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.
Katherine Wagner-Reiss has her botany Certificate from the New York Botanical Garden, where she is a volunteer tour guide.