Growing & Caring for Fishtail Palm (Caryota)

Fishtail Palm

The Fishtail Palm (Caryota) are palm trees that have leaves that resemble fish tails. Thus, their name. This makes them uniquely special too look at. And, differentiates them from other palm trees.

For one, most palm trees have leaves whose blades grow out of both sides of the mid-rib (pinnate). On the other hand, fishtail palms are bipinnate. That is, while similar is structure, each blade has multiple leaflets.

This gives the fishtail palm its very intriguing feathery appearance especially when you look at it from a little bit of a distance.

Because of this, they are often used for interior decorating and display, provided that you have enough space to grow them. Indoors they grow to between 8 to 20 feet tall. But they do get much bigger when planted outdoors or in your garden reaching up to 35 feet in height.

This makes big yards, foyers and other high ceiling open areas the best places to put them.

They are native to Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, primarily growing in rainforests.

Fishtail Palm Plant Care

Fishtail Palm Light

Fishtail palm are often grown outdoors because of their size. When planted in the ground they easily grow over 20 feet tall. Although, they don’t get to as big as the other palm trees.

As such, in the forests where they are native to, they are used to the filtered and dapple sunlight they receive due to the leaves and branches of bigger trees. Thus, this is likewise the best place to put them in your garden, amongst (and under) the larger trees.

Being accustomed to this condition makes them do best with bright, indirect light. It is also important to note that they need a lot of light to do well.

Both their size and need for lots of natural light make them harder to grow indoors. But, that’s not to say people don’t do it. You just need the right conditions.

Many plant growers like growing fishtail palm indoors because of its unique look. Its size does become more manageable indoors growing “only” to between 8 and 20 feet. As such, it only makes sense to keep the plant inside when it is still young. The only exception here is if you have really high ceilings or have some barn-like structure.

Additionally, its need for a lot of light is the second biggest issue that makes the fishtail palm hard to grow indoors. How much light they get is directly related to how well they grow and how long they live.

That said, these trees are slow growers. So, you do get to enjoy lots of time before they outgrow your home. But, this feature also makes them go through “silent death” if they don’t get enough light.

That’s because they won’t show you any signs of distress until it is quite late. By the time you notice, it has declined significantly.

So, the best spot for this palm tree is a south facing window. This gives it all the light it needs. But, be sure to protect it from direct sunlight. This is likewise the case if you decide to grow it outdoors or bring it outside during the summertime.

Another option is a west facing window. While it doesn’t get as long hours as that facing south, it still receives a lot of bright sunlight during the afternoons.

 

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Fishtail Palm Temperature

The second most important requirement for keeping your fishtail palm tree healthy is warm weather. The plant is native to the tropical forests of Asia, the South Pacific and norther Australia.

Thus, ideal climate conditions for it is sunlight all year round with the temperatures staying between 70 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit. And, you don’t want it staying where the temperature, be it at night or wintertime to drop below 55 degrees. Once the temp goes below 45, it won’t be able to survive for very long.

As such, you’ll only see the plant grow outdoors in USDA zones 8b, 9, 10 and 11. These include areas like Florida, Texas, Louisiana and Alabama.

The good news is, these temperatures are what most homes are used to. So, it is easy for these palm trees to fit in with indoor conditions.

 

Fishtail Palm Humidity

This brings us to the third important requirement, high humidity. This also comes from its tropical nature. But, unlike temperature, this is something most homes will struggle with.

As such, you’ll need to find way to increase humidity around the plant. Here, you have a few options.

  • Keep in in humid areas. Due to its size, a high ceiling greenhouse works best. But while it is smaller, your bathroom or kitchen will do just fine. All three places are humid enough to provide it with the moisture it needs. But, it is essential to make sure that requirement #1 – lots of light is fulfilled. This can be a big issue with bathrooms.
  • Misting. Misting the plant with water is a great way to keep moisture up. Unfortunately, because the plant is big, you’ll need a good sized spray bottle. Plus, you’ll need to mist at least a few times a day. That comes out to a lot of work.
  • For this particular plant, a humidifier is the most convenient way to increase humidity if your home doesn’t get enough. While more costly, it is the most efficient and convenient way to regulate humidity for this large tree.

Other common methods of increasing humidity for houseplants don’t really work because of the size of the plant. This includes using a pebble tray or grouping it with other plants.

You can use them when the plant is still fairly small. But, as it gets bigger they become less effective.

Whichever method you decide to use, it is key that you give your plant humidity. When it doesn’t get enough, its leaves will start to turn yellow.

fishtail palm

source: wikimedia commons

 

Watering

Your fishtail palm needs a lot of water. Ideally, you want to water often enough to keep the soil moist. However, be careful not to let the plant sit in water. Otherwise, it will experience root rot.

As much as it doesn’t like wet or soggy soil, it also cannot stay dry ones. When it does, you’ll see it shed its leaves.

This is also the reason why desert areas like California and Arizona may have the right weather for it, it isn’t easy to grow these trees there because of the dry conditions.

Because of very specific needs, it is essential to know when to water more and when to back off when watering this plant.

During the warm months (spring and summer) when the plant is actively growing, you’ll want to water it once a week. Allowing the soil to slightly dry before watering is best.

But, in the colder months, the plant is dormant. So, scale back on watering to once every two weeks. This will help you avoid overwatering.

 

Soil

From above, you can already guess that the plant needs moist, well draining soil. Both are important for it to survive.

Because keeping the soil light is key, using a peat or coir based mix works well. You can likewise add perlite and pine bard to improve it drainage.

 

Fertilizing

As big as the fishtail palm tree gets, it doesn’t need a ton of feeding. In fact, you’ll want to err in the side of less than more when it comes to fertilizing it.

That said, it has very specific requirements. This comes in the form of iron, magnesium and manganese. If it doesn’t get these micronutrients, it will experience deficiencies leading to leaf discoloration and spots.

Thus, you’ll see gardeners use all sorts of hacks to prevent this. Some will give the plant Epsom salts for extra magnesium. Others will provide chelated iron as well.

In general, a general purpose liquid palm fertilizer will work well with the plant. During its growing season you want to feed it once a month following the instructions on the product label.

It is likewise a good idea to watering the plant before applying fertilizer. This dilutes the concentration to prevent root burn from the fertilizer salts.

As with water too much fertilizer is way worse than lack of it. If this happens, you’ll see its leaves start to wither. To fix it, lay off the fertilizer for a couple of months. In the meantime, trim off all the damage foliage. The time off will give the plant a break to recover.

 

Pruning Fishtail Palm

Fishtail palms don’t need a lot of pruning. While they are somewhat high maintenance of top few requirements above, it is fairly low here.

Unlike other palms, there is no uncertainty here. With palm trees, pruning is always a debate. Some gardeners swear by trimming their plant regularly to keep it healthy whereas others say you don’t have to.

With the fishtail palm tree, pruning is all about appearance and size. Doing so will help keep its size and height from becoming too big and wide indoors. Otherwise, you don’t really need to trim it back much other than removing discolored leaves.

 

Propagation

Fishtail palm are propagated either by seed or by suckers.

Propagating Fishtail Palm by Seed

These trees have both male and female parts. As such, they are able to bear fruit by themselves. Here’s how to do it.

  • Keep a plant in a pot for 6 to 8 months
  • After a while, it will produce fruit.
  • Each fruit contains one seed. And, you’ll be able to take that seed plant it to grow another tree.
  • That said, when it bears fruit, the trunk that bore the fruit will die. Thus, you don’t want to let it bear fruit if your tree only has one trunk. Otherwise, the entire tree will die soon after.
  • Also use gloves when handling the fruit. To get to see, you’ll need to remove the outer flesh, which contains oxalic acid crystals which irritate skin.

Propagating Fishtail Palm through Suckers

Likewise, you can propagate fishtail palm trees using the suckers that grow from the mother plant. Suckers are small branches that the tree grows. These are often a result of injury or damage.

So, another way of looking of suckers are as it they are baby trees that grow from horizontal roots (at the base of the plant).

  • You can remove them from the mother plant
  • Then plant them on their own
  • They will need quite a bit of time to recover. Thus, it will take a few months before you see new growth from them. From there, they will grow up to be trees of their own.

 

Fishtail Palm Transplanting & Repotting

Repot your fishtail palm tree once every 2 years. Most of the repotting will be done when it is young. And, you’ll unlikely be able to do it anyway after it grows to a certain size because of its height and girth.

The only thing you can do it as it gets bigger is to replace the topsoil with fresh ones. This helps keep the soil loose and airy for better drainage.

That said, if you get your plant relatively early, you’ll want to make sure that the root system grows properly to provide a strong structure for the plant.

Thus, while it is young, you want to allow the roots to grow and not be bound. This means moving it to a pot that’s 2 inches bigger as it gets rootbound.

 

Pests and Diseases

Fishtail palm trees are fairly resistant to pests and disease. Although, because of its fondness for moisture (high humidity and moist soil), fungal issues can happen. As such, it is very important to water properly and avoid overwatering. If fungal issues do occur, use fungicide to treat it as soon as possible.

The tree can likewise experience mealybugs, spider mites, whiteflies and aphids. Here, it is also important to spot the problem early. Pests are notorious for spreading to other plants, so, an infestation can affect others around it.

With these pests, insecticidal soap, neem oil and horticultural oil work best.

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