Walk along the path between the tennis courts and the clubhouse waterfront and you will see a dense hedge of clustering fishtail palms shielding the tennis courts from view. You might not immediately recognize them as palms because, unlike most of the palms in VR, clustering fishtail palms have multiple thin stems instead of a single trunk, thus making them most suitable as a hedge.
Why is its common name “clustering fishtail palm?”: “clustering” because its multiple thin stems cluster together and “fishtail” because the individual leaflets are shaped like the tail fin of a fish. The scientific name Caryota mitis gives additional information: Caryota is from the Greek word for nut (see photo below for the ripe nut-like palm fruits) and mitis means mild i.e. without spines.
After each stem produces ripe black fruits with seeds, its life’s goal has been accomplished, and it dies; however, the hedge continues to renew itself as new shoots emerge from the ground to replace the dying ones. All parts of this palm (including the fruits) can cause irritation due to calcium oxalate, which forms multiple microscopic needles that pierce the skin if touched or the mouth if ingested. Many other types of plants also form these needles, which prevent animals from eating them. For this reason, fishtail palms should not be planted where children play.
Caryota mitis is native to Indochina but has become naturalized in Southern Florida, meaning that it has escaped human cultivation and grows in natural forested areas; in view of this, the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences cautions that, while Caryota mitis can be recommended for planting, it should be managed to prevent escape.
If it’s a rainy day and you still want to see a fishtail palm, a realistic artificial version decorates the VR clubhouse lobby; considering the toxic calcium oxalate needles and the tendency to become naturalized, it may be best to enjoy the fishtail palm as an artificial plant.
Phoenix is the Greek word for the palm that produces quality dates and sylvestris means “growing wild;” somehow, people distorted this name into sylvester palm! Indian date palm is another common name because the palm is native to India and Pakistan.
The edible wild dates of sylvester palm are traditionally made into jelly and wine. In addition, the sap is drained from cut flower stalks; this is then enjoyed either fresh, boiled down to sugar (jaggery) or fermented into an alcoholic beverage (toddy) — the latter use leads to another common name for this palm “toddy palm.” Draining the sap from the cut flower stalk does not harm the palm and is thus sustainable over the fifty-plus-year life of the plant.
Valencia Reserve boasts three types of Phoenix palms. In the previous two articles I have described Phoenix roebelenii(the robellini palm) and Phoenix canariensis (the Canary Island date palm). Phoenix sylvestris is similar to its Phoenix relatives in having feather-like leaves, long sharp spines replacing the lower leaflets, and separate male and female plants with only the females bearing edible fruit.
Since P. roebelenii is a dwarf, it will not be confused with other Phoenix palms.
But, kissing cousins P. sylvestris and P. canariensis can look very similar plus they can interbreed, complicating the issue of identification. The pure sylvester has a denser canopy of leaves. The easiest way to identify a sylvester is by looking at the characteristic pattern of the leaf bases on the trunk; to my mind, they look like overlapping shoehorns! A skilled landscaper can enhance the appearance of the trunk by cutting the leaf bases with a machete or an electric saw and scraping them to reveal a striking undercoating of orange. Sometimes you will see these palms sold with trunks that have been stained and shellacked; this look will be hard to maintain as the stain and shellac wear away and as new growth adds leaf bases that have not been painted.
At 40x15 feet, the sylvester is smaller than the Canary Island date palm, which can grow to 50x25 feet; thus a sylvester might be a better choice for the smaller home landscape, while still lending a stately appearance.
Valencia Reserve is home to numerous Phoenix canariensis palms. Phoenix is
the Greek word for the palm that gives us dates, and P. canariensis is a close
relative of the date palm; canariensis conveys that it is native to the Canary
Islands. As a matter of fact, along with the Atlantic Canary bird, it is the
“Natural Symbol” of the Canary Islands
Its common names are the Canary Island Date Palm and the Pineapple Palm,
the latter because the top of the trunk can be imagined to resemble a
This palm is similar to its Phoenix relatives, the date palm and the roebelenii
palm, in having feather-like leaves, long sharp spines replacing the lower
leaflets, and separate male and female plants with the females bearing edible
fruit; while technically edible, Canary Island dates are not soft and juicy
like a grocery store date but have only a thin shell of pulp around the seed;
thus, except in times of food shortages, they are saved for pigs. In our
neighborhood the flowers are often trimmed off to avoid the mess of the dates
falling on the ground. Traditionally, in the Canary Islands, every part of this
palm was used; for example, brooms and baskets were made from the leaves.
While many of these purposes have gone by the wayside in modern times,
delicious sweet palm syrup is still prepared from the palm sap.
Phoenix canariensis can be distinguished from other large palms with
feather-like leaves. Look for: the “pineapple” beneath the crown of leaves,
the diamond-shaped pattern left on the trunk as the old leaves
fall off and the somewhat bluish tint to the leaves — the blue is not
natural to P. canariensis but is often seen because it has been cross-pollinated
with a P. dactylifera (a date palm).
Phoenix canariensis can grow up to 50 feet tall and 25 feet wide and the
landscape site must be chosen accordingly.
You will find several beauties in the VR swimming pool area (see photo
above) and several on each side of the Lyons Road Gate entrance.
Labeled photos of this and many other VR palms can be found as a slideshow
on my blog: Botanicaltours.weebly.com
Stewartia pseudocamellia. Photo by Katherine Wagner-Reiss.
Katherine Wagner-Reiss has her botany Certificate from the New York Botanical Garden, where she is a volunteer tour guide.