of chewing Betel Nut is gradually dying out, mainly as a result of the arrival of coffee and cigarettes. It is usually only the older generation who still use the preparation.

Like cigarettes, Betel Nut is carcinogenic but is apparently less addictive.

The tall straight trunk of an Areca (Betel nut) palm.
The tall straight trunk of an Areca (Betel nut) palm.
Mature betal nut fruit
Mature betal nut fruit
A fallen fruit
A fallen fruit

Other Commercially Important Palms


  • Ivory nuts
  • Carnauba wax
  • Rattan cane
  • Raffia

Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        Freddy 7 days ago

        Do you know if a OIL PALM tree could grow in FLORIDA? I was thinking that it might help solve the environmental problems in Malaysia and Indonesia.

      • Will Apse profile image
        Author

        Will Apse 8 months ago

        @Emmabs17

        Would that be a cane to helps you walk or a cane that walks by itself?

      • profile image

        Emmabs17@icloud.com 8 months ago

        I'm trying to find out about how to make a walking cane from what looks like a fruiting branch of a palm tree! Help!!!

      • Will Apse profile image
        Author

        Will Apse 8 months ago

        @Eliza Holliday

        There is a well known oddity called the Walking Palm (Socratea exorrhiza) that is known to 'move'. Some people have suggested these trees deliberately move towards sunlight on their stilt-like roots. A more plausible explanation is this: a tree is knocked over by another tree falling, new roots grow from the stem of the flattened tree and these roots gradually right the trunk. In this process, the trunk is actually relocated. There is a discussion here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socratea_exorrhiza

        These trees are common in Central and South American.

      • profile image

        Eliza Holliday 8 months ago

        I have two large palm trees outside my window in Cholula Mexico. I'm fascinated by the way they move: they seem to be moving from the base. I looked that up on the internet and found nothing about that particular thing, just that the fronds close up in a hurricane to keep the tree from falling over and a comment about their unique root system. How does the TRUNK of a tree MOVE FROM IT'S BASE?

      • Will Apse profile image
        Author

        Will Apse 3 years ago

        Trees are definitely good for people. I'm very pleased that people have enjoyed this small contribution!

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 3 years ago from Houston, Texas

        We have various types of palm trees that grow in the Houston area. This is a wonderfully written and photographed hub. It certainly deserved your HOTD award. Congrats! I have never seen a lipstick palm and it is easy to understand after looking at it why it was so named. Very pretty! Up votes and will pin to my trees board and also share.

      • abrodech profile image

        Anya Brodech 3 years ago from 130 Linden St, Oakland, California, 94607

        Cool pictures and I didn't know that dates came from palm trees, fun to know! Thanks for sharing!

        Anya

      • Blond Logic profile image

        Mary Wickison 3 years ago from Brazil

        Congratulations on your HOTD. I live in Brazil on a small coconut plantation. We raise drinking coconuts, the type you see for sale at beach bars. We also have taller coconut trees which we use for the meat.

        They are fascinating trees. As you can imagine, we have several types here in Brazil. The Carnauba is also grown here commercially.

        It always astounds we that heavily laden trees don't blow over. They sway quite a bit.

      • mary615 profile image

        Mary Hyatt 3 years ago from Florida

        What a wonderful Hub, and I'm happy it was chosen as a HOTD. Your photos are outstanding!

        I live in S. Florida and many of these Palms are very familiar to me. The Ereca grows wild in our woods, and is sought after by those of another culture who harvest the seeds. I'm not sure exactly what they use the seeds for, but I am told they are used to increase the libido .

        Sometimes our coconut palms will be full of coconuts just ready to harvest. If there is an expected hurricane, you'll see lots of folks out trying to shake them of the trees so they won't do damage when they are shaken ( or blown) off the tree

        Voted this UP, etc. and shared.

      • RTalloni profile image

        RTalloni 3 years ago from the short journey

        Congrats on your Hub of the Day award for this interesting post with delightful pictures. I enjoyed the learning experience and you've made me want to do some drawing for the lights and shadows as well as the lines and colors of palm trees are always intriguing and inspiring.

      • RoadMonkey profile image

        RoadMonkey 3 years ago

        That was very interesting, I didn't know all that about Palms at all. Some palms grow here in Northern Ireland, but no dates or coconuts on them.

      • Will Apse profile image
        Author

        Will Apse 3 years ago

        Many thx, all.

        It is an odd page for HOTD since it really is rather personal, just my way of getting to know the trees in my new part of the world. Not many people come from the SERP's!

        Anyway, thanks again and throw a coin in the hat on your way out...

      • CatherineGiordano profile image

        Catherine Giordano 3 years ago from Orlando Florida

        Very well done. Beautiful photos. I live in Florida and have some palms in my yard. It is nice to understand the botany of alms. voted up +++

      • Kristen Howe profile image

        Kristen Howe 3 years ago from Northeast Ohio

        Congrats on HOTD, Will. This was so useful and also beautiful at the same time, especially with the photos. Fascinating hub on palm trees. Voted up!

      • PegCole17 profile image

        Peg Cole 3 years ago from Dallas, Texas

        Congratulations on the Hub of the Day Award!

      • profile image

        vasanthatk 3 years ago

        I liked the palm trees, the pictures are beautiful, coconut tree is my favorite palm tree. We had the tree in our front yard the leaves look amazing with coconuts in them.Voted Up interesting.

      • Venkatachari M profile image

        Venkatachari M 3 years ago from Hyderabad, India

        Very interesting facts about palm trees. I do not know that coconut is also a variety of palm. And never about betel nuts being palm trees. Many interesting things learned by me now. You have done the hub so beautiful with amazing images also. Thanks for sharing it.

        Voted up, interesting and beautiful.

      • PegCole17 profile image

        Peg Cole 4 years ago from Dallas, Texas

        These pictures are gorgeous. What a great write-up about Palm Trees. I grew up in Florida and many of these seem quite familiar. My brother and I had a coconut stand in front of our house as young entrepreneurs. Thanks for the memories.

      • Melissa A Smith profile image

        Melissa A Smith 4 years ago from New York

        I love palm trees, can't wait to start planting them when we move to North Carolina. That bottle palm is awesome.

      • starstream profile image

        Dreamer at heart 4 years ago from Northern California

        This is a great article about Palm trees. We planted several varieties of palms at my daughter's new home recently. I love your photos and plan to do a painting with palms because they are so beautiful. I wonder now if some of our California landscape palms will produce edible fruit.

      • Will Apse profile image
        Author

        Will Apse 5 years ago

        Thanks Trism M, I am carrying my camera around more and more these days. I have only recently started photographing saprophytes (plants that grow on other plants). That is an upcoming page. I hope.

      • Trish_M profile image

        Tricia Mason 5 years ago from The English Midlands

        Hi :)

        I love palm trees ~ there is something magical about them ~ so I really enjoyed this article. The photos are super!

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